Grand Obsession

Johnny Vignali remembers the day he first fell in love. She was grand and stately and presented herself with inimitable charm, though she had fallen on hard times. "I toured her last year," says Vignali, waxing romantic. "I saw the ballroom, the bars, the grand staircase, the curved doors and the tall arched windows, the light coming in. There's a rathskeller and an old two-lane bowling alley in the basement. It's like a time capsule -- close your eyes, you can hear the polka music, the laughter of the people. The history and character of the place is unique."

As the summer wore on, Vignali began to worry over the lady's condition. She was fast deteriorating. "At one point, I started seeing light through the roof," he says. Then someone stole the guttering on the yard side, and water began to get into the building. It ruined the gymnasium floor and will continue to do structural damage unless something is done."

What Vignali proposes is to salvage the Nord St. Louis Turnverein -- the Turner Hall in Hyde Park -- through volunteer help and donations. Vignali, 49 -- Vietnam vet, North Side tavern owner and journeyman electrician -- would be the sergeant of this rehabbing platoon. He says he has lined up other electricians, carpenters, roofers, tuckpointers and even cooks to feed the tradesmen who will be famished at the end of a day's work on the ailing building. "These are mostly people from the neighborhood," says Vignali, "tired of seeing the heritage go down."

The hall, which occupies a half-block at Salisbury and 20th streets, comprises three sections, built in 1879, 1893 and 1898. For decades it was a linchpin of Hyde Park, with a steady schedule of social events -- wedding parties, Christmas gatherings -- in addition to the regular meetings of the German-American Turner Society, organized in St. Louis in 1851. But as the neighborhood began to fall apart some 15 to 30 years ago (depending on whom you talk to) so went the hall.

"They just decided they didn't want to go down there anymore," says one Turner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They're afraid of the neighborhood, especially at night." The Turners began meeting elsewhere -- members' homes or restaurants -- instead of in their once-splendid hall. A year ago, the 60-member organization voted to sell the structure. They hope to build a new clubhouse in a safe, unblighted environment.

At present the building is empty, its facade a checkerboard of busted and boarded-up windows. It is ringed by other empty, ruined houses. A cobblestone walk leads into a courtyard that once held the charm of an Old World biergarten but now boasts only a mound of rubble piled against a wall. A call to the number on the For Sale sign posted out front got a deep voice saying, "We wanted $75,000, but we're not getting it." In a recent list compiled by the Landmarks Association, the Turner Hall was included as one of the 11 most endangered buildings in St. Louis.

And this brings us back to Vignali and his ready-to-rock rehabbing crew. Along with the project-oriented, downtown-based, civic group Metropolis, they approached the Turner organization. Let us restore the building, they proposed. We've got the manpower, the know-how, and we'll even raise the money to do the job. "But you know what they said?" queries a passionate Vignali. "They say we should've started (the effort) five years ago. Screw five years! It's not too late, but we gotta get going now. We can cap the front and at least stop the destruction of the front hall and ballroom." He pauses, sighs. "But we can't get going unless we've got the go-ahead, and they own the building."

But the Turners, with the exception of a handful of dissenters, remain steadfast in their wish to sell the building. The problem, and it is a serious one, is that the hall has so deteriorated that no sane person wants to buy it in its current condition. "If the place does get sold or the name changed, well, you know all the inspections you'd have to go though to restore and repair that building? It'd be a fortune to bring it up to code, but the Turners are grandfathered in, and they can make the repairs without all the red tape."

One member, Frank Mirth, a past president of the North Side Turners, is quietly lobbying to save the old hall. "I'd like to see it stay as a Turner organization," he says, "but I've got to have more support from our present members. I don't think they're aware or don't care that there's a lot of interest in the place right now. We meet again in January, and we'll see what happens."

Recently Vignali and others tried to join the Turners so as to work the situation from within the ranks, but that was a no-go. The old guard smelled a coup. "We don't want to be on the board," stresses Vignali. "We won't interfere with routine operations, but we can have fundraisers for the project. They built a beautiful hall -- we'll save the building and then the Turners can sell it. We cannot screw it up. The main thing is get the roof in shape, and much of the rest is cleanup. A little paint covers a multitude of sins.

"You're not losing just a building, you're losing the character of the neighborhood. Joe Schmo and anyone whoever raised a family in old North St. Louis will lose out. Hyde Park is losing ground really bad, so it's worth a fight.