Ted Wirth works to rekindle the memory of his grandfather, Theodore Wirth, a visionary behind the city's park system
Retired landscape architect Ted Wirth, 80, speaks softly. Usually, he totes a portable microphone to amplify his barely audible words. His hands are shaky. He is struggling with Parkinson's disease.
Today, Ted will do his best to talk loudly enough without it. He is sitting in a meeting room of the Lyndale Farmstead Park building, clutching a cane topped by a silver, well-worn carving of a bird - against the backdrop of the house he played in as a child.
The 1910 house - called the Theodore Wirth Home and Administration Building - is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The home at 3945 Bryant Ave. S. is the center of a final project for Ted. It was home to his grandfather, Theodore Wirth, who is largely credited with designing the city's parks. It was also Ted's childhood playground.
The Dutch colonial house tucked onto the hillside of Lyndale Farmstead Park currently serving as a temporary office space for park staff was constructed to lure Theodore from Hartford, Conn. to Minneapolis in 1906. The same house drew Ted to Minneapolis from Billings, Mont., a century later.
His mission is to restore the home's fading memory and shed light on the early park movement his grandfather helped shape. Ted wants to turn the house into a museum. To accomplish it, he has formed the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society (MPLS) with his friend and business partner Joan Berthiaume, a Linden Hills resident.
Ted, whose namesake is his grandfather (his full name is Theodore), also grew up to be a landscape architect. He was the oldest grandchild and the third and last generation in the family to uphold a career in parks. Ted's father, Conrad, was the longest-serving director of the National Park Service.
Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said the Wirths' contributions are untold.
“It's very telling that he [Ted] made the journey back to Minneapolis. He came to improve the park system just as his grandfather did. It's a pilgrimage that runs in the family,” she said. “It's a great testament to their belief in parks and this place and in parks in this place.”
A life in the park
During his tenure as the park system's foremost landscape gardener from 1906 to 1936, Theodore tripled park property, cultivated the nation's first rose garden at Lake Harriet, created playgrounds and dredged the lakes. As a testimony to his vision, Minneapolis parks have been rated number one by the Playground and Recreation Association of America since 1928.
Theodore and a team of draftsman labored in the basement where big windows afforded a picturesque view of the park, where children sledded and played soccer. His and other Wirths' gravesites are also in view of the park, at Lakewood Cemetery.
Last year, the house attracted more than 1,000 visitors in a handful of tours. MPLS reconstructs Theodore's office according to old photos. Some artifacts come from Wirth descendants around the world.
On July 15, from noon-4 p.m., tourists walking through the house can see the Wirth children's sleeping room, the cabinet where Theodore secretly stowed his liquor during Prohibition days and offices where many of the plans for the city's parks were drawn.
Bob Brisson, 80, Theodore's chauffeur in the '40s, will probably drive Ted to the house during the tour. He remembers conversations with Theodore, who frequently talked about the parks, saying things like, “See that park? That used to be a swamp!”
One tour guide, Ella Beaudoin, 12, who recently won a National Geographic essay contest about a special tree in Theodore Wirth Park, recently met Ted. He explained that Theodore wanted children to play in the park, which defied Victorian conventions.
“One of the things I like most about Mr. Wirth, he took off the ‘don't play on the grass' signs and instructed police to let them play. I think that's really cool,” she said. “It was really, really amazing just meeting someone like that.”
Keeper of the legacy
Joan Berthiaume is well versed in Wirth lore. She can tell you the date that a photo of young Ted was taken in the Lake Harriet Rose Garden, identify the faces in old photos, and name Ted's children and grandchildren. When Ted's voice falters, she can speak for him. “It's a blessing and a big responsibility. But I think others should get to know what we know,” she said.
It all started with a phone call in 1999. A rare book written by Theodore Wirth in 1947 called “The History of the Minneapolis Park System,” sparked her interest. She called Ted with many unanswered questions about the parks. Days after they talked, Berthiaume received a box in the mail filled with original documents related to the parks.
That began a love affair with the history of the park system. Wirth has entrusted Berthiaume with his entire collection of parks paraphernalia, stored mainly in her basement. Wirth memorabilia has overtaken every room in her home with everything from Theodore's earliest letters of recommendation to a scrapbook with yellowed newspaper clippings that dubbed him, “The Idealist.”
There's a sense of urgency to her charge. “Someone has to do this,” she said, about converting the Theodore Wirth house into a museum while Ted is still able to lend his expertise and memories.
Ted designed the Theodore Wirth Interpretative Statue Garden unveiled in 2004 at Theodore Wirth Park. It's a bronze figure of his grandfather surrounded by children running, sledding, swimming and more. The statue's hands were modeled after Ted's.
Because Ted and his grandfather share a name and a career, some people can't tell them apart even though Ted is the only one still living. Like his grandfather, Ted is an internationally renowned landscape architect. He's a fellow and former president of the Society of Landscape Architects. But he's modest about measuring up.
“These are giant shoes I can't begin to fill, but I followed anyway,” Ted said. “If I didn't do it, who will?”
As a symbolic gesture, Ted pulled out a decorative pin from his pocket and fixed it to his wrinkle-free, button-down shirt. It depicts the flags of Switzerland and the U.S., as an illustration of his grandfather's immigration to the U.S.
Ted said he learned landscape architecture by osmosis. As a youngster, he frequently worked in the parks and gardens. But officially, his park work began in 1944, building and repairing paths of Yellowstone National Park in a trail crew. He trained as an engineer in the Navy and later studied landscape architecture in St. Paul at St. Thomas University.
In 1961, he opened a private practice in Billings, called Wirth Design Associates, that he closed in 2004. It had several offices and up to 100 employees at one time. Eventually, Ted returned to Minneapolis to help conceive over 60 miles of bike trails along Cedar Lake in the '70s-'80s and transformed Boom Island from an industrial wasteland into well-loved park.
Ted has designed and developed over 550 urban, state, and national parks and recreation projects. Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park are included in his oeuvre. He also designed the first national park system in Saudi Arabia.
“Everyone, everywhere, wants the same things for their public spaces,” Ted was quoted in a letter Berthiaume wrote, nominating him for the prestigious Cornelius Amory Pugsley Award. “Humanity should be able to find common ground through their public parks.”
Colorado landscape architect Dan Miller worked under Ted on numerous projects.
“I learned how to design trails, how to make the product you're putting on the ground fit with the curves,” he said of Ted's influence. “The land has a carrying capacity. You have to find that level. It can't be all buildings. Open land is the backbone of a project and what makes it special.”
“We're trying to look forward 100 years, so we need to look back at what shaped the last 100 years. We're kind of at a pivotal moment,” said Nordstrom.
Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or email@example.com.