The parking lot filled up fast on a recent Saturday outside Charles Thompson Memorial Hall, a majestic brick building that has stood for a century on a bustling corner in St. Paul.
Inside, old friends greeted one another with hugs and handshakes. Their hands moved quickly as they used their language — American Sign Language — to share stories about work and family life.
For many in Minnesota’s deaf community, Thompson Hall is a sanctuary. This is especially true on Saturdays, when people come to eat together, play games and attend community meetings.
“Where are your friends?” Peggy Shields, of St. Paul, asked rhetorically while playing a card game. “They’re all here in the Deaf Club.”
She has been coming to the club since 1981, when the crowd was bigger and younger.
A hot spot in its heyday, the 100-year-old Thompson Hall remains a vibrant social hub for deaf seniors, but like other deaf clubs across the country, it is struggling to attract younger generations — who increasingly turn to the internet for their social fix and sense of community.
“There used to be one club in every city,” said Herman Fuechtmann, president of the club’s board of trustees and a longtime club member. “We’re trying to survive.”
And that, in itself, is an accomplishment. This month, the clubhouse celebrated its 100-year anniversary with a weekend-long gala. Hundreds of people came back to Thompson Hall — from as far away as Hawaii. At a time when many deaf clubs nationwide have closed, Minnesota’s oldest deaf clubhouse stands out for its resilience and stature.
Fuechtmann grew up coming to the club on weekends with his parents and two sisters. He, his parents and one of his sisters are deaf. His other sister is an ASL interpreter.
“I would help out with the potlucks,” he recalled. It was a place where he could feel comfortable speaking with others through signing, he said.
In the 1980s and 1990s, young families flocked to Thompson Hall, where children raced up and down the winding staircase while their parents met to socialize and plan community events. Membership was always free.
“Ooh, it was packed,” Fuechtmann said of those days. “It still is here, but it’s just smaller numbers.”
Built in 1916, it was one of the nation’s first deaf clubs. The building, in the Lexington-Hamline neighborhood, was named after Charles Thompson, deaf son of a prominent St. Paul banker. Thompson graduated from the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault and was a philanthropist who loved to host people in the deaf community at his summer lake home in Alexandria, Minn.
After he died, his wife, Margaret, donated $45,000 to build Thompson Hall for the local deaf community, Fuechtmann said. She also set aside an additional $45,000 as a trust to maintain the property.
Considered the swankiest deaf clubhouse in the world, the building was designed by a famous deaf architect, Olof Hanson. He added touches that were aesthetically pleasing and functional, including a grand central staircase connecting the three floors with an open view filled with natural light so people could see who was coming up and down the stairs. The stairs were widened to accommodate two people walking side by side and signing.
Deaf culture is a very visual culture, Fuechtmann explained. Outside the auditorium, there are windows in the hallway that allow people walking by the room to peer inside and see what is happening. They can even catch some of the conversation by watching people sign.
Over the years, the building has evolved to meet the changing needs of the deaf community.
When it was built, there was a small bowling alley on the first floor. But a few years later, it was scrapped to add more space to accommodate the crowds.
In the early years, groups socialized by gender. The hall had a Ladies’ Parlour upstairs where women gathered. Today, that room is known as the Reception Room and houses a pool table once owned by Charles Thompson.
For many years, the auditorium used to host movie nights and show old silent movies — popular with many deaf people before close-captioning was available on television and film.
In recognition of its important place in history, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
Surviving in the digital age
For the players seated in the dining room for their weekly Mingo game (like bingo, but using playing cards instead of bingo pieces), the club is still the place to be on a Saturday night.
“Ace of spades!” Peggy Shields shouted excitedly, raising one of her cards and showing it to the players at her table for verification. She placed it down and looked up at the “caller” standing at the front of the room, ready to sign what the next card drawn was.
As the next card was called out, another player pumped her fist and cried out: “Mingo!” The caller came over and rewarded Lori Peterson of St. Paul with a pile of cash from the pot. The other players congratulated her, and a new round began.
Back at Shields’ table, Carol Maznio of Coon Rapids said the reason she and many others are regulars at the clubhouse is simple: “We need to get out of the house!”
She and the other players all said they enjoy socializing through signing. But they acknowledged that many younger deaf people don’t appear to feel the same pull to the place. The digital age has brought new ways of communicating, and those improvements have made it easier to communicate instantly — and virtually.
Video phones, for example, offer a way to directly call and have an ASL interpreter relaying information with little, if any, delay. Texting and social media channels such as Snapchat and Facebook also are popular communication tools among younger deaf members, Fuechtmann said.
“There’s no need to have face to face [communication] because they already have that,” he said.
Coffee, Carbles and tacos
In an effort to reach out to young people in the deaf community, Thompson Hall recently opened an ASL-friendly coffeehouse, with Wi-Fi, in its lower level.
While it’s too soon to tell whether the coffee shop will be a hit, a recent Carbles tournament (a combination of Sorry and Aggravation) and Saturday night taco dinner have succeeded in packing the dining hall. Among those attending — and signing — were college students who were studying ASL and came to the clubhouse to practice their language skills.
June Guenther and Stacy Bale were among those mingling and munching on tacos before the big tournament. They drove in from the Rochester area and planned to spend the night with friends after the game.
Although they have a deaf club in Rochester, they said, attendance there has been dwindling in recent years, as more people choose to stay home and just use video phone to chat. But Guenther and Bale said they prefer coming to the clubhouse to meet people — even if it involves a long drive.
Speaking through Fuechtmann, who interpreted for her, Bale explained: “I don’t want to stay home and be bored.”