Part 3: Edna Dugan and the Degree of Honor Protective Association Building

The Degree of Honor Protective Association Building, located at 325 Cedar Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is historically significant under National Register of Historic Places Criterion A as the national headquarters of theDegree of Honor Protective Association, a women’s fraternal benefit society with member lodges throughout the country.[1] This month we are featuring a series of blog posts on the Degree of Honor Building and the organization that commissioned it:

Edna Dugan and the Revitalization of the DOHPA (1953-1960)

In 1953, Frances Buell Olson, retired after a 40 year career as national president of the DOHPA, and Edna Dugan was appointed as the new national president. Edna Dugan brought with her a desire to revitalize the DOHPA’s image while dramatically increasing insurance sales. Dugan was also fiercely committed to supporting Saint Paul’s local economy. The DOHPA describes Dugan’s ascendency as follows, “She quickly improved office procedure, introduced new policies and rate books, and changed the constitution, by-laws, and rituals.”[1] These internal changes enacted, Dugan began looking outside the organization for ways to further her agenda.

As the 1950s drew to a close, downtown St. Paul was struggling to enact an urban renewal plan that would allow the city to compete with neighboring Minneapolis and Edna Dugan saw the opportunity to bring her goals for the growth of DOHPA to fruition. It was time for the DOHPA to move out of its offices in the old-fashioned neoclassical Schiffman Building and into a modern, purpose-built headquarters building. At its completion, the new Degree of Honor Building would be the first headquarters of a company owned by women to be constructed in downtown Saint Paul. Furthermore, the new building would provide the DOHPA with an important marketing platform – cementing the organization in the minds of the public as a modern insurance business with a modern headquarters rather than as a women’s secret society. Regarding the decision to build in downtown Saint Paul, Dugan is quoted as explaining that “We thought there was no place like St. Paul to build in, and no place like St. Paul to work in.”[2] Architect Chuck Wahlberg remembers the decision to construct the new DOHPA building well, noting that both the DOHPA leadership and his architecture firm, Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold Architects, were “excited for the opportunity to shape the future of the Saint Paul skyline.”[3]

The plan to construct a new building was made public in the October 1958 issue of the Degree of Honor Review:

At our Board Meeting which was held in August, the members of the Board of Directors voted unanimously for the erection of a new home office building which will fit our needs for the present, as well as expansion in the future. A million dollar building will be built at Fourth and Cedar Streets, St. Paul, Minnesota. We expect to start construction some time in 1959 and expect to have a nice lodge hall for our fifteen St. Paul lodges to meet in. I feel certain that all our members will be proud of another step in our progress planning.[4]

The DOHPA had a clear vision for its new building, and anticipated its completion with great enthusiasm. “We are all looking forward to this new home for our Association, which will be a pride and joy to us all," wrote National Secretary Clara Bender in the Degree of Honor Review, “The planning to this new structure is in line with National President Edna E. Dugan’s desire to streamline the operations of the Degree of Honor Protective Association, to add more impetus to its growth, and to house it in a beautiful, up-to-date and modern office building which will mean more efficient operation.”[5]

To design the new building, Degree of Honor leadership turned to Saint Paul-based architecture firm Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold – who were known at the time for their modern aesthetic and progressive social agenda. By the spring of 1959, the design process was underway, plans were being drafted, and demolition of the building previously located on the site was expected to start imminently.[6] At Dugan’s urging, an initial design for a four-story $700,000 building was scrapped, and replaced with a ten-story two-million dollar tower. “Edna Dugan and the DOHPA called the shots during that design process, though I remember that we did encourage them to consider the larger building and its potential to generate income through rental space,” explains Chuck Wahlberg.[7] In November 1959, the building design was complete, and a model of the building graced the cover of the Degree of Honor Review. The DOHPA expected to occupy the first, eighth, ninth, tenth, and lower levels of the building and to use the second through seventh levels as income generating rental office space. Ground breaking took place on February 26, 1960, with Edna Dugan operating the backhoe. The Mayor of Saint Paul, President of the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce, and officers of First National Bank joined the staff of Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold, Degree of Honor leadership and many DOHPA members to witness the groundbreaking. The groundbreaking enjoyed coverage as the lead story in the Pioneer Press the next morning, with headline “Degree of Honor Plans Expanded - Work Begins on Loop Building” and a photo of Edna Dugan running above the fold.[8]

 “Our Progress is 10 Stories High” (1961)     

Construction of the new DOHPA building was anticipated to be completed in late 1960, however a steel workers strike delayed the timeline. The DOHPA took advantage of the delay by purchasing a property neighboring the site and working with Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold to revise the building plans to accommodate Dugan’s desire for a larger building.  The new design resulted in a 25% overall increase in the building’s size.[9] Despite the delay in the construction schedule, the building was anticipated to be complete by August 1961, at which time the DOHPA was scheduled to hold its national convention in Saint Paul.

The local papers followed construction of the new DOHPA building with great interest – The Pioneer Press even going so far as to use the building to anchor the development section of the new “Progress Edition” – a special yearly paper devoted to examining the state of the city and its major industries – in 1960, 1961, and 1962.[10] A photo of the architectural model anchored the inaugural 1960 addition and a quarter page construction photo ran in the 1961 addition.

The building was indeed complete in time for the DOHPA’s national convention in 1961. The convention began with a dedication ceremony at the new building, where Dugan laid the cornerstone. The DOHPA took advantage of the press coverage surrounding the building’s dedication and the convention to finalize its rebranding efforts and roll out its modern image.

“The American woman has been misjudged,” [Mrs. Mehlberg, grand vice president of the Degree of Honor Protective Association] stated, in a Pioneer Press article covering the DOHPA convention and the “novel” idea of insurance for women “for I find that most women understand insurance easily and full realize how important all types of insurance are for the entire family.”[12] Similarly, DOHPA member Julia Doerting explained the organization’s long-term goals, “My Degree of Honor lodge wants to see that all women take an interest in insurance, because today’s woman is making money and she is out in the business world.”[13]

The DOHPA also used the new building as the cornerstone of their advertising campaign, running nearly full page ads in the Pioneer Press and Dispatch throughout the early 1960's. The advertisements, which prominently featured the new building along with headshots of DOHPA National President Edna Dugan and National Secretary Clara Bender, proclaimed “Proud of the Past, Building for the Future” and “Our Progress is 10 Stories High.” For Edna Dugan and the rest of the DOHPA, their new modern building combined with their fraternal past set their organization apart from any competitors, as DOHPA insurance offered both financial security and a supportive female social network. Moreover, the organization’s long-term female leadership set it apart in a male dominated field.

In many ways, the early years of the 1960's marked the pinnacle of the DOHPA’s influence as an organization. The 1961 completion of their modern headquarters on Cedar Street brought extensive media coverage and allowed for the DOHPA to successfully brand itself as a modern organization for modern women. Insurance in force was at an all-time high, having surpassed the 80 million dollar mark.[14] Though the organization fell out of the media spotlight by the end of the 1960s, their insurance in force continued its upward climb, reaching 85 million in 1966 and passing 100 million in 1979.[15] By 1985, that number reached 122 million.[16] The DOHPA sold the building at 325 Cedar in 1985, but continued to rent space in the building through the fall of 1993, when they moved their offices to another building in downtown Saint Paul. Today, the organization remains successful, with 43,277 members and $590,843,000 worth of insurance in force.

[1] One Hundred Years of Service, 14.

[2] One Hundred Years of Service, 14.

[3] Chuck Wahlberg, interview.

[4] “Degree of Honor to have New Building,” Degree of Honor Review 62, no. 9 (1958).

[5] “Growing with the Times,” Degree of Honor Review 63, no. 5 (1959).

[6] “New Building Notes,” Degree of Honor Review, 63, no. 2 (1959). “Our Building Project,” Degree of Honor Review, 63, no. 3 (1959).

[7] Chuck Wahlberg, interview.

[8] “Degree of Honor Plans Expanded - Work Begins on Loop Building,” Pioneer Press (Saint Paul, MN), A1, February 27, 1960.

[9] “Degree of Honor Plans Expanded - Work Begins on Loop Building,” Pioneer Press (Saint Paul, MN), A1, February 27, 1960.

[10] The Pioneer Press “Progress Editions” were published on January 17, 1960, January 15, 1961, and January 14, 1962.

[12] “Degree of Honor President is Devoted to Her Work,” Pioneer Press (Saint Paul, MN), A7, August 10, 1961.

[13] “Women’s Ignorance of Insurance Seen,” Pioneer Press (Saint Paul, MN), A5, August 11, 1961.

[14] “Degree of Honor President…”

[15] Degree of Honor Review 71, no. 3 (1967).

[16] Degree of Honor Review 83, no. 2 (1978).

Degree of HonorLaurel Fritz