Visionary Leader - April 2014

Olof Hanson


Olof HansonOlof Hanson, 1886 & G-1889, believed to be America’s first deaf architect, and a far-thinking leader who in the early 20th century was a champion for many of the same civil rights for deaf people that activists continue to fight for today, is Gallaudet’s Visionary Leader for April.

Olof Hanson
Hanson in 1890.

The youngest of three children, Hanson was born into a farming family on September 10, 1862 in Fielkinge, Sweden. Hanson’s father moved his family to the U.S. and settled on a farm near Willmar, Minn. The state’s frigid winters, and young Olof’s penchant for playing in the snow and ice, may have contributed to his sudden deafness in one ear at age 11. Two years later, he became deaf in his other ear. His parents enrolled him at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) in Faribault, Minn. He graduated in 1881 and enrolled at Gallaudet the same year.

At Gallaudet, Hanson was roommates with Cadwallader L. Washburn, Class of 1890, who would become a renowned deaf artist. Hanson was active in sports, mastered Latin, French, and German, and served as valedictorian for his graduating class. Immediately following graduation, he was hired, with the help of Washburn’s father, Sen. William D. Washburn, by an architectural firm in Milwaukee, Wisc. Hanson then moved back to Minnesota to work as a draftsman, then traveled to Europe to study architecture.

Returning to the U.S., Hanson worked for a firm that designed and built the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia, Penn. When the task was completed, he again returned home and taught at MSAD. Although he proved to be an excellent teacher, Hanson’s heart was in architecture.

Dawes Housepencil drawing of a buildingwatercolor painting of country lane
Click the images above to enlarge.
LEFT: Dawes House on the Gallaudet campus, designed by Hanson and completed in 1895, served as a dormitory until 1953 for boys attending Kendall School; today it is used to house academic offices. CENTER: One of Hanson's school drawings. In addition to Gallaudet, he designed buildings for Illinois, Mississippi, and North Dakota schools for the deaf, incorporating the use of light an open space, the key principles of today's DeafSpace concept to facilitate visual communication. RIGHT: One of Hanson's paintings. 

Hanson refused to accept the popular notion that he could never be an architect because of his deafness. He believed in himself, and others believed in him, as well: Gallaudet President Edward Miner Gallaudet wrote letters of recommendation to engineers and architects to convince them that Hanson was a man of talent and integrity. To prove his abilities, Hanson established his own architectural practice in Faribault in 1894, where he designed 54 homes, businesses, churches, and schools, including the North Dakota, Mississippi, and Illinois schools for the deaf, and Dawes House at Gallaudet.

Hanson family posed on steps with dog
Family photo: (clockwise) Olof Hanson, wife Agatha Tiegel Hanson, and daughters Alice, Helen, and Marion in 1930 in Seattle.

His reputation established, Hanson partnered with another architect to found a business in Mankato, Minn., which later relocated to Seattle, Wash. When his partner suffered a serious illness, Hanson carried on the practice alone. His designs were the precursor of today’s DeafSpace principles of openness and natural light that are incorporated in buildings on Kendall Green to facilitate visual communication. His work earned him a berth in the National Register of Historic Places, and at MSAD, a street leading to the school was renamed Olof Hanson Drive.

Realizing that the obstacles he faced in convincing the world of his abilities extended to all deaf people, Hanson took steps to bring about equality for his peers. In a 1908 letter to President Theodore Roosevelt urging the cessation of discriminatory practices preventing deaf people from gaining employment, including not allowing them to take the U.S. Civil Service Commission examination for federal government jobs, Hanson wrote eloquently: “My greatest obstacle is not my deafness, but to overcome the prejudice and ignorance of those who do not understand what the deaf can do.”

group photo of congregation
Hanson, who became a deacon in 1924 and a priest in 1929, is shown with one of his congregations.

Hanson was active in several organizations as a spokesman for the deaf community, including the World Federation of the Deaf, the Puget Sound Association of the Deaf, and the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens. He was also president of the National Association of the Deaf from 1910 to 1913. During that time, he fought to remove the word “Asylum” from the names of schools for deaf people. He was a staunch supporter of residential schools, feeling that mainstreaming created barriers for deaf children in sharing their language and culture. Hanson wrote an impassioned letter to the president of the National Education Association, disputing his stance opposing the use of sign language in schools in favor of learning orally. Hanson stated emphatically, “You say, ‘The Sign Language should never be taught.’ That is where you are wrong … The deaf who use sign may get less speech, but they develop more brains.”

Olof Hanson, 1930
Hanson as a priest in Seattle in 1930.

Realizing that the deaf community’s spiritual needs were underserved, Hanson stepped in in his later years to help fill the gap. He provided Sunday school services to deaf congregations in Tacoma and Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He became a deacon in 1924 and a priest in 1929. Hanson met his wife, Agatha Tiegel, Gallaudet’s first female graduate, in 1893 at MSAD, and they married in 1899. The couple had three daughters—Alice, Helen, and Marion—all of whom graduated from the University of Washington.

“The life of Olof Hanson is an inspiration to the deaf,” said Dr. J. L. Smith in the Deaf Oklahoman, Dec. 1933 issue. “He lived a life of usefulness, helpfulness, and kindliness, so he proved that deafness is not a barrier to success in the hearing world of business when one has ability, character and perseverance.” Hanson received an honorary doctor of science degree from Gallaudet in 1914.

More information

Visit the Gallaudet Museum's virtual exhibit on Hanson

Olof Hanson's diplomas are in the Gallaudet Archives and are on display in the online Gallery of Diplomas as part of the 150th celebration.

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*Photos courtesy Gallaudet Archives


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