A Birthday Gift

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

Last Saturday, as I sat on the stairs of Thompson Hall talking with a friend, I glanced over at the scene before me. People, both Deaf and hearing, were laughing as they chatted and sipped their drinks. Whenever a light flashed, everyone would stop and quickly look to the club manager and sign, “PHONE!” For that briefest of time, I felt as if I was suddenly reliving my childhood.

I grew up attending both the Springfield Club for the Deaf (Illinois) and Chicago Club for the Deaf. I loved those weekend nights, because it meant I could watch people tell stories – both ordinary and extraordinary. They talked about their jobs, families, and events. As a youngster, I absorbed these people’s words (especially when they cussed, which I giggled at). I even once argued with a murderer once when I was 10, over a quarter. I had placed the quarter on the side of a foosball game to indicate that I was next in line. An unruly guy in his 20s snatched my quarter and said that it was his. After he said some things to me, I ran off to tell the club president, who then threw the guy out. Two weeks later, I opened up the Chicago Tribune and gasped when I saw his picture. He and another Deaf friend had killed someone about a week after our encounter.

I also watched club members (usually with the assistance of a good beer or two) exchange gossip and testimonies. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized I actually mingled with many Deaf leaders who, to me, were just a bunch of old people who would always smile gently at me as I walked by. These very leaders helped shape our lives today.

I haven’t been to a lively Deaf club gathering in years, until last Saturday. I was at Thompson Hall, a historical landmark in St. Paul, for the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens’ second annual pig roast. There were at least 150 people crowding the clubhouse.

Thompson Hall was designed by Olof Hanson, a renowned Deaf architect from Minnesota who also designed many other buildings and houses. The building is named after Charles Thompson, a Deaf man from a wealthy family. Upon Thompson’s death, his wife gave money to build Thompson Hall in 1916, which boasts several floors, a bar area, a pool/reception room, a small, Deaf-friendly auditorium, and several offices. The building also has an apartment for its caretaker, and is located near St. Paul’s upscale streets of Grand and Summit Avenues. The building was designed specifically with Deaf people in mind, including larger-than-usual windows so that people could have as much natural light as possible for communication. Mrs. Thompson also insisted that people never be required to pay to enter the building, which ensured great numbers of attendees over the years.

I had been to Thompson Hall many times, but never really knew its origins. When Doug Bahl, an avid historian who also happens to be one of the most brilliant men I know, offered to give a new Minnesotan a tour of the building, I quickly jumped at the chance to join the group. Bahl is a walking encyclopedia on Minnesota Deaf history, and is the best person to give a tour of Thompson Hall, hands down.

As he shared the history and ghost stories of Thompson Hall, I thought about all the spirits and struggles that Deaf people before me endured. I imagined myself among them, being part of a vibrant gathering of people who had not yet identified formal terms like American Sign Language or Deaf culture. They didn’t have laws like we do today, and must have dealt with incredible obstacles.

I also felt a twinge of sadness, because as we all know, Deaf clubs are near extinction in many places, or have already shut down like the Chicago Club for the Deaf. Other clubs have instead converted into gatherings at bars or coffee shops, and while Deaf people still have a strong need to gather, there’s nothing like having a clubhouse all to ourselves. That moment on the stairs, when I felt as if I was a little girl at a Deaf club again, was priceless.

When Bahl said that Thompson Hall was founded on November 5, 1916, I perked up and said, “Hey, today’s November 5!” Our group became quiet as we looked at each other in wonderment. 89 years of history being relived on this night – what better birthday gift could we have given Charles Thompson other than a gathering of comparable standards to one in 1916?

Happy birthday, Thompson Hall.

For a photo of Thompson Hall, please visit www.preservationdirectory.com/photodatabase_stpaul.html and scroll down.

Copyrighted material, used by permission. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

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