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New life breathed into old murals

Just-announced grants to help restore Turner Hall interior, exterior

January 12, 2014
By Kremena Spengler - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - A new, just-announced Legacy grant will help complete ongoing restoration of the historic murals at a beloved, iconic local building: Turner Hall.

The $25,000 grant - from a fund specifically approved by Minnesota tax payers - comes in conjunction with another, $8,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation.

While the former will fund interior work, the latter will help accomplish related exterior work on the historic landmark.

Article Photos

Turner Hall General Manager Virginia Suker-Moldan ponts out one of the murals that has already been restored.

The murals restoration was originally conceived as a three-phase project, recounted Turner Hall Board Member Anne Earl and Turner Hall General Manager Virginia Suker-Moldan. As restoration work progressed, however, it became possible to accomplish the project in two, rather than three, phases.

The first phase happened about a year ago, as an earlier Legacy grant of an equivalent size helped revamp four of the eight murals. The new grant will help complete the balance of the project.

More specifically, the contractors, Evergreen Architects (with offices in New York and Chicago but with experts operating throughout the Midwest) are removing parts of the plaster, then cleaning, repairing and touching up the artwork and walls behind it.

Fact Box

In early November, Legacy grant applicants made three-minute presentations to the state grant review board. Turner Hall Vice-President Dan Hoisington spoke on behalf of Turner Hall:

"In 1861, Henry David Thoreau stepped off a shallow draft steamer on the Minnesota River and walked down the streets of New Ulm. 'It is a German town,' he later wrote in his journal.

"Today that sense of being a German town remains. It is anchored by important historic landmarks - the Hermann Monument, the Glockenspiel, and Schell Brewery, for example. In the same way, the beautiful murals of Turner Hall, with scenes of the homeland painted in 1873 by Guido Methua, provide a direct visual link to the city's heritage.

"The murals were there when the city built a rich and varied German American culture in the 19th century, combining, in the hall, a theatre, a gymnastics program, a school, a library, a lecture hall, and a Rathskeller. The murals were there when Secret Service agents walked through the crowds outside in Turner Park, listening for disloyal statements during World War I. The murals were there in the late 1940s, as Turner members reached out to the people of West Berlin and West Germany, sending thousands of dollars for relief and rebuilding the ties broken by World War II.

"We, as board members of Turner Hall, recognize our responsibility to care for these treasures. At each step, we have tried to do the right thing and meet the highest preservation standards. We started with a historic structures report to give us an overall plan for the building. With our priorities in place, we made Turner Hall accessible with an elevator and ADA compatible restrooms. Two years ago, we contracted for a conservation study on the murals so that we could make good decisions and move ahead with a proper plan. This year, with support of a Legacy Grant, we completed conservation on half the murals.

"Now, we ask your support to complete the task. Last year's grant leveraged several thousand dollars of donations, and we completed necessary repairs to improve drainage and install a vapor barrier on the foundation, ensuring long term stability for the walls that hold the murals. Although not part of this year's grant project, we are proceeding with pointing work on the south elevation, following the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Rehabilitation.

"The response to this year's work was tremendous, and we received lots of positive community feedback - after all, how often do you have the opportunity to watch some of the nation's finest painting conservators, with literally a century of cigar smoke and dirt being removed, while having lunch and a Schell beer?

"The murals help define who we are in New Ulm, and we ask your support to complete the task of conservation."

Hoisington is working on a video program about the murals, hoping to have it ready by September when the American Turners Board of Directors holds its meeting there.

The Schmidt Foundation grant is facilitating this restoration by funding repairs that will help protect the murals through preventing water damage. The Schmidt Foundation grant, in and of itself, made the Legacy grant possible.

The Schmidt Foundation grant (as well as other earlier capital-fund and grant sources) has enabled work that either has, or will, include the following: a window study to address water migration issues, window well work, waterproofing, grading, tiling, tuckpointing, chimney repairs and other related work.

The eight landscapes - of castles throughout Europe - were painted in 1873, soon after the opening of the current Turner Hall building, by Guido Methua. Turner Hall had hired Methua's wife, Madame Marie Methua-Scheller, for an extended engagement. She was a nationally famous actress, having performed on stage along with Edwin Booth, the greatest American actor of the era. Methua, a Swiss native, was a skilled painter who often provided the scenery for his wife's performances. While his wife performed next door, he painted the murals.

The continued work on the building exemplifies efforts to preserve the vitality of Turner Hall, which many describe as New Ulm's most venerable institution.

Turner Hall has been here almost since the founding of New Ulm, observed Suker-Moldan. It has seen 16 decades, evolving with the town.

"During times of economic and cultural difficulty, Turner Hall has been able to rise and adapt to the changing needs of the community," said Suker-Moldan. In the last century and a half, it has been the city's first school, its main library, hosted the Brown County Fair, was a Sunday School and was listed in the church directory of the local newspaper. Turner Hall has also sponsored a Boy Scout troop..."

"I imagine that when each of these activities came to the end of their historic life-span, it was difficult for both the community and the membership," says Suker-Moldan. "The adaptability of this club is truly remarkable, and a big reason that Turner Hall is here today."

In 2008, "gingerly, we took the risk of discontinuing a 150-year-old tradition when we opened to the public," adds Suker-Moldan. Modernization of practices, combined with a new entryway, improvements to the menu and general interior aesthetics, have transformed Turner Hall into "a modern dining option with historic flair." It is a "unique treasure" that draws return customers from as far away as the West Coast.

Earl, in turn, pointed out the significance of Legacy grants in maintaining the state's historic and art heritage, especially during recessions. Without these funds - which ease the stress on capital budgets - art projects could easily fall by the wayside.

Both Earl and Suker-Moldan also strongly stressed their gratitude to historic preservation consultant and Turner Hall Vice-President Dan Hoisington, a key promoter of New Ulm's historic landmarks, for his work in helping secure the grant funds.



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