The Beginnings of a Garden
One hundred years ago next week, Theodore Wirth made a request of the Minneapolis park board that made possible one of Minneapolis’s most cherry-ished landmarks — and parks. The park superintendent who was known for his passion for gardens — and also for hiring a talented full-time park florist, Louis Boeglin — asked the park board to approve preparing a square of ground next to the Minnesota National Guard Armory for a garden. At least for a summer.
The Society of American Florists and Ornamental Horticulturists (SAFOH) were holding their national convention at the Armory in August 1913. The Armory had been built in 1906 between Kenwood Parkway and Vineland Place adjacent to a park known as The Parade. To the east of the Armory, bordering on Lyndale Avenue, was an empty plot of ground that Thomas Lowry had donated to the park board in 1906. It was that square that Wirth asked for. The park board approved Wirth’s request the day he made it — March 4, 1913 — for the “free use” of the space by SAFOH for “an extensive display of outdoor plants consisting of the best adapted hardy and tender plants that can be used for the decoration of public and private grounds and of plant novelties that are not yet known to many florists.”
To prepare for this test garden, the board authorized Wirth to provide the property with “the necessary dressing of good loam,” which the board would pay for from funds allocated for The Parade.
As recently as 1911 Wirth had proposed to use the space for tennis courts, in keeping with the active recreation focus of the park, but those courts were not built. (See plan in 1911 Annual Report.)
The Minneapolis Tribune enthused that the garden would be one of the “most beautiful and extraordinary displays that the city has ever enjoyed.” The Tribune estimated (April 20) that some bulbs to be planted, which began arriving from florists around the country in April, were valued at up to $100 each and, therefore, a guard would be posted at the garden site.
As the dates of the convention approached much was written in local newspapers about the floral display that would inform and entertain 1,500 guests from around the country who would make Minneapolis the “floral capital of the country” for a week (Tribune, August 10, 1913). Private railroad cars were to bring florists from the major eastern cities and so many florists were coming from, or through, Chicago that both the Milwaukee Road and Great Northern had dedicated trains from there solely for convention goers.
The Tribune observed that membership in the Society was “coveted” because there was an “exchange of courtesies” among members, such as the “invaluable service” of a “telegraph order system between cities.” Many of us have used the FTD — originally Florists’ Telegraph Delivery — system, which was created in 1910, only a few years before the Minneapolis convention. The image of Mercury, at left, was first used in 1914.
The garden was such a huge hit — with florists and Minneapolis citizens — that one park commissioner recommended keeping the garden and naming it the Wirth Botanical Garden. Wirth, who was vice president of the national society before the convention, was unanimously elected president of the national organization while it was in session in Minneapolis.
The park board did support the continuation of the garden the following year and it became a popular attraction for decades, in part because of the labels that identified the plants. But the garden was never named for Wirth. It was referred to as the “Armory Garden” until the Armory was demolished in 1934. At that time the land where the Armory stood was donated to the park board. After that the garden became known as “Kenwood Garden.” Those floral gardens, introduced as a concept 100 years ago next week, unquestionably facilitated the current use of the grounds as quite a different type of garden.
For the rest of the garden’s story, look for a documentary being produced by tpt and the Walker Art Center this spring in celebration of the 25th birthday of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It is scheduled to premier in late May.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
NOTE May 30,2013: The tpt documentary can now be viewed here.
© David C. Smith 2013