Wirth House loses tenant

Early exit means parks icon up for rent

FOR RENT: Historic three-story, 5,000-sq.-ft. 1910 mansion surrounded by scenic Lyndale Farmstead Park. $750 per month includes electricity, water, maintenance. Available Sept. 30. Call Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for details.

If you're thinking of calling the Park Board to snatch up that prime property with the petite pricetag, hold the phone. They're not renting the place -- known to generations as the Theodore Wirth House -- to anyone just yet.

The current tenant, the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association (MRPA), is leaving the 3954 Bryant Ave. S. home at the end of September.

Michelle Snider, interim director of the MRPA, said the group is moving to Fridley, where it has secured offices offering "a long-term location plan for the next decade and beyond."

She said the MRPA -- currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Minneapolis Park and Recreation Interim Superintendent Jon Gurban -- began its search for a new headquarters while Gurban still ran MRPA.

Gurban left MRPA in January to take his current position. He sued the group in July, claiming it owes him more than $26,000 in accrued vacation and sick pay, penalties, interest and attorneys' fees.

MRPA filed a counterclaim, asking that Gurban's suit be dismissed and that he pay damages yet to be determined.

Gurban said the dueling lawsuits have "nothing to do with" MRPA vacating the Wirth House before its lease expires next summer.

The house is a symbol of the city's commitment to its famed park system -- whose development is largely credited to Wirth, the Parks Superintendent from 1905 to 1935.

Succeeding superintendents used the house until the mid-1990s. In 1997, MRPA moved in.

Gurban said he's not sure what will happen to Wirth House after MRPA leaves. In a memo to Park Board Commissioners, he wrote that staff recommended four possible options for the property:

– Make it part of an employment package for a future, permanent superintendent;

– Have Park Board staff use it;

– Find a commercial use; and/or

– Find potential community uses.

Joan Berthiaume, co-founder of the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, said her group, which includes Ted Wirth, grandson of Theodore Wirth, would like to create an interpretive learning center in the building.

"That house is the place in which every park in Minneapolis was either designed or redesigned. So the face and character of the city was really determined within that house," she said.

Her group would like to highlight that history for city residents, especially children.

MPRA, a nonprofit group, has leased the house for $9,000 per year, or $750 per month, with utilities included.

Park Board commissioner Vivian Mason has long felt the deal was too good for MRPA, even though it supports parks and recreation professionals. "The Park Board did all the maintenance on the building, paid for all the electrical and the other utilities."

Gurban -- MRPA director when the group began leasing the Wirth House -- said he simply accepted the Park

Board's deal.

"The MRPA is paying exactly the amount of rent that the Minneapolis Park Board requested. There was no negotiation on it. How the Minneapolis Park Board came up with that request for rent, I'm not sure of."

Mason suggests that MRPA hasn't even lived up to its end of an overly generous lease agreement.

According to a 1996 Southwest Journal article, Gurban said if the lease were approved, the MRPA would create a public historical display covering neighborhood history and a century of progress in the parks and recreation movement.

Said Mason, "They never did anything along those lines" and discouraged neighbors from using the building.

Gurban said the MRPA complied with all lease requirements. He said the only improvement MRPA agreed to provide was five air-conditioning units to the building, which it did, he said.

Assistant Parks Superintendent Michael Schmidt said, "I am not aware of any work that was covered under the lease that was not completed."

Gurban said told the East Harriet Neighborhood Association that it could display historical information about the neighborhood.

"They, of course, never came forward with any display of any sort," Gurban said.

Instead, MRPA had some Park Board photos framed and installed.