Deaf community leaders are rolling up their sleeves for the “Save Thompson Hall” effort. A $2.9 million effort to revitalize and improve St. Paul’s historic Charles Thompson Memorial Hall is moving forward.
Work will start this spring on the iconic structure, which is the nation’s oldest social hall for the deaf, deaf/blind and hard of hearing. A restored front porch and balcony and other entry improvements are planned.
Future work will include a needed elevator addition to improve access to the three-story building, as well as renovated restrooms and other interior work.
The Thompson Hall Board of Trustees, Deaf Equity Board and members of the community are working together to save Thompson Hall. Since July 2017, a team has met twice monthly to create plans and raise funds for the work. Along with improving accessibility, they also want to preserve the landmark building for future generations of deaf and wider community members.
They have been busy holding meetings to explain the project and to seek financinal support. in April a neighborhood committee heard project details and encouraged hall backers to move ahead. The committee may later vote to provide a letter of support for the project.
Any exterior changes will have to go to the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) for review. Thompson Hall has both local and national historic designation, so building additions and exterior work require the HPC to review and approve building permits.
Club leader Herman Fuechtmann gave an overview of the structure’s needs and its management. The three-story structure at 1824 Marshall Ave. was built in 1916. It is owned and operated by the deaf community. It is managed by volunteers and houses one of the oldest deaf clubs in the world.
Hall namesake Charles Thompson was the son of a wealthy St. Paul banker. He himself was a successful businessman. He met his future wife, Margaret Brooks, at an 1896 convention for deaf Minnesotans. Club history indicates that the Thompsons shared a passion for fostering social interaction for deaf people, using their homes in St. Paul and Alexandria as social hubs.
After Charles Thompson’s 1915 death, Margaret Brooks Thompson decided to honor him by building a social hall. She hired noted architect Olof Hanson, who was also deaf, to design the building. Thompson Hall is designed with large windows and high ceilings to let natural light in, so that American Sign Language (ASL) can be easily seen. The building featured a large social hall, maple wood dance floor, children’s play area, bowling alley and kitchen.
Margaret Brooks Thompson laid the building cornerstone at a dedication ceremony in 1916, which was attended by more than 500 people. She also set up a fund for the building, and placed it in the hands of a board of trustees. Her actions were meant to ensure that the club would always remain free to use for all of the deaf people of Minnesota.
Thompson Hall was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 2011. But the board and users have struggled in recent years to keep up the building. It has long been available for outside rentals, but the lack of an elevator has been an obstacle. Not having an elevator means that members who are disabled cannot easily access the building.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down outside rentals for a time and made it very difficult to make ends meet, said Fuechtmann. “We lost a lot of money during COVID.”
“We have been working with the Minnesota Historical Society for more than five years,” he said. Thompson Hall recently received a $216,000 state Legacy grant to help with renovations.
Hall leaders also hired the Minneapolis architectural firm of MacDonald & Mack They looked at issues with the building, identifying 10 priority needs.
The initial project is the front steps and balcony. Earlier pictures show attractive wooden railings around the main entrance porch and a balcony above, as well as a matching railing above a bay window on the building’s east side. It’s believed that those were removed in the 1940s or 1950s.
The main porch now has brick pillars. Windows on the porch structure were bricked or blocked in. several years ago the HPC argued with past hall leadership about bricking in openings without a proper permit review.
Fuechtmann said the intention is to use a composite material that looks like wood to replace the brick pillars, and restore the porch and railings’ original look. The historic lighting fixtures will be refurbished.
Another priority is to add an elevator tower to the northwest corner of the building. The front sidewalk leading from Marshall will branch off to access the tower. it will also be accessible from the hall parking lot. the elevator is the most costly planned feature, at about $1.3 million. Fuechtmann said the elevator is needed for compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Other building needs include replacing the HVAC system, renovating restrooms, restoring windows and removing old asbestos flooring.
The group has support from the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing (MNCDHH). It also has the support of a deaf-owned bank, Hiawatha National Bank based in Hudson, Wisconsin for banking services.
Learn more about Thompson Hall, find the events calendar and see videos at https://charlesthompsonhall.org/
Learn more about Save Thompson Hall at https://charlesthompsonhall.org/saveth/s-about/