Minnesota Deaf Heritage Oral-Visual Interview with Douglas “Doug” Bahl on Charles Thompson Memorial Hall’s History
This interview with Douglas “Doug” Bahl (DB) on Charles Thompson Memorial Hall’s history was incorporated into the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans’ (MNCDHH) Oral-Visual History Project. This interview was originally produced by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division (DHHSD) of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This interview took place in 1997. The interviewer was Robert “Bob” Cook (BC).
A note about translation of this interview: The interview was recorded in American Sign Language (ASL). The interviewer and interviewee used ASL as a first language, and the signed information was translated into vernacular or spoken English by interpreters.
This transcript and the open captions in the video are based on the spoken English information.
Actions are in brackets. Translation notes are in parentheses and italics (using the emphasis font), and they represent additional information and corrections about what was said.
Transcript of Interview with Douglas “Doug” Bahl on Charles Thompson Memorial Hall’s History
Key to names:
DB = Douglas “Doug” Bahl (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
BC = Robert “Bob” Cook (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
[Visual of title graphic “Minnesota Deaf Heritage: An Interview with Doug Bahl on Charles Thompson Hall”]
[Robert “Bob” Cook is sitting with Douglas “Doug” Bahl for the interview.]
BC: Hi. I’m Bob Cook. I’m going to be posing some questions to our special guest today, Doug Bahl. Doug is our foremost historian and we’re lucky to have him with us to explain the history or our beloved Deaf club, called Charles Thompson Memorial Hall; to tell us how it came to be. But I’ll let Doug do the explaining. Doug.
DB: Charles Thompson Hall was established in 1916. Can we take a look at the photograph. I think we have one, if we could show it now. [Shows photo of Thompson Hall.] That picture was taken just after construction was completed in 1916. November 5, 1916, was called a Red Letter Day. It was the opening day for Thompson Hall. That picture was taken shortly thereafter. People often ask where the name came from, who is it named after. Just who was Charles Thompson? He was a very wealthy Deaf man who almost never had to work a day in his life. He came from a wealthy family, the Thompsons. His father was the founder of the First National Bank of St. Paul. His name was Horace Thompson and he and his brother founded the bank. They were also involved in the expansion of the railroads. Back in the 1850s, 1860s, Minneapolis/St. Paul were both very small and just starting to grow. Charles Thompson was born in 1861, during the Civil War. We’re not sure how he became Deaf but he did attend the school for the Deaf (now called the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf – MSAD). Upon his graduation, his parents gave him the gift of a very large farm near Windom, a horse- breeding farm. This was a key area for buying racing horses at that time. But, Charles wasn’t interested and decided to sell the farm and move back to Minneapolis. He preferred Minneapolis because it offered more interaction with other Deaf people.
Charles had been a bachelor for many years before he met his wife, Margaret. First let’s show a picture of Charles, then of his wife Margaret. [Shows pictures of Charles and Margaret Thompson.] OK, Charles met his wife Margaret, show her picture. His wife’s name was Margaret Brooks. Margaret was born in Scotland and then her family immigrated to Minnesota when she was a young girl. Later she entered the school for the Deaf, but didn’t graduate from there because her parents decided to move to Colorado. She did graduate from the school for the Deaf in Colorado. Charles Thompson met Margaret at a MADC (Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens) convention in 1896. He fell madly in love with her and they were soon married. They then hired Olof Hanson, a famous Deaf architect. Let’s show his picture now. [Shows picture of Olof Hanson.] Olof Hanson designed the house for Charles and Margaret. Charles hired him to design the house as a wedding present for Margaret. Olof and Charles grew up together, attending the same school. Anyway, Charles and Margaret lived in their fancy house, often throwing parties which were attended by many Deaf people. The house was in St. Paul near Dale Street, in the Dayton Avenue area. The house is still there today, but it’s been converted into six condominiums. It’s a good, strong house and is still standing. Charles and Margaret moved to another house at about the same time as Charles’ father passed away. This house was smaller and was designed by a hearing architect, not a Deaf one. It was located in the Lincoln and Smith Avenues area. They continued to invite the Deaf community to have parties at the new house, where they played cards and held dances. The house had a large ballroom upstairs. Charles had a secretary whose family lived in the other half of their house, which was a duplex. Altogether, Charles had eight different secretaries, first of which was Julie Smith. Julie was a secretary and tutor, but moved away to work at the school for the Deaf as a teacher. Next was Anne Sonspear, then James Cowen, Mary Cowen’s father, and the list goes on and on as he had one secretary after another. Charles had difficulties with English, so he always employed secretaries to assist with written English. Charles never had to work. He was able to do what he pleased as he always had a source of steady income from his father’s wealth. Charles had a few homes, not only the one in St. Paul, but also two cabins that were right next to each other, located near Alexandria. Deaf people would gather there and set up tents near Charles’ cabin. The people really looked up to Charles, almost as if he was the mayor of a Deaf colony. He wasn’t really interested in fishing, but loved to play croquet. He would play croquet late into the night with his father. Just before sunset when his mother would let them know it was time to eat, he would tell her to wait, that they wanted to finish their game. When it became too dark to see, he would order that lanterns be brought out into the yard so they could finish the game. The family had several homes throughout the country including winter homes in Georgia and California. As Charles traveled throughout the United States he always had a home to go to.
Charles passed away in 1915 leaving Margaret a wealthy woman. Since they had no children, Margaret couldn’t decide what to do with her inheritance. Margaret was a very kind-hearted woman, and so she decided to build a Deaf club. She again hired Olof Hanson, the Deaf architect, to design the building. Olof discussed the details with Margaret. The building you see today is basically the same as what Margaret had envisioned. It included an auditorium on the second floor and a bowling alley in the basement, which has now been converted into a bar. There was also a dining room on the main floor. And that’s exactly how it looks today. Margaret decided to establish a Board of Trustees consisting of five members. The Board was comprised of four hearing trustees from both the Thompson and Brooks families. There was also one Deaf trustee. Today, the Board is comprised of all Deaf trustees. This is Margaret’s name sign (signing letter “M” on forehead) and this is Charles’ name sign (signing letter “T” on chest). Margaret and Charles. Much of my information comes from Gordon Allen who was a personal acquaintance of Margaret. Gordon never actually knew Charles Thompson. He served on the Board of Trustees for many years, doing a very good job of ensuring the board followed through on Margaret’s wishes. We have appreciated Gordon’s involvement with the Board for so many years.
Margaret passed away in 1929. She was buried alongside her husband in the Oakwood Cemetery in St. Paul. Their graves are marked with an elaborate monument. The gravesite is right next to former Governor (William R. (Rush)) Merriam. Charles and Governor Merriam were close friends and hunting partners. Charles loved hunting for many years. Really, the Thompson family history is very interesting and I’m thankful to Margaret for all she did for the Deaf community. The money that she donated was used as a building fund for the Deaf club as well as for funding the Board of Trustees and investments. Because of her donation we don’t have to pay an entrance fee to get into the club. Thompson Hall is the only Deaf Club in the United States that doesn’t require an entrance fee, so I’m very thankful that Margaret objected to that and set aside money to cover those costs. Of course we still need money for Thompson Hall and I would appreciate people’s generosity in donating money. We need an elevator for the older people, like you and me, Bob, as we get tired of climbing the stairs. I would appreciate contributions that would help us install an elevator before we become too much older. There are a few other improvements and changes we would like to make to keep up with the times and rising costs. So again, I would appreciate any donations. Since we don’t have an entry fee, we need money for a few things. I guess that’s about it.
BC: This historical information is very interesting. I really enjoyed having you share it with us on videotape, so we can share the story with other Deaf people. Every time I meet someone they ask me to explain the history again, so it’s nice to have it on videotape. I think I will make extra copies to keep on file at Thompson Hall so if someone from another country comes, they can watch it. Now, November 5th of this year will be the Deaf Club’s 80th anniversary. Five years ago we had a big 75th anniversary celebration and time keeps marching on. I do see the building getting older. We need to keep up with the exterior painting, add storm windows, air conditioning, a new roof, etc. I think it will cost plenty to keep the building up. I also understand the building was recently designated as an historical landmark. Can you tell us more about that?
DB: You are correct, Bob. That is correct. St. Paul has a Historical Landmark Preservation Commission which operates under the direction of the Mayor’s office. Commission members are appointed by the Mayor. The Commission oversees any building of historical significance in the greater St. Paul area. About two or three years ago the Commission decided to designate more buildings as Historical Landmarks, and developed a list of 300 potential Landmarks, one of which was Thompson Hall. Now, you know that there are many buildings older than Thompson Hall, but to be eligible a building only needs to be fifty years old or more. Thompson Hall meets that requirement. Many of the other potential landmarks are well over 100 years old, but in poor condition in comparison to Thompson Hall. After compiling their study, the Commission’s list was narrowed down to the top ten, for further discussion before a final selection was made. Sure enough, Thompson Hall was one of the top ten. This list was further researched and narrowed down to three. I was very pleased that Thompson Hall was selected as a local historical landmark by the HPC (Historical Preservation Commission) and this selection was approved by the Minnesota Historical Society. In the future I hope to see Thompson Hall added to the National Register of Historical Landmarks. For your information, three private homes in Faribault, Minnesota have been recognized as Historical Landmarks on the local, state and national levels. So, I hope Thompson Hall will be recognized nationally in the future.
BC: I hope so too. Maybe it will be recognized nationally. Even worldwide. We could show Deaf clubs in other countries what a fine club we have and we don’t even have to charge an admission fee. What an impact that could have. As a member of the Board of Trustees, I still have some concerns. We need to encourage our young people to recognize the significance of the Deaf Club and gain their support. I have noticed that many Deaf organizations make use of the club as well as some hearing organizations. I’ve also heard that two wedding ceremonies were held in Thompson Hall. Is that correct?
DB: Actually, I’m not sure how many weddings, more than two though. I’d have to do some checking but I suspect it’s more like three or four. Do you remember your classmate, or maybe it was a couple of years before or after your class – anyway Janice Hubardy was married there. They may have forgotten to count her. But anyway, there have been a few wedding ceremonies there. You’re right.
Regarding your concerns, yes, Thompson Hall seems small for the growing population of Deaf people here in the Twin Cities, as compared to the 1950s or ‘60s. The population today is much larger than when Olof Hanson originally designed the building. He designed it for the population at that time. I know it seems cramped and that has caused some members to leave, but because of its location it is really not possible to add on to the building. Of course we want to show that we treasure the history there. When we look at Europe, there are so many buildings owned by Deaf groups – schools and clubs. They have been standing for 100-200 years. They value the historical significance of their buildings and take ownership of that, which is nice. Here we have our own Deaf club which the Minnesota Deaf community takes ownership of. It means so much to us. I hope in the future, young people will understand the significance the Deaf Club holds. I share your concerns about that.
BC: All right, well thank you so much for your time Doug. I hope someday you will want to learn more about Charles Thompson Memorial Hall. If so, we have three videotapes that can be borrowed from our office at the Metro Regional Service Center.
[Video visuals of photos of Thompson Hall, the Thompsons’ home, and the Thompsons’ gravesite.]
[Visual of end graphic “special thanks to Doug Bahl, Diane Leonard, Dale Finke, Bob Cook”]
[Visual of end graphic “produced by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Division, Metro Regional Service Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People, 1997”]