Olof Hanson, Architect [1862-1933]
Olof Hanson [†] was born on a farm in Fjelkinge, Sweden on September 10, 1862. While a youth in Sweden, Olof lost the hearing in his right ear after prolonged exposure to the frigid winter cold. A year later Olof's father died and the Hanson family, headed by Olof's older brother, Hans, came to Minnesota in the spring of 1875. In May of that year, Olof lost the hearing in his other ear and remained totally deaf for the rest of his life.
Olof's early Minnesota years were spent on the family farm in Willmar reading Swedish books and newspapers; "I devoured them eagerly" he recalled in an autobiographical sketch in the May 5, 1932 issue of The Companion, a magazine by and for the deaf. However, a family friend informed Jonathon Noyes, Superintendent of the School for the Deaf in Faribault, of Olof's condition and Noyes began a correspondence with the Hanson's which ended in Olof's admission to the school in February of 1878. "A new world opened to me. I was given books to study geography, arithmetic, history, natural philosophy, etc. I wore out two or three Swedish-English dictionaries." During his years at the Deaf School Olof learned to read, speak, sign and partially read lips in English.
In 1881 Olof graduated and began his college years at Gallaudet College in Washington D.C. In his second year of college Olof, being methodical by nature, set out to determine his vocation in life. He settled on three career possibilities: engineering, surveying and architecture. After receiving little vocational encouragement from the engineering and surveying offices he visited, Olof interviewed an architect who told him that he could succeed in the architectural profession if he truly had the ability. His vocational path was set. Through a junior year roommate Hanson was to secure his first drafting position as a summer employee of E.T. Mix & Co., Architects in Milwaukee.
In 1886 Hanson graduated from college with a B.A, degree and began working as a draftsman for a Minneapolis architect. After three years of drafting and a move to Omaha with the architectural firm, Olof decided to study architecture in Europe, During his ten month tour of Europe's architecture and cultures, he attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. His tour was however not totally devoted to the arts and architecture for Olof visited various European schools for the deaf and prepared papers on their work and methodology which he submitted to the Minnesota educational authorities. After returning to the States in 1890 Hanson secured work as a draftsman in Philadelphia working on the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf. With completion of that project he returned to Minnesota where he worked in drafting positions in Duluth and Minneapolis.
The economic depression of the early 1890s took its toll on the building trades, and Olof found himself unemployed. Knowing of Hanson's vocational state Dr. Jonathon Noyes in 1893 offered Olof a teaching position at the Deaf School. He remained in that position for two years until the economic climate improved and he was able to begin a private architectural practice in Faribault. Before and during his professional practice in Faribault Olof "prepared plans for twenty-four residences; eighteen store buildings and hotels; two churches, and ten school and institutional buildings." Hanson's architectural career in Faribault was to prosper between 1895 and 1901.
While Hanson's commercial block designs, as originally built, displayed architectural competence and contextual sensitivity, it is through his residential designs that Hanson best demonstrated significant stylistic interpretation. Like most architects of the time, Hanson responded to the stylistic desires of his clients. His residential examples, consequently, displayed a rich rendering and blending of a variety of popular turn-of-the-century styles that include Queen Anne, Shingle, Classical Revival and Colonial Revival.
With a successful business established, Hanson was offered a partnership with Frank Thayer, an architect in Mankato. In hope of experiencing professional growth Hanson accepted the Thayer offer and moved to Mankato in 1901. He and Thayer then moved to Seattle in 1902 to set up a new practice on the west coast. Thayer soon became ill and retired from professional practice leaving Olof to fend for himself in his new environment. In Hanson's words, "Seattle was growing, but there were plenty of architects looking for business, and a deaf young man in a strange city did not have much of a chance." During this time Hanson's interest in serving the deaf community grew and in 1909 he started a Bible class for the deaf at Trinity Episcopal Church. Hanson worked as a draftsman until the outbreak of World War I when architectural commissions virtually came to a halt. He returned to the Midwest and secured drafting positions in St. Paul and later Omaha and then returned to Seattle in November of 1918 on Armistice Day.
Back in Seattle, Hanson found employment as a draftsman at the University of Washington. He eventually filled the chair of Landscape Architect at the University, however, his architecture was becoming less of a driving force and he began to focus on providing spiritual service to the deaf community, Hanson entered the Episcopal seminary and was ordained a deacon in March of 1924, and an Episcopal Priest in 1929. For financial reasons, Hanson continued to work for the University while providing spiritual service to the deaf of Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver and Portland.
Olof Hanson died in Seattle, Washington on September 8, 1933.
Scholars within the deaf community believe Hanson to be this country's first deaf architect.
† Thomas R. Zahn, Thomas R. Zahn & Associates, Inc., Architecture of Olof Hanson, 1895-1901, nomination document, 1988, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.