1905 image of the second German Hall built along the Cedar River on Bridge Street (2nd Ave NE) at the time of its dedication. It replaced the original German Hall built in 1892 that was destroyed by fire in 1904. (Photo courtesy of Aren Crews)

LOOKBACK: German Hall once event center along Cedar River

Fire, floods and growing greenhouse business doomed Austin social venue that ended in 1912

Heavy rain in spring 1903 caused the Cedar River to rise rapidly in Austin.

Major flooding ensued, especially around the downtown dam where Kinsman’s greenhouses had relocated just two years earlier, north of the German Hall. Both properties — including a grove of trees around the German Hall — covered what today is Riverside Arena’s parking lot along the river.

“Water set in strongly toward the German Hall, and Monday afternoon strenuous efforts were required to save the approach west of the Bridge Street bridge (2nd Ave NE), a portion of the north side of the approach being washed away,” wrote the Mower County Transcript on May 27, 1903.

An 1876 aerial drawing of Austin with an arrow pointing to the wooded area along the Cedar River that became the site in 1892 of the first German Hall and, in 1901, the home of the Kinsman greenhouses.

While avoiding devastation, the German Hall succumbed more than a year later to fire in February 1904.

That community venue on the west side of the Cedar was opened on April 8, 1892, along old Bridge Street (2nd Ave NE) near a grove of trees. The German Society in Austin purchased the property to build a hall to better accommodate its group that formed in 1889. They had been meeting in the back of a downtown store.

Present-day view of the former German Hall site, which was located on the parking lot entrance and lot areas from 1892 to 1912 near the Cedar River and a grove of trees.

Germans formed the group and incorporated it under state laws for the purpose of studying the German language and improving its members as well as for literary and social culture, according to the Transcript on Oct. 25, 1905.

In November 1889, the Transcript wrote about hearing “that the Germans and Norwegians will have a debate next Monday evening at the German Hall, the subject being ‘resolved that money has no value.’ The Germans take the affirmative and the Norwegians the negative. The subject is a vital one, and a lively war of words may be expected.”

1908 postcard of the Cedar River below Austin’s downtown dam with the German Hall circled to the right.

Two German Hall buildings over 20 years

An October 1892 dedication ceremony for the new German Hall “was not only a very pleasant one but marks the age of progress and prosperity that has made our city so conspicuous during the last few years,” the Transcript wrote Oct. 5, 1892.

The hall hosted various events, including a “hop” that followed a wedding reception for a couple that included Charles Beckel, “one of the popular locomotive firemen,” the Transcript wrote Sept. 30, 1896.

Following the 1904 fire, the German Society chose to rebuild its hall on the same site along the Cedar River. Work began in fall 1904, with the roof installed by late December followed by interior work into the following year.

“The present building is far ahead of the old both in beauty and convenience,” the Transcript wrote Oct. 24, 1905, after the new hall’s dedication ceremony that issued 300 invitations.

At the 1905 dedication, a banquet was served with a musical program followed by a grand ball in the new, two-story hall built of cement blocks. The building included a main hall with a stage on the north end.

Described by newspapers as “handsome,” the new hall also featured “convenient dining and reception rooms” along with a kitchen and smoking room.

“The German Society is to be congratulated on the completion of so convenient and substantial a building for their gatherings,” the Transcript wrote.

View of the former German Hall site at today’s Riverside Arena parking lot along 2nd Avenue Northeast along the Cedar River below Austin’s downtown dam.

The venue’s main hall was 50 feet long and 32 feet wide, with a finished birch floor, steel ceiling and furniture made of quartered oak. The stage (8 feet deep and 32 feet wide) had a proscenium arch over it.

“This hall is one of the prettiest gathering places in the city and the society intends to keep it so,” wrote the Austin Daily Herald on Oct. 18, 1905. “No public dance will be held here. The society may give a few invitation socials.”

At the time, the hall was planned only for lodge purposes, such as the Bohemian Society and the Order of Railway Conductors (ORC) and its ladies auxiliary. The German Society would use the hall for its musicals and other entertainment.

The hall’s ground was planned for grading and its grove of trees to be trimmed along with the planting of a hedge along the west side to “cut off a view of the barns of River Street (4th St NE).”

“The Society is in a flourishing condition,” the Herald wrote.

At the 1905 dedication, German lodge leaders led a “grand march to the dining hall,” where attractively decorated tables offered “everything that one could desire for an elegant banquet.”

After supper, various officials spoke to the group, including a German Society dignitary from out of town who complimented the new hall before speaking about “some of the characteristics of the German people which make them good citizens.”

After the program, the hall’s floor was cleared for dancing until 11:30 p.m. with music by an orchestra.

1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the German Hall along East Bridge Street (2nd Ave NE).

This venue hosted many events by organizations and families but the first “sociable” was in January 1906 by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Order of Railway Conductors (ORC). A literary and musical program with cards and other amusements were offered with refreshments, the Transcript wrote Jan. 17, 1906.

The ORC group of railmen had used the German Hall for its headquarters since 1904.

Other community celebrations also happened at the German Hall.

In spring 1907, the Transcript wrote about an Austin couple married in 1882 who were surprised by a 25th wedding anniversary party at the German Hall. About 40 people attended and “a very happy evening was spent,” with supper, songs, dancing and “other recreation.” The couple received an elegant silver candelabrum.

In November 1909, the Transcript wrote about nearly 100 people attending a family’s golden wedding at the German Hall, with eight of their children along with numerous grandchildren forming a wedding procession to music. A purse of $60 in gold from friends was given to the couple with another $50 in gold given by the couple’s children on top of a wedding cake.

The German Hall was “prettily decorated in palms and in gold and green with a wedding arch surmounted by a wedding bell,” the Transcript wrote Nov. 24, 1909.

Record flood, booming greenhouse spell hall’s end

Nearly three years after opening, the second German Hall was hit with an even bigger flood in late June 1908, when the city experienced its worst-known flood at that time, topping the 1903 event.

Bridge Street’s bridge (2nd Ave NE) gets washed out by the raging Cedar River during a record flood in June 1908. This view looks east; the German Hall was out of sight on the left side near the bridge.
June 1908 photo showing the heavily flooded Cedar River destroying Kinsman’s greenhouses with the German Hall likely shown on the far right.

Floodwaters rushing over the downtown dam raged into the Kinsman greenhouses and flooded the German Hall’s basement, leading to the building being “considerably damaged,” the Transcript wrote June 24, 1908.

The building, however, survived Austin’s worst-known flooding at that time but still only had four years left of existence mainly due to the budding greenhouse business to the north.

View looking east in June 1908 on Bridge Street (2nd Ave NE) toward the German Hall (out of sight) when the Cedar River was at its highest flooding over the roadway and washing out the Bridge Street bridge.

In 1892, A.N. Kinsman opened a greenhouse in downtown Austin just west of Main Street. By 1901, Kinsman needed more space and relocated the business to the land along the Cedar River’s downtown dam on the south side of Water Street (4th Ave NE).

Kinsman Greenhouse ad Nov. 1, 1905, in the Mower County Transcript newspaper.

During the early years along the river, Kinsman had three greenhouses just north of the German Hall with the rest of the land between Water and Bridge streets (4th and 2nd Ave NE) covered in trees.

Kinsman’s greenhouse business flourished at the river site, leading him in May 1909 to purchase the north 100 feet of the German Hall property to use for his summer carnations ground. Two months later, Kinsman had purchased the entire German Hall property.

Undated image showing the Kinsman greenhouses and the Cedar River.

“This gives him the entire strip between Water and Bridge streets. The hall is rented to several lodges and they will continue to occupy,” the Transcript wrote July 21, 1909.

1910 map (Sanborn Fire Insurance) showing the German Hall situated along old Bridge Street (today’s 2nd Ave NE), just south of the Kinsman Greenhouses. Today, this block hosts Austin’s Municipal Building, Riverside Arena and a large parking lot along the river.

With the change in ownership came a name change for the German Hall. In March 1910, the Herald reported that venue now was going to be “referred to as the O.R.C. Hall” with that group leasing the building from Kinsman and taking complete control of the building.

As of 1912, Kinsman had “one of the largest greenhouse plants in the state outside of the Cities,” wrote the Transcript on Jan. 3, 1912. The newspaper referred to the Kinsmans as being considered “among our most respected citizens” with “many friends.”

Early that year, the YMCA was talking about renting the former German Hall for its headquarters during the 1912 year but it didn’t appear to happen.

In August 1912, Kinsman released plans to build another large greenhouse (nearly 4,320 square feet) for the property that included the old German Hall. His expansion removed the building and gave him 14 large greenhouses overall.

Kinsman Greenhouses continued on with success, lasting at the riverside location until the mid-1960s when major flooding in March 1965 devastated the greenhouses. The business soon after relocated to the western edge of Austin near the juncture of Oakland Avenue West and Interstate 90.

In his later years, the business was known as Johnson Floral but those greenhouses were torn down some years ago.

1917 map of the present-day Riverside Arena block along the Cedar River showing the expanded Kinsman Greenhouses after the German Hall was removed.