Theodore Wirth Gets a New Home…and Office

I think I’ve finally got it: the last chapter in the saga of building a house for celebrated Minneapolis parks superintendent Theodore Wirth at Lyndale Farmstead. The ending is much more intriguing  than I had previously known. I discovered it just a little more than 100 years after the construction of the house! The story told in the Lyndale Farmstead pages at minneapolisparks.org is true—as far as it goes.

The comptroller of Minneapolis, Dan Brown, did indeed refuse to countersign the contract between the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners and C. P. Johnson and Son to build a house for Theodore Wirth at Lyndale Farmstead, a Minneapolis park. I had previously assumed that because the house was built in 1910 anyway, that the park board had found a way around getting Mr. Brown’s John Hancock on a contract. That was my mistake. The park board finally did get Dan Brown to countersign the contract, but it took a bit of legal work—and a divided opinion by the Minnesota Supreme Court.The fact that none of this appears in any park board documents is striking to me. The board and its attorney, Chelsea Rockwood, appear not to have wanted much publicity for these events despite their ultimate triumph in the affair.

Theodore Wirth at his desk in early 1900s. Location unknown. The map on the wall behind his desk is of a park in Hartford, Connecticut, where Wirth was employed before he came to Minneapolis in 1906. (Courtesy Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

When Brown refused to sign the contract to build a house for Wirth because it was “illegal,” he wrote, to spend public money for a private residence, the contractor, Charles Johnson and his son Carl, were not happy. They filed suit in Hennepin County District Court to force Brown to sign the contract.

Brown responded that he had refused to sign on advice of his counsel because the building “is not intended for an administrative office of the Parks of the City of Minneapolis. That only two rooms in the entire building of three stories and basement are in any manner whatever devoted to public purposes. That as a matter of fact there is not enough space in said building devoted to park purposes to anywhere near accommodate the need of the park board but is only a convenient pretense, and that the same was never intended for an administrative building, but merely to furnish to the superintendent of parks a handsome residence convenient to the work rooms of the park department, and while it might be convenient, the park board of the City of Minneapolis has no power in law to furnish to its superintendent a private residence at public expense.”

The attorneys for Brown and the Johnsons stipulated many of the facts of the case before pleadings were submitted. Stipulations included that the park board owned the land, that two rooms in the basement measuring approximately 39 feet by 13½ feet would be an office and drafting room, that the remainder of the house was to be used as a residence for the superintendent of parks, and that the aggregate cost of the building would be $10,000 and “in the neighborhood of $9,000” without the office and drafting room.

Theodore Wirth, about 1930, in living room of house built for him at Lyndale Farmstead. (Minnesota Historical Society negative 77420.)

Judge Andrew Hatch issued his ruling March 12, 1910 (Hennepin County District Court 111864). He ruled in Dan Brown’s favor. He reviewed the responsibilities of the park board and the rationale offered for the Superintendent to live near work being done at the Farmstead. He noted, however, “It appears that only two moderate rooms in the basement are to be devoted for the public business, the balance of a rather elaborate building is set apart for a home of the Superintendent.” Judge Hatch then asked, “If the Board may use funds raised for the maintenance of parks and devote grounds acquired for the use of all inhabitants of the city for a home for one employee, is there any legal obstacle to claiming the right to do so for others.” He concluded that the Legislature never intended by the Park Board Act to confer on the board “the authority to erect homes in the parks for any of its employees.”

J. Arthur Ridgway, secretary to the Board of Park Commissioners, told a reporter from the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (March 13, 1910) that the park board would appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court and that he anticipated a “favorable appeal.” Ridgway noted that the house was to be built on property donated by James J. Hill and Thomas Lowry specifically for an administration building and that “no individual would be robbed of any park privileges if the superintendent’s residence were built at Lyndale Farmstead.”

A majority of Minnesota’s Supreme Court justices saw things as Ridgway did in a ruling issued May 13, 1910 (111 Minn. 80, 126 N.W. 408). Writing for the majority, Justice Jaggard claimed the only issue was whether the board of park commissioners had the  power to erect on park property a dwelling that would also contain offices. He cited the section of the park board act that gave the board the authority to acquire land and “to hold, improve, govern and administer” the land for park purposes. While conceding that having the superintendent living on park premises was not a necessity, he cited the administrative advantages of having the superintendent in close proximity. Writing that the question was one of the reasonable discretion of the park board unless decisions appeared arbitrary or the result of fraud, he ordered the decision of the lower court reversed.

Justice Brown dissented, unable, he wrote, to concur in the proposition that the power to erect a house for the park superintendent “exists by implication.” Brown asserted that the power in question was one that only the Legislature could expressly confer and that the charter powers of municipal corporations must be strictly construed.

The final result? The Minneapolis Morning Tribune’s article on the decision on May 14, 1910 included this subhead: “Mr. Wirth Dee-lighted.”

The article also related a fact not found elsewhere in my research: the basement, which contained the only portion of the house to be used for park business, had already been constructed before the contract for the rest of the house was given to Johnson and Son. Mr. Wirth said he expected the construction of the rest of the house to “proceed at once.”

Theodore Wirth near the time of his retirement in late 1935. Wirth served as superintendent of Minneapolis parks for 30 years. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Wirth and his family moved into the ten-room residence portion of the house in 1910 and remained there until 1945, ten years after he retired as superintendent of Minneapolis parks. At that time he moved to San Diego for health reasons.

David C. Smith, minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

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3 comments so far

  1. [...] Beyond providing a home office for Wirth, that is likely an exaggeration. (Read the whole story of the “administration building” subterfuge [...]

  2. [...] 1.78 acres. Acquired from James J. Hill and Thomas Lowry in 1909 as part of the land donated for a superintendent’s house. Theodore Wirth  recommended selling the land in the 1912 Annual Report and using the proceeds to [...]

  3. [...] board’s case for retaining control over park funds. The park board’s decision to build a house at Lyndale Farmstead  in 1910, and a very nice house, for Wirth, which it had a right to do according to a divided [...]


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