Phelps Wyman: Pioneer Landscape Architect and Minneapolis Park Commissioner
Several pioneer landscape architects were associated with Minneapolis parks, from Horace W. S. Cleveland, in a very big way, to Warren H. Manning, more modestly, to Frederick Law Olmsted, who once wrote a letter to Minneapolis park commissioners at Cleveland’s request. But only one pioneer landscape architect was also elected to the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners: Phelps Wyman. (He never used his first name, Alanson, so I won’t either.) Wyman’s pioneer status in landscape architecture was determined by Charles A. Birnbaum and Robin Karson in Pioneers of American Landscape Design, which profiles about 150 American landscape architects.
Wyman is also one of a very few landscape architects not employed by the Minneapolis park board to have had designs for Minneapolis parks published in annual reports of the park board. The 1922 annual report presented Wyman’s plan for Douglas Triangle, now Thomas Lowry Park, which I wrote about here. This plan was executed in 1923. Curiously, I can find no record that Wyman was paid for the work.
The next year he had another interesting plan published in the park board’s annual report, but it was never implemented. Wyman’s plan for Washburn Fair Oaks Park across from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) anticipated that William Washburn’s Fair Oaks mansion would be razed; it still stood at the time Wyman’s plan was published. Wyman’s plan to create an approach or setting for the MIA represented more closely than anything before or since what early supporters of the art institute likely had in mind in 1911 when the sites for the museum and the park were acquired.
Wyman’s plan created a much more formal setting for the art institute than Theodore Wirth had proposed in his “General Suggestive Plan” for the property in the park board’s 1914 annual report.
But neither the Douglas Triangle nor the Washburn Fair Oaks plan is my favorite Wyman design. That honor would go to the informal drawings published in the Minneapolis Tribune, Jan. 22, 1922, in which Wyman illustrated how the Lyndale-Hennepin traffic bottleneck at Lowry Hill could be addressed by construction of a large European-style traffic circle. The traffic circle would have been placed between Virginia Triangle and Lowry Triangle described in “Lost Minneapolis Parks.” (See the “Category” list on the right margin.)
An indication of the passions aroused by the Lowry Hill bottleneck is found in Neal Baxter’s funny comment posted on the “City of Parks” page on this blog:
I fondly remember my mother, an otherwise very polished lady, opening the car door as we drove through the Bottle Neck and spitting on the street. I took this as a critique. In memory she carried out this act of defiance each time we crossed the intersection of Lyndale & Hennepin.
— Neal Baxter (For a rich lode of historical Minneapolis election data that exists nowhere else, and some great stories, see Neal’s website electiontrendsproject.org.)
Maybe if the “bottleneck” had been converted into Wyman’s traffic circle in the 1920s, I-94 would have been configured differently 40 years later and we wouldn’t have that gaping wound of a freeway through what should be one of the most beautiful sections of Minneapolis.
Many of the details of Wyman’s career as a landscape architect are included in his bio in the Birnbaum/Karson book cited above. (You can read the Wyman pages in that book by looking it up on amazon.com and using the “Look Inside” feature, but I’d recommend you add the book to your library if you have enough interest in the history of American landscape design to have read this post this far!) But I’d like to add a few notes of interest that weren’t included in that book.
The Importance of City Planning
As Wyman’s plan to resolve the traffic bottleneck at Lowry Hill suggests, Wyman’s influence in Minnesota was probably greater on the subject of city planning than on landscape design. As a public speaker and writer he was an advocate for city planning when it was just beginning to be recognized as a proper function of municipal government.
Speaking at the second annual convention of the League of Minnesota Municipalities in 1914, Wyman advocated government supervision of platting and the location of main thoroughfares. He took the subject further in his proposal to the Minneapolis City Council, on behalf of the Civic and Commerce Association in 1915, that would have required county approval of all new plats in harmony with topography and the environment, as well as efficiency, sanitation and ease of communication. The city council did not pass Wyman’s proposal, in part, because council members were not keen on ceding any authority to county commissioners. Wyman’s reason for giving the county authority was, as he noted in a 1914 speech, that he foresaw some “districts” in the county becoming part of Minneapolis at a future time. (Other than the annexation of part of Richfield on its southern border in 1926, Minneapolis’s borders did not change.)
Wyman took his advocacy for city planning beyond Minnesota, too. He was named to the city planning committee of the American Civic Association in 1916, before he ran for a seat on the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. His interest and authority on the subject of city planning were recognized by park commissioners in December 1919 when the board elected Wyman to represent the park board on a new City Planning Commission. Wyman became the chair of the Zoning Committee for the planning commission and was instrumental in creating the first zoning regulations for Minneapolis.
Great Challenge during Great War
In September 1918 Wyman requested a leave of absence from the park board to enter government service during the Great War. Unlike his fellow park commissioner, Leo Harris, (whose story is told here), Wyman did not enlist in the Armed Forces. Wyman was nearly 50 at the time, so not good doughboy material. Instead, he went to Washington, D.C. to work for the United States Housing Corporation (USHC). As the U. S. Government geared up to fight a war, it needed a significant work force at munitions plants and shipyards around the country. The problem was a shortage of housing for those workers. The USHC was created to design and build the housing, and the infrastructure and support services, that workers and their families would need — essentially whole new towns from the ground up.
Wyman worked in the Town Planning Division of the USHC in D. C. under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Although Wyman didn’t request an official leave of absence until September 1918, he had not attended park board meetings since early July that year. With the armistice signed in November 1918, however, Wyman’s service, and the USHC, weren’t needed for long. Wyman was back in Minneapolis for the April 2, 1919 meeting of the park board, at which he gave this brief account of his time away:
“(Wyman) stated his special work was to see to the planning of parks and playgrounds for the use of employees in the vicinity of large ammunition plants. He also stated that he had been located in Washington and, while the parks there were not developed to a very great extent, the triangles and circles were made much of and helped to make Washington the beautiful city that it is, and suggested that the Board of Park Commissioners improve every such opportunity in Minneapolis.”
– Proceedings, Board of Park Commissioners, Minneapolis, April 2, 1919 (The Washington, D.C. treatment of Dupont Circle and others likely informed Wyman’s preference for a traffic circle at the Lowry Hill bottleneck in Minneapolis.)
The USHC attracted many of the leading landscape architects, architects and city planners in the country at the time. In addition to Olmsted, Stephen Child and John Nolen, other notable landscape architects, such as Henry V. Hubbard, Leon Zack and S. Herbert Hare, all of whom served at some time as president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), worked for USHC. Wyman’s service may have garnered him some attention among his peers, because later in 1919 he was elected to ASLA’s Board of Trustees. He was the only trustee at the time who lived west of New York City. Two other Minneapolis landscape architects also worked for USHC: Charles Ramsdell and Arthur Nichols.
A cool website about the USHC has been created by MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph for those who want to know more about one of the first government-related efforts to create standards in town planning.
Mrs. Phelps Wyman
If someone wants a fascinating research subject, I’d suggest Phelps Wyman’s wife, nee Martha Scott Anderson. She was a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal and Minneapolis Times who married Wyman in her parents home in Minneapolis in 1905. I have no idea how Phelps and Martha met. He was just beginning teaching at the University of Illinois, to which he travelled from his Chicago home. He remained a professor at Illinois until 1910 when he and Martha moved to Minneapolis and he opened a private landscape architecture practice here. Martha, always cited as Mrs. Phelps Wyman after their marriage, was a leading campaigner for women’s voting rights and the first president of the Minneapolis chapter of the Audubon Society.
Phelps Wyman left Minneapolis in 1924 to become the landscape architect for the Milwaukee County park authority. When park commissioners from Milwaukee visited Minneapolis in July 1923 it was Wyman who introduced a resolution at the Minneapolis park board to host the visitors at dinner. A year later they lured Wyman away from Minneapolis. He resigned, with regret, from the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners in September 1924. He remained with Milwaukee County parks for only two years, but stayed in Milwaukee after he left the park job and opened a private practice there. He died in 1947.
Phelps Wyman and Minnehaha Creek
Residents of southwest Minneapolis owe Phelps Wyman a special debt: in 1919 he was the first park commissioner to propose that the park board acquire Minnehaha Creek west of Humboldt Avenue (at Lynnhurst Park, south of Lake Harriet) to the western city limit at Zenith Avenue. This was one of the few requests to obtain new parkland that came from a commissioner, not residents of an area. In fact, many residents of the area opposed the acquisition, which delayed it until 1930. In the 1927 annual report, park board president Washington Yale wrote, “Unless this creek bed is soon acquired, it will, in a few years’ time, suffer the same fate of Bassett’s Creek and become a very unattractive covered drain.” Wyman had been gone from the city for six years already before the acquisition was completed.
Wyman wrote a great deal about both city planning and park design. Some of his writing is a bit hard to find, while other pieces, such as articles for Landscape Architecture and Parks and Recreation, are more accessible. I plan to read more of his writing and if I find anything of interest, I’ll post it here.
If you know more about Wyman, or about two other Minneapolis-based landscape architects cited in Birnbaum and Karson’s Pioneers book, Anthony U. Morrell and Arthur R. Nicholls, please send me a note.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith