In September of 2008 my wife and I toured the Hegeler Carus mansion in LaSalle, Illinois. This grand old mid-Victorian mansion has a fascinating heritage, and was for many years a centre of learning and publishing in various artistic, religious, scientific and philosophical fields: see for details. The mansion declined during the 20th century, and is currently in the process of being restored to its former glory.

As a longtime fan of 19th century "physical culture", or sports and fitness training, the highlight of the tour for me was the two-story turnhall (gymnasium). It's a large space that effectively occupies both the basement level and a "level" of its own. After so many years of studying pictures of Victorian gymnasia, it was a great experience to be able to actually stand inside one, even if only briefly.

I immediately wanted to know everything about that room.

Returning home, I made contact with the director of the Hegeler Carus Foundation, responsible for the preservation/renovation of the mansion, and was invited to attend a family reunion/seminar series there a few weeks later.

The seminars were very interesting in themselves, covering topics such as the introduction of Buddhism to the Western world, aspects of art history, etc. I was also able to get a better look at the gymnasium.

The mansion was built during the 1870s and the gym was part of the original plans. It's a large space, 35.5' x 17' and the ceilings are roughly 25' in height. Along with a collection of 35 wooden dumbbells and 4 large Indian clubs hanging from racks on the walls, it also houses the remnants of a Victorian rope-and-pulley weightlifting system, two large gymnastics ladders and support platforms, a horizontal bar of adjustable height, a set of parallel bars, "flying rings" hanging from the ceiling, a c1920 electric exercycle and miscellaneous bits of sports equipment (wooden stilts and skis, etc.)

The gym and its equipment are of varying condition. It had been used as a storeroom since the early decades of the 20th century, and while some sections of the plaster and woodwork are in fine condition for a 140-year old room, others have been subject to water damage, plaster has fallen away from the walls, etc.

At the end of the weekend I was asked to give an impromptu talk on 19th century physical culture, and was then honoured to be invited to join the Foundation's advisory board, working towards the research and preservation/restoration of the gymnasium. The chairman, Blouke Carus, mentioned that one day he'd like to see physical culture classes being held in the gym, as they would have been when it was new.

After an intensive period of research into the history of the mansion and the German turnverein or health and gymnastics movement, which had been a major social force in both Germany and the USA until the Second World War, we realised that the Hegeler Carus turnhall might literally be the oldest surviving gymnasium in America. At that point, excitement quickly started to build towards restoring the gym.

Working with a modest budget, we were able to source some antique exercise apparatus to add the gym's collection, including a heavy leather medicine ball and a magnificent old pommel horse for gymnastic training.

Subsequent field trips revealed more treasures that had been hidden away in the cavernous basement storerooms adjacent to the gym. These included a set of iron basketball hoops, with closed rather than open nets; a "climbing pole" believed to have been used by the famous Zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki, during his long period of residency at the mansion during the late 1800s; and a "teeter ladder", an incredibly rare (and dangerous) piece of gymnastics apparatus.

Plans are currently underway to raise funds towards the full restoration of the Hegeler Carus mansion turnhall as a "living museum" of traditional German/American health and exercise training.

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That's amazing man!! I've been working out for quite awhile but i'm just starting to get into the history of physical culture. I'm definetly going there if i ever make it to Illinois. Keep us posted on your progress.
Great post! Thanks for this.
Very cool. I love hearing about the history of physical culture. Thanks so much for sharing.
That teeter ladder looks like one hell of a workout. I also love the wooden dumbbells. I never knew they made dumbbells out of wood.
Hi Adam,

I could not believe it when we found the teeter ladder, disassembled and stacked neatly in a dusty pile in a corner of the storeroom. I honestly doubt that there is another surviving example of that piece of apparatus anywhere in the world. It's actually used like a reverse see-saw; two people hang by their hands underneath the ladder, and take turns pulling each other up into the air. The exercise benefit is to perform various leg-lifts, splits etc. while you're in the air.

Wooden dumbbells were mostly used by children - the Hegeler family had eight kids and the Carus family had six. The wooden 'bells were used more for co-ordination exercises than for muscle-building.
Sweet. I live in St. Louis, so this might make the list of things to go see!
The whole mansion is well worth touring. The gym is not normally open to the general public except for "viewing" from the staircase; if anyone has a particular interest in getting a closer look at it, I'd suggest contacting the Foundation ahead of your visit. Obviously, the antique equipment is currently "display only", though one of my ambitions is to produce functional replicas that can be safely used.
Wow, what a find. Thanks for doing the research to post so much information about this space; it's a really interesting read. Hopefully their fundraising efforts will go well and return this gym to it's full glory.
I have to admit, not only is the house a rare wonder of Victorian architecture, the gym an it's history are also worth preserving and restoring.
Next time I make it out to Illinois, I am definitely stopping by. I can hardly wait to see it in all it's restored glory.
Great find, very interesting to see the old equipment, and quite suprised to see several pairs of skis.

They seems to be late 19th/early 20th century vintage by the "sugarcube" on the front end and what looks like "Huitfeld" bindings.

UPDATE: sadly, some antique exercise apparatus in the historic Hegeler-Carus mansion gymnasium was recently damaged by vandals.  See the post above for details and to donate towards upgrading the mansion's security system.


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