Windhoek - 100 years Turnhalle

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Friday, 18th December 2009

AS modern Windhoek was founded in 1890, a lively social life developed rapidly amongst the German colonial population. Next to an active church life, both Evangelical and Catholic, numerous hotels, bowling clubs, choir societies and sport clubs sprung up to render entertainment to its early inhabitants. 

As soon as 1899, the first gymnastics club in Windhoek was founded, performing its exercises and sporting events on the plains where the Turnhalle stands today. In 1905 the facilities consisted of a 5 x 6 metre shed from corrugated iron where the gymnastic apparatus were stored. 

In virtually no time, the first real upmarket suburb with dainty villas sprung up to the east and northeast of the Turnhalle and at the eastern end of Bahnhof Street around a small hill, overlooking Bahnhof Street, and with a nice view on Windhoek.It lay within walking distance from the station and in the direct vicinity of two hotels, the Rheinischer Hof and Thüringer Hof, from which only the latter still exists today, well known as a popular overnight accommodation and conference venue. 

Leisure for those dwelling here would soon also be provided, inter alia, by a spacious gymnasium, or Turnhalle. 

Directly opposite to the east, the dainty Villa Kiesewetter was built in 1906, unfortunately demolished in 1968. It stood where the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre is today. 

From December 1908 until 1909 the Turnhalle, a massive, 22 x 14 m large gymnastic hall with a high roof and decorative gable on the street was built. The cornerstone to the future Turnhalle Building was laid on 06.03.1909, and a roof-wetting ceremony (Richtfest) took place on 25 June 1909.Its architect was Otto Busch; the construction works were performed by Ahrens Brother from Klein-Windhoek, and the carpentry was done by a Mr Vosse. For the first time in the new colony the roof construction was supported by arched girders made from timber; this feature can still be viewed in the main hall of the building up to the present day. 

The newspapers regarded the Turnhalle as the most beautiful building of the northern part of town. The building proved soon to be too small. During a second building phase in 1912, a double-storeyed extension was added at its western side. 

Architects Otto Busch and Willy Sander, both masterarchitects of their time, submitted plans for the extension, but finally Busch’s submission was accepted. The ground floor had changing rooms, and the upper storey a clubroom and accommodation for gymnasts.Over the new entrance, possibly as an indulgence to popular taste for imposing structures, the architect Otto Busch included a balcony with three arches supported by pillars. 

As a visible reminder of the new section, the inscription AD 1913 (Anno Domini – “In the Year of the Lord” 1913) was positioned at the gable to commemorate the extension to the building. 

During the German colonial period, the Turnhalle witnessed numerous gymnas- tic show performances, recreational gymnastics, and school training.

The Turnhalle also played an important part in the history of SWA both in peace and in war since 1913. From 16.08.1914 until January 1915 it was temporarily not used for sporting activities because the Schutztruppe had stored their provisions there. 

During WW1 it served as accommodation for the South African Union Troops. After a legal wrangle in the 1920’s as to its ownership (the South Africans had perceived it as seized state property), it was handed back to the Turnverein since it was their private property.Probably in the late 1920’s / early 1930’s a stage was added to its eastern section and it could now also be used for theatre performances or bioscope shows. To the end of the 1940’s / beginning 1950’s Turnverein sold the building and premises for £19 000 to the Administration. 

For this sum it in turn acquired the premises on the corner of old Peter Müller & Tal Streets, the present Fidel Castro Street and Mandume Ndemufayo Avenue (the old SKW premises). On 1st September 1975 it sprung into the limelight overnight as it became internationally known that representatives of the eleven ethnic groups in the old South West Africa had started to meet there to discuss independence and constitutional progress in the territory.

This congress was the so-called “Turnhalle-Conference”. At that stage this meeting was not attended by SWAPO, the current ruling party, who claimed that it was the only true representative of the Namibian people. 

Nevertheless, this important event paved the way towards independence, because it offered much needed and long overdue alternatives to the encrusted “Whites-only” political options at that stage.The name of one of the surviving parties, the DTA (Democratic Turnhalle Alliance) lends its name to this very building. It has also found its rightful place on a stamp that was printed in 1985.

As from independence, the Turnhalle was used for international conferences and as a seat for the National Council until it got its own building next to the Parliament Building (Tintenpalast). Having undergone a major facelift just a few years ago, it was destined to serve as a venue for the SADC Tribunal.

Under the careful eye of architect Monica Ochse and meticulously executed by Implacor Builders, this historical building got a long overdue face-lift while meticulously preserving architectural detail such as the cornerstone from the year 1909 and the historical inscription on the western gable from the year 1913.

However, in the early morning hours of January 18, 2007, it burnt down before the first case had been tried. The Turnhalle building once again had to be restored to former glory.

Turnhalle on Fire

Although not a proclaimed national monument, its rich history and prominent location on the corner of Bahnhof Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue together with its interesting neo-classicist, Wilhelmian architecture, makes this very stately building a remarkable part of the country’s heritage.

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