Wirth-while parks

Front of Wirth House
The Theodore Wirth House at 3954 Bryant Ave. S. served as both Wirth’s residence and the Park Board’s administrative offices. Photos by Adam Jonas

Much of what we know and love about Minneapolis parks had humble beginnings in the basement of a home at 40th & Bryant. An early example of a live/work space, the residence was completed in 1910 as part of a deal to woo a young landscape designer named Theodore Wirth from the east coast to Minneapolis. The investment was a great one for Minneapolitans, as Wirth would become the longest serving superintendent of our park system and arguably the most influential to date.

Wirth had compiled a significant portfolio working alongside Frederick Law Olmstead on prominent projects (such as Central Park and Niagara Falls) but also claimed his own fame as park superintendent in Hartford, Connecticut, where he created the first municipal rose garden in the nation. The Lyndale Park Rose Garden soon became the second, and both were revolutionary because rose gardens during that time were only found in private estates — not the public realm.

The attitude of the Victorian era toward parks was “look but do not touch.” Children were discouraged from being in the parks, and walking was allowed only on designated paths. Imagine: no baseball diamonds, soccer fields or playgrounds! Wirth thought otherwise. He believed parks should be used by all people and worked hard to change the attitude of the era to become more inclusive and engaged with nature. After arriving in Minneapolis, he swiftly removed “keep off the grass” signs to encourage people to move freely through open spaces and brought playgrounds into the hearts of parks throughout the city.

Wirth Home
Wirth carried out the planning of the Chain of Lakes park system in the basement studio of the house.

As Minneapolis grew, Wirth directed its expansion to strategically feature parks. During his 30-year tenure, Wirth nearly tripled the size of the park system while ensuring every home would be within an approximately six-block walk of a playground. His planning influenced everything from maintenance (he tasked a herd of sheep to “mow” the grass) to the Chain of Lakes (transforming swampland into a public amenity) to the airport (acquiring land before aviation became a popular form of transportation). Wirth and his staff carried out all of this planning in the basement studio of his house at 3954 Bryant Ave. S.

The home — officially an “administration building” — was intentionally built in the middle of Lyndale Farmstead, so that he could be more connected to the landscape as he designed the surrounding farm into parkland; in the early 1900s the area was truly a farmstead, complete with fields and barns. The drawings produced in this setting — a drafting room the size of a studio apartment built into the park’s hillside — were extremely thoughtful yet not overbearing. His designs firmly placed primary elements, such as buildings, water features and playgrounds, but pathways were often drawn as dashed lines — indicating where people might go rather than prescribing where they should go. He’d then observe how people used the space once those elements were installed and then had paths built according to user patterns.

Extraordinary designers plan beyond their own life span, envisioning the future for generations to come. Wirth designed with a deep understanding of how vegetation would transform the landscape a century after being planted, and we are still enjoying the fruition of his vision. The next time you find yourself sledding down the hill at Lyndale Farmstead you might look over at the historic home and imagine Wirth alongside a half dozen draftspeople designing the city to be a better place for all. This spirit lives on as the next era of park planning is underway.

Projected Park Systems Map

Tour the Wirth Home

The Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society is providing free guided tours (noon–4 p.m.) on Sept. 22, Oct. 20, Nov. 24 and Dec. 8. Weekday tours may be scheduled by calling 612-275-8884 or emailing [email protected].

To share your favorite park experience or memories, email Adam Jonas at [email protected]