Surprisingly, the City of Princeton Historical Walking Tour plaque regarding Turner Hall, known when we were kids as the Princeton Theater, at 429 West Water Street is correct. That’s surprising for two reasons: (1) So many of the other downtown historic district plaques are incorrect, and (2) the history of Turner Hall was reported erroneously in the quasquicentennial booklet published in 1973 and in Elaine Reetz’s “Come Back in Time” column, and later book, in 1978.
The local Turn Verein, a German organization popular in many immigrant communities, built the initial Turner Hall in 1878. The Turn Verein, loosely translated as “turning club,” espoused the virtues of physical fitness – gymnastics – and a liberal view of German politics of the day.
The hall was destroyed along with 10 other buildings by fire in April 1880. The Turners quickly rebuilt the hall, and it remained the village’s preeminent gathering spot for concerts, plays, celebrations, community meetings, political rallies, dances and eventually “moving pictures” for many years. It at times hosted roller skating, basketball games and, of course, gymnastics.
The hall was lengthened about 25 feet and renovated in 1905. (Reetz incorrectly reported that the hall was built in 1905.) The work included a new stage and interior decorations, fireproof metal siding and new facade complete with capstone dated 1905.
After World War I the hall was rebranded as the Opera House, Opera House Theatre and eventually Princeton Theatre.
The quasqui booklet incorrectly reported the building was built in 1908. That information was gleaned from a Princeton Republic report that “Contractor Shrew, of Princeton, was in the village and drew plans for the new Opera House to be erected by Charles Thrasher this coming summer.” Unfortunately, the researcher failed to realize the news item was part of the report filed by the newspaper’s Green Lake (Dartford) correspondent and referred to the Thrasher Opera House in that community.