Superintendent seeks to use full Theodore Wirth House 

Front of Wirth House
Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura is seeking full use of the historic Theodore Wirth House at 39th & Bryant in his second lease of the property. File photo

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Al Bangoura is seeking use of the full Theodore Wirth House in his second lease of the building, a desire that has local history enthusiasts nervous they will lose access to the manor that serves as a part-time museum.

Bangoura, entering his second year leading the MPRB, wants to have full access to the historic East Harriet home in his new lease. The superintendent’s current lease grants him “exclusive use” of the top two floors of the home, while the first floor is maintained as a museum to Theodore Wirth by the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society (MPLS), which holds tours of the home one Sunday per month and at certain times during the week.

A new proposed lease, negotiated by Park Board President Jono Cowgill, would grant Bangoura full access to the home, and reduce MPLS rights to just six days per year. The lease is scheduled to be voted on by the Park Board Feb. 19, shortly after this publication went to press.

When Bangoura began leasing the home, he was living alone, but his wife and son have since joined him.

Members of the MPLS had expressed fears the new lease could mean less opportunity to conduct tours and have requested the Park Board maintain access for their work. The group is also concerned that full use of the home could put it at risk of missing out on historical grant funding.

The home at 39th & Bryant, on the grounds of Lyndale Farmstead Park, was built in 1911 and was where Wirth designed a number of city parks. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Previous superintendents have lived in the home over the years, including Bangoura’s predecessor, Jayne Miller. When Miller lived in the home, tours were not conducted for years; the MPLS resumed tours in October 2018 after Miller resigned.

The proposed lease calls for the home to be maintained to meet national historic landmark requirements, something local MPLS members had desired. The legacy society would have until May to remove all its property from the first floor of the home. Bangoura would also be required to open the home to the public on unspecified “key times” under the lease. 

Bangoura currently pays a $1,325 monthly rent for partial access to the home. The new lease gradually raises that rent to $2,000 per month in 2020 and $2,050 in 2021, with plans to renegotiate rental rates in 2022. The lease would run through Bangoura’s tenure as superintendent and all rent paid throughout the lease would go to a fund dedicated to improving the Wirth House.

Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6), who represents the area, has voiced support for a lease that will allow for the legacy society to continue its work.

“There’s got to be a way to do this without losing this incredible piece of history,” Bourn said.

Former City Council member Lisa McDonald, who pushed to get the Wirth home on the historic register, said she wants Bangoura to live there and for the tours to continue. “Tours should also continue in the home because they provide a backdrop and understanding of how Wirth came to his decisions about park design and use and that parks should be for the people,” McDonald said.

Advocates in the African American community have asked Bangoura to be given full access to the home and expressed concerns that the legacy society is disrespecting the first black family to live in the home by pushing for public access. Cynthia Wilson, of the Minneapolis NAACP, told commissioners the organization had been meeting to discuss how to support more privacy for the Bangoura family.

“We are very much appalled at what we’ve heard,” Wilson said.

Cowgill, who was charged with negotiating the lease, expressed a desire to find a compromise. 

“I think we can create space for many histories,” Cowgill said.