Thompson Hall seeks national status

Supporters of Thompson Hall, the nation’s oldest and largest social hall for the deaf, have taken a key step in getting their building named to the National Register of Historic Places. The St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) unanimously voted Sept. 15 to support the nomination. A letter of support for designation will go to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

SHPO will consider the request for historic designation Nov. 1. A recommendation from SHPO then goes to the National Parks Service, which oversees the National Register.

HPC members agreed that Thompson Hall is worthy of historic designation on a national scale due to the building’s ongoing function as a social hall and gathering place for deaf and hard of hearing Minnesotans. The building is more than 90 years old.

Thompson Hall, which is at 1824 Marshall Ave., and Hamline United Methodist Church in Hamline-Midway neighborhood are the two St. Paul sites that SHPO will consider Nov. 1. The church also won a vote of support Sept. 15 for its National Register request. Under the nomination guidelines, Mayor Chris Coleman can also weigh in prior to Nov. 1.

If the two buildings do find spots on the National Register, they will join 105 other St. Paul buildings, bridges and neighborhood districts approved could be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Teika Pakalns, senior project manager for the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans, was one of four people who attended the public hearing for Thompson Hall. The commission has worked with SHPO and the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens to prepare the National Register request for Thompson Hall.

“We all believe that Thompson Hall is deserving of this nomination, as it is a truly unique building that was specifically designed and built as a clubhouse and civic center for continuous use by the deaf community. It was a gift from a deaf woman in memory of her deaf husband’s desire to give the deaf community a place to gather and find strength in numbers, and it was designed by a deaf architect,” Pakalns said.

“Achieving National Register designation will not only establish Thompson Hall’s historical significance as a building that continues to serve its original mission, but also recognize the historical contributions of the deaf community in establishing and maintaining this cherished building, and furthermore encourage the community to preserve and utilize it for the future,” she added. “The National Register designation will also serve to increase awareness about this unique ‘living history’ property, and better position it for receiving preservation and interpretation funding so that it can become even more accessible to both the community and the public.” Pakalns testified with the assistance of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

The building honors Charles Thompson, a prominent St. Paul community leader as well as a leader and activist in Minnesota’s early deaf community in the late 19th and early 20th century. After his death his widow Margaret, who was also deaf, gave the building to Minnesota’s deaf community as a gift.

It was erected in 1915-1916. Since then it has been used by numerous organizations that serve the deaf and hard of hearing. The Thompson Hall Deaf Club and Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens are two of the hall’s most frequent users.

Pakalns emphasized the importance of Thompson Hall to generations of deaf Minnesotans. She also said the deaf community has worked hard over the years to maintain Thompson Hall as a “cherished building.” HPC Chairman John Manning replied that the HPC is grateful for the deaf community’s stewardship of Thompson Hall.

Pakalns noted that the building is worthy of historic designation because it not only has a unique history, it has also served its original mission all of these years. Many historic buildings have had a change or changes in uses.

St. Paul HPC is considered a certified local government agency and is qualified to review and weigh in on National Register nominations, said city historic preservation specialist Amy Spong. The HPC has four members who are architectural historians or historians. They are the ones who are tasked with reviewing the National Register application, under National Parks Service criteria.

The HPC members who reviewed the Thompson Hall application said the building merits a place on the National Register. HPC member and St. Paul historian Steve Trimble noted that Thompson Hall was designed with large windows and high-ceiling rooms so that people who sign to communicate can see each other better. Lights, switched on and off, were historically used to call meetings to order.

“Architecturally, it’s a really unique building,” Trimble said. “And there’s a real sense of community there.” HPC member Robert Ferguson is a former neighbor of Thompson Hall, and remarked on how actively it is used by the deaf community. He noted it was the first-ever clubhouse specifically built for the deaf in the United States.

Ferguson also noted that Thompson Hall architect Olof Hanson was one of the first deaf architects

to gain national prominence. “This building meets the National Register criteria in spades,” Ferguson said.

The brick building has had local historic designation status since 1995, part of a group of more than a dozen sites around the city given local historic status at that time. National Register status also allows for a building owner to seek state and federal historic tax credits. Several properties around the city have used historic tax credits for rehabilitation projects, including the Carleton Lofts on University Avenue. The ongoing Schmidt Brewery redevelopment is also being done with an eye toward use of the state and federal historic credits.

Thompson Hall was built at a cost of $45,000. It is three stories tall and made of brick, with stone and terra cotta features. It has a large front staircase and prominent porch. After Thompson Hall was built, an additional $45,000 was set aside for building maintenance and a five member Board of Trustees was set up to manage the trust fund.

Four Thompson family members and one deaf person made up the first board. Thompson family members continued on the board until 1951. The board is now made up of deaf community members and it is a nonprofit organization.

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