In the early twentieth century, few meeting and event spaces in Minnesota were designed to be accessible to the state’s deaf, deafblind, and hard-of-hearing community. In 1916, Margaret Brooks Thompson hired deaf architect Olof Hanson to design the Charles Thompson Memorial Hall in St. Paul in memory of her husband. It was the first social club designed exclusively for the deaf in the United States.
The Charles Thompson Memorial Hall’s origins can be traced back to the Fourth Convention of the Minnesota Association of the Deaf at the Minnesota Institute for Defectives (Deaf, Blind and Feeble-minded) in Faribault, Minnesota, in 1896. It was there that Charles Thompson, the son of a wealthy St. Paul banker, met and fell in love with Margaret Brooks, the daughter of Scottish immigrants to rural Minnesota. Soon after, they married and set up permanent residence in St. Paul, with a lake home in Alexandria.
Sharing a passion for fostering more social interaction for deaf people, the Thompsons transformed their numerous properties in and around the Twin Cities into bustling hubs for deaf and hard-of-hearing Minnesotans to meet, camp, or eat together. Their home in Alexandria on Lake Darling attracted so many deaf campers that they had permanent cabins built on the property.
Charles passed away in 1915. Margaret decided to honor his legacy by using her inherited wealth to hire a well-known deaf architect named Olof Hanson to specially design a clubhouse for Minnesota’s deaf community. At the dedication ceremony in 1916, Margaret laid the cornerstone before a crowd of 500 people. She also announced that she would be placing the building and a $45,000 trust fund in the hands of a board of trustees. By doing so, she ensured that the club would always remain free to use for all of the deaf people of Minnesota, regardless of religious or political affiliation.
Along with a large assembly hall, the building featured a bowling alley, a social hall, a maplewood dance floor, and a children’s play area. It was outfitted with large windows and ceilings to maximize lighting so that American Sign Language (ASL) signs could be seen clearly and easily. On some nights, new films with closed-captioning would be projected onto a curtain on a stage. (The Minnesota Association of the Deaf has frequently taken advantage of the space since 1917 to hold their biennial conventions.)
In 1957, the Memorial Hall began circulating its official newsletter, The Thompson Hall Newsletter, which became the Minnesota Deaf Newsletter in 2002. Along with event listings and other news about the social space, the newsletter offered updates on the Minnesota School for the Deaf in Faribault, the local deaf sports teams, the Minnesota Association of the Deaf, and other news or updates of importance for the deaf, deafblind, and hard-of-hearing community.
The clubhouse has reached several historical milestones in the twenty-first century. The Charles Thompson Memorial Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, and members celebrated the 100th anniversary of their prized social club in 2016. Members have struggled at times to maintain their space, to keep it accessible to all, and to attract younger members. Despite these difficulties, the Charles Thompson Memorial Hall still stands as a testament to over a century of the collective labors of deaf, deafblind, and hard-of-hearing Minnesotans.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.