Theodore Wirth and the Minneapolis Park System

Minneapolitans know the name, Theodore Wirth, because it is attached to a park and a parkway.  But most Minneapolitans probably don’t know who Wirth was or why they should care about him. They should know and care because Theodore Wirth is without doubt the person most responsible for the high quality of our city’s park system – a system that has been designated “best in the nation” many times by numerous organizations.

In 1905, Wirth, a landscape architect, was superintendent of the park system in Hartford, Connecticut, when Charles Loring, representing the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, recruited him to the Minneapolis Park System.  Wirth agreed to become superintendent in Minneapolis, but only on the condition that the Park Board would build a home for him and his family. He further stipulated that the house must be in a city park because he wanted to be able to observe people actually using the parks.

Loring and his fellow commissioners were happy to comply.  Completed in 1910 and tucked into a hillside in Lyndale Farmstead Park, the house was co-designed by Wirth and architect Lowell Lamoreaux. Three upper floors became the Wirth family home. The lower level contains Wirth’s office and a large room where his staff of draftsmen helped him design and re-design nearly all of Minneapolis’s parks.  David C. Smith, in City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks, shows that Wirth was a magnificent earth-mover.  Under his direction, the city lakes were dredged so that their shores could be transformed from swampy to terra firma.  Under Wirth’s direction, nearly all of our wonderful system of parkways was constructed. Wirth also oversaw the construction of neighborhood parks all over the city.  He was superintendent from 1906 to 1935 – and then continued living in the house and working in the office (with the honorary title, Superintendent Emeritus), for nearly the rest of his life.  In 1949, he passed away at age 86.

About 10 years ago, my long-time friend, Joan Berthiaume, recruited me to join an organization called The Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society (M.P.L.S.).  She had started the organization with Ted J. Wirth (1927-2009), Theodore Wirth’s namesake and grandson. Since then, M.P.L.S. has shepherded the Wirth house onto the National Register of Historic Places and filled the house with period-appropriate artifacts and furniture, including many items that were owned by the Wirth family.  Up until a few years ago, we conducted tours in the house, showing people how the Wirths lived and how Theodore worked. We have been out of action for a while, but now I’m happy to say that M.P.L.S. is back in the house, and that we will be conducting tours throughout the remainder of the summer and fall of 2018. For tour details, email joanberthiaume@msn.com

About the author
Richard Kronick is a freelance writer, writing trainer, architectural historian, and musician. He is co-author, with Rick Harrison, of Prefurbia: Redesigning the Suburbs from Disdainable to Sustainable. More than 100 of Richard’s articles about architecture and engineering have appeared in national and regional journals and magazines. He is a past-president of the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) and founded the chapter's newsletter, With Respect to Architecture. He teaches, lectures, and leads tours on architectural history for the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other organizations. He has presented papers at conferences of SAH, The Walter Burley Griffin Society, and the Midwest Art History Society. He is an expert on the architecture of Purcell & Elmslie.

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