Volunteer group, Park Board at odds over Wirth House restoration work

EAST HARRIET - A long-running dispute over the direction of an historic Park Board property boiled over again this month when a volunteer group accused the Board of improperly restoring a fireplace.

The group's founders were asked to leave the Theordore Wirth House on Feb. 9 after arguing with workers about the historical integrity of bricks being used to reconstruct the fireplace.

&#8220This is not the material the original fireplace was made of,” Joan Berthiume hollered at the masons as she held one of the bricks in her right hand. &#8220I just know it was tile.”

Berthiume, co-founder of the Minneapolis Park Legacy Society, has been working for several years with Wirth's grandson, Ted Wirth, to create a Theodore Wirth museum in the house.

She says they've repeatedly found themselves at odds with certain Park Board members and staff, who say they have questions about the proposal and would like to honor all the superintendents who lived in the house, not just Wirth.

The Wirth House, in Lyndale Farmstead Park, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2002 and is the site where Theodore Wirth designed much of Minneapolis' park system.

The house was built to lure Wirth into taking the top job with the park system, Berthiume said, and until a decade ago, every superintendent after him lived in the house, too.

Tracy Nordstrom, vice president of the Park Board, said the clash of visions predates her time on the Board, but she's trying to serve as a middle ground to help the two sides work out their problems.

&#8220Joan has this great vision for preserving the history of the park system. My sense is that the staff would like to see a broader focus on all the superintendents,” Nordstrom said. &#8220I haven't seen an official proposal from either side.”

The Park Board, which owns the house, currently uses it for office space, something the Board has a shortage of, Nordstrom said. It previously leased the space to a recreation association, which left the house in September 2004.

The Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society has been allowed to give historic tours of the house since 2001, but Berthiume said she wants the building open to the public as a museum every day. The society asked to lease the house after the recreation association left.

Berthiume said there's a precedent for groups like hers renting and operating historic properties in the park system. She points to the Ard Godfrey House and the Stevens House.

But Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine said the Wirth House is a much larger building than those examples, and that the Board needs a much more detailed, long-range proposal before it hands over control to an outside group.

&#8220I've never gotten any concrete terms. I would like to see terms, beyond a lease proposal,” Fine said. &#8220There's a lot of questions that haven't been answered.”

As for the fireplace, Park Board Public Relations Manager Dawn Sommers said staff is working with the Hennepin County History Museum. She pointed to a 1930 photograph of Theodore Wirth reading a newspaper next to the fireplace. It looks strikingly similar to what workers reconstructed this month, Sommers said.

Berthiume has the same photo, and it doesn't sway her opinion.

Where the Park Board sees brick, Berthiume sees tile.

Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or dhaugen@mnpubs.com.