Finnish Work People’s College

The 1888 Spirit Lake Hotel/Work People’s College. [Image: Zenith City Press]

Spirit Lake Hotel/Työväen Opisto | 402 S. 88th Ave. W. | Architect: Unknown | Built 1888 | Lost, 1911

1911 Finnish Work People’s College | 410 S. 88th Ave. W. | Architect: Frank A. Johnson | Built 1913 | Lost, 1917

Finnish Work People’s College | 402 S. 88th Ave. W. | Architect: Unknown | Built 1913 | Extant

While the three vernacular structures pictured at left may not ever be recognized as examples of grand architecture, their social significance as the buildings that served one of only two higher educational institutions developed by Finnish immigrants in North America demands their appearance on these pages. During the late 1880s a community later named Smithville quietly grew on the banks of Spirit Lake, a widening of the St. Louis River sacred to local Ojibwe and home of the equally sacred Spirit Island. The neighborhood developed in part as a tourist retreat, but outside of the lake, its only attraction was the Spirit Lake Hotel, built in 1888 by brothers Edward and Albert Swenson. In 1892 the Swensons advertised their hostelry as the “finest summer resort at the head of the lakes.” Unfortunately for the Swensons, the hotel sat empty throughout most of the 1890s.

In 1903 the building became the home of the Finnish Theological Seminary, which suffered from low enrollment until an aggressive financial takeover by the Finnish Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America turned the seminary into the Työväen Opisto (Worker’s College), which was almost always translated as Finnish Work People’s College. In 1913 the International Socialist Review described the school’s curriculum as included mandatory classes in economics, politics, history, and “socialist program and tactics,” as well as specialized classes in bookkeeping, math, and both Finnish and English languages. The more ambitious could study Marxist literature and work to become socialist orators or party functionaries.

The 1911 Work People’s College, ca. 1915. [Image: Herb Dillon]

In 1910 the college announced plans for a new building, designed by Frank A. Johnson to stand just south of the 1888 facility, which would include both classrooms and dormitory rooms. It would initially stand one story high, with plans for two more stories to be added later, after additional funds had been raised for their construction. Unfortunately the school’s other building—the former Spirit Lake Hotel—was destroyed by fire six months before the new facility opened in October 1911. Its two additional floors were added the next year, much earlier than anticipated because of the fire.

But the school needed even more room—enrollment had topped 150 in 1912—so it built a new dormitory in 1913 on the site of the 1888 building. The three-story building’s second and third floors were outfitted with study/sleeping rooms that each accommodated two students while the main floor contained club rooms, a kitchen, and a dining hall. The building wouldn’t remain just a dormitory for long. Another fire in 1917 completely destroyed the 1911 facility, forcing the 1913 building to work as both a college and living space for its students.

By the time the 1911 building burned, the school had severed its association with the Finnish Socialist movement and had become associated with the International Workers of the World. School records show that by 1922 its main purpose was to “equip people to be more useful members of unions and other labor organizations.” In the 1930s, enrollment opened to anyone, regardless of heritage or previous education. But it didn’t help principal Frederick Thompson keep the school running. Only thirty students attended the institution in 1940–1941, the final year it opened.

After the school closed the building was converted into an apartment building called Riverview Apartments. It is now known as Smithville Apartments.

The 1913 Work People’s College (now apartments) ca. 1916. [Image: Herb Dillon]