One hundred years after the building at the corner of Michigan and New Jersey streets lost its original name because of anti-German sentiment caused by World War I, a plaque now stands bearing the Athenaeum’s original name:
Das Deutsche Haus.
The replica plaque, half the size of its original, was to be placed there by the Indiana German Heritage Society in late February (after this issue of Urban Times went to press).
“The German house” lost its original name on George Washington’s birthday in 1918, while the war, known then as “The Great War,” was still blazing in Europe. Das Deutsche Haus was emblazoned on a tablet above the building’s west entrance. The owners of the building bowed to the demands of the Marion Council for Defense and The Indianapolis Star that Das Deutsche Haus should have an “American name.”
It actually ended up with a name of Greek roots: Athenaeum.
Other German buildings, clubs, and churches capitulated as well. After the United States declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917, a culture war was unleashed on the home front against German-Americans with the goal to exterminate the German language and culture in the U.S.
At that time, German was the second language of the country, state, and city. But the war unleashed what writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. described as a “hatred of all things German.”
The Athenaeum was designed by the novelist’s grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut of Vonnegut & Bohn Architects in the German Renaissance Revival style. It originally was the home of the Socialer Turnverein, one of the nation’s oldest gymnastic societies, dating to 1851. It also housed the Musikverein, Deutscher Klub, German-American Civil War Veterans Club, Damenverein, and other liberal German societies.
It was designed and built with a gymnasium, theater, auditorium, meeting rooms, bowling alleys, library, restaurant/tavern, and a Biergarten. It was a popular convention center, music venue, and public meeting place. The Turners offered gymnastic classes and other activities for men, women, and children.
From 1907 to 1970 the building also hosted a college – the Normal College of the North American Gymnastic Union. This college, founded by German gymnasts in 1866, continues today as the Indiana University School of Physical Education of IUPUI. Now in its 152nd year, it is the nation’s oldest school of physical education.
The building was designated a National Historic Landmark, the National Park Service’s highest honor, in 2016.
Since 1991, the Athenaeum has been owned and operated by the Athenaeum Foundation, a not -for-profit organization dedicated to the revitalization of the building. The Foundation succeeded the original owner, the Socialer Turnverein Stock Association. The building today houses the YMCA at the Athenaeum, Young Actors Theater, Indy Metro Church, Athenaeum Turners, Indianapolis Maennerchor, Indiana German Heritage Society, Max Kade German-American Center of IUPUI, Indianapolis Baroque, Coat Check Coffee, the Rathskeller, and others.
The Indiana German Heritage Society recently sponsored and instigated the installation of an official Indiana Historical Bureau marker (at South Delaware and East Pearl streets) commemorating the demise of the German-language press in 1918. The society has published numerous titles on topics related to Indiana German history and culture.
The Feb. 22 plaque unveiling was scheduled to include music by the Indianapolis Maennerchor, a reception in the Damenverein Room and a dinner featuring a menu matching that of the 1918 event in which the name was changed.