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Thompson hall
Built in 1916, the Charles Thompson Memorial Hall at 1824 Marshall Ave. is the nation’s oldest social hall for the deaf, deaf/blind and hard of hearing.

A $2.9 million plan to revitalize the Charles Thompson Memorial Hall at 1824 Marshall Ave. is moving ahead. Work will start this spring on the three-story structure, which is the nation’s oldest social hall for the deaf, deaf/blind and hard of hearing.

Members of the Union Park District Council land-use committee heard an update on the project on April 18 and expressed enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead.

Any exterior changes will have to go before the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, since Thompson Hall has local and national historic designations. The building, which was constructed in 1916, is owned and operated by the deaf community, managed by volunteers, and houses one of the oldest deaf clubs in the world.

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The hall was named for businessman Charles Thompson, the son of a wealthy Saint Paul banker. Thompson met his future wife, Margaret Brooks, at an 1896 convention for deaf Minnesotans. According to club history, the couple shared a passion for promoting social interaction among deaf people, and used their homes in Saint Paul and Alexandria as social hubs.

After Thompson’s death in 1915, his wife decided to honor him by building a social hall. She hired noted deaf architect Olof Hanson to design the Marshall Avenue building, which included a large social hall, maple dance floor, children’s play area, bowling alley and kitchen.

The building’s cornerstone was laid during a ceremony in 1916 that was attended by more than 500 people. Mrs. Thompson also established a fund for the building, and placed it in the hands of a board of trustees. Her intention was to ensure that the club would always remain free to use for all deaf people in Minnesota.

The board and the building’s users have struggled in recent years to keep up the hall. It has long been available for outside rentals, but the lack of an elevator has been an obstacle for some disabled people.

The pandemic shut down outside rentals for a time and made it difficult to make ends meet, said club leader Herman Fuechtmann, who gave an overview of the structure’s needs. “We lost a lot of money during COVID,” he said.

“We’ve been working with the Minnesota Historical Society for more than five years,” Fuechtmann said. Thompson Hall recently received a $216,000 state grant to help with the renovation.

The hall’s board of trustees, Deaf Equity Board and the public are working together to save Thompson Hall. Since July 2017, a team has met twice monthly to create plans and raise funds for the renovation work. Along with improving accessibility, they want to preserve the building for future generations.

“We’ve been working with the Minnesota Historical Society for more than five years,” Fuechtmann said. Thompson Hall recently received a $216,000 state grant to help with the renovation.

Club leaders hired the Minneapolis architectural firm of MacDonald & Mack to look at issues with the building, and 10 priorities were identified.

The initial project is to improve the front steps and balcony. Early photos show attractive wooden railings around the main porch and a balcony above, as well as a matching railing above a bay window on the building’s east side. It is believed those were removed in the 1940s or ’50s.

The main porch now has brick pillars, and the windows on the porch have been bricked or otherwise blocked in.

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. The historic lighting fixtures will also be refurbished.

Another priority is to add an elevator tower to the northwest corner of the building. Fuechtmann said the elevator, which is expected to cost about $1.3 million, is needed to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Other building needs include replacing the heating and air-conditioning system, renovating restrooms, restoring windows and removing asbestos flooring.

The group has support from the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing. It also is working with the deaf-owned Hiawatha National Bank in Hudson, Wisconsin. 

— Jane McClure

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