Leaving His Mark Upon Faribault: Olof Hanson (1862-1933)

This article originally appeared in Community Voice, March 2004.

One cannot help but marvel at the majestic designs of some of the buildings in Faribault. Driving through town, it’s easy to conjure up images of days long gone, buildings richly filled with stories. It is no wonder, then, that Olof Hanson, one of Minnesota’s very own architects, may have drawn inspiration from the buildings in Faribault as a teenager.

Born hearing on Sept. 10, 1862, Hanson became deaf at 12 years old due to harsh weather conditions.  When Hanson’s father, Hans, bought land in the Willmar area, the family decided to move to America. However, before they actually moved, Hans died suddenly in March 1874. A little over a year later, Hanson, along with his mother, older brother, and younger sister, finally arrived in Minnesota.

Hanson attended public school in Sweden, but he didn’t receive formal education in America until Minnesota School for the Deaf (MSD) Superintendent Jonathon Noyes learned of Hanson. Noyes contacted Hanson’s family, and the boy eventually enrolled at the school in early 1878, where he learned to sign and read. He has, in some of his writings and interviews, credited his years at MSD as being some of the happiest years of his life.

Hanson then headed to the National Deaf-Mute College (now Gallaudet University) in Washington, D.C., where he majored in architecture after some indecision.  He also learned several languages while there, including Latin, French and German, and was a great orator and debater. He was also involved with sports, and met his future wife, Agatha Tiegel, at the college, although they weren’t quite acquaintances until years later.

After graduating as the class valedictorian in 1886 with a bachelor’s degree, Hanson went to Minneapolis as a draftsman. The job had been arranged through his college roommate’s father, who was Senator William D. Washburn. While working in Minneapolis, Hanson earned a master’s degree from the National Deaf-Mute College in 1889. After Hanson moved with the firm to Omaha, he decided he wanted to study European architecture.

Spending ten months overseas, Hanson attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and developed a friendship with renowned deaf sculptor Douglas Tilden, and took notes on various buildings in Europe. In addition to his studies, he went on tours of deaf schools, studying the methodologies of instructing deaf students at these schools while mingling with the deaf community in each country. These observations were submitted in a report to Minnesota educators.

After his trip, Hanson went to Philadelphia as a draftsman for the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf project. Next were Minneapolis and Duluth, where he worked on many projects, including the design for the North Dakota School for the Deaf.  However, economic factors led to Hanson’s unemployment. Superintendent Noyes offered Hanson a teaching position at MSD, and Hanson accepted. It was here at MSD that Hanson became friendly with Tiegel, although they didn’t marry until 1899.

After two years, Hanson established a private architectural firm in Faribault in 1895. His firm flourished in design of various community buildings, stores, churches, schools, and houses, mainly in the Faribault area. Some of the notable designs include Superintendent Noyes’ home, and the Charles Batchelder Residence – both in Faribault – along with the Jay Cooke Howard resident in Duluth..

In 1901, Mankato architect Frank Thayer asked Hanson to form a partnership, so Hanson moved to Mankato. With the success of their business and being given a project designing a courthouse and jail in Juneau, Alaska, Thayer and Hanson formed a new practice in Seattle in 1902. Hanson was unexpectedly left to run the practice solo when Thayer became ill and retired. Still, Hanson preserved, and stayed in Seattle for a few more years, being an active deaf community member and starting a Bible class.

Demand for architecture work again faltered during World War I. Hanson returned to the Midwest and worked in both St. Paul and Omaha in the drafting field. He still wanted to be in Seattle, though, so he returned in 1918, working as a draftsman for the University of Washington and working his way up to Landscape Architect.

During these years, Hanson felt the need to be involved in spiritual service to deaf people. He became ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1924, then as a priest in 1929, and supported his ministry by continuing his work at the University.  He died in 1933 at the age of 71.

One of Hanson’s most remarkable architectural achievements is the Charles Thompson Memorial Hall in St. Paul, which became a historical landmark in 1994. According to the historical landmark nomination papers, Hanson never forgot the needs of his own people. “Because architect Olof Hanson himself was deaf, and he was designing a building for the deaf community, he incorporated in the building several features that specifically aided in its usage. The large windows, both bow and double-hung, on all floors and in the raised basement, were included to allow adequate natural light needed for efficient sign communication. The second floor assembly hall was built with lighting controls adjacent to the speaker’s podium. This arrangement allowed use of the lights to attract audience attention when beginning an event.”

The building, named after a deaf wealthy community leader, continues to stand proudly across the street from Merriam Park Library in St. Paul. It serves as a social and cultural gathering place for deaf people, ideal for banquets, meetings, weddings, and other social activities.

Hanson also designed Dawes House, the only building on the Gallaudet University campus designed by a deaf architect. Hanson Plaza and Dining Hall is named for Hanson’s wife, who was also the first woman to graduate from Gallaudet in 1893. Back in Faribault, the street leading to the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf is named Olof Hanson Drive.

Hanson is revered and respected by alumni and students of the school, and by deaf people everywhere, for his accomplishments and remarkable influence upon local architecture.

Compiled from various reports and websites, including the Gallaudet University Archives, Merriam Park Post (July 1994), and Faribault Heritage Preservation Commission.

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

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