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Turner Hall Is Keeping Swiss Culture Alive

By Pamela Sosnowski

You don't have to actually be of Swiss heritage to enjoy Turner Hall. The Monroe-based hall hosts many annual Swiss-centric events such as its Swissfest and holiday festivities that pay homage to the home country.

The building also regularly hosts public dances covering every genre of music and may be rented for weddings and other functions. In addition to a restaurant, visitors will also find a small, family-friendly bowling alley in the lower level. There's something for everyone to enjoy at Turner Hall, and it all started when Swiss and German immigrants settled in Wisconsin in the mid-1800s.

"'Turner' is the German word for gymnast; thus, the Turner Hall of Monroe was initially a place where immigrants could carry on traditions of their homeland, including practicing gymnastics, an activity that flourished in Germany and Switzerland in the 1800s," Deborah Krauss Smith, Chair of Turner Hall's Heritage Programming Committee, said. "In its early years, the Turner Hall was also known as the 'Opera House', as it was the site for Monroe community and cultural events. While there are still a number of Turner Halls of German origin left in the United States, it is believed that the Turner Hall of Monroe is the only one of Swiss origin still in operation."

The original "Turnhalle" was constructed in 1868 and existed as a cultural center in the community until 1936, when it burned down. German architect Max Hanisch designed the current structure, which opened in 1938, and is built in the style of the chalets from the Emme Valley in west central Switzerland. Throughout its history many famous figures have made appearances at the hall including Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, and John F. Kennedy.

Two member organizations make Turner Hall their official home: the New World Swiss Club and the Monroe Swiss Singers. As Krauss-Smith explains, there are a few reasons why it's important to preserve Swiss culture.

"The Swiss, particularly in south-central Wisconsin, brought with them the art of cheesemaking, which today is still a large part of the local economy," she said. "Changes in U.S. immigration law in the 1950s and 1960s brought most immigration from Switzerland to a stand-still, yet those with Swiss roots continue to embrace the culture and traditions their forebears brought with them, giving them a sense of identity and cultural heritage. There are pockets of Swiss natives and their descendants all over the United States."

Turner Hall gives the public a taste of Swiss customs through its Swiss Heritage Series which includes annual events such as Christkindlmarkt (holiday market), Candle Tree-Lighting, and Swissfest, a performance of Swiss folk music. The building's Ratskeller restaurant serves authentic Swiss dishes such as its popular "Chaesekuechli" cheese pie, and Kalberwurst, a light veal sausage prepared in gravy. Krauss-Smith describes the 85-seat restaurant as a mini-museum of local Swiss history and irreplaceable artwork, all in an authentic Old World Ratskeller setting.

Additionally, Turner Hall provides a unique and historical setting for weddings, banquets, performances, and other events. The Grand Hall seats up to 350 guests and features a stage, wood floor, arched ceilings, and painted Swiss folk murals. In recent years the entire building underwent a thorough restoration with help from volunteers and sponsors to ensure it, and the Swiss culture that inspired it, will live on for many years to come. The Turner Hall of Monroe is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.

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