Archive for the ‘Phelps Park’ Tag

Defining Wirth

The Minneapolis Park Board and Hennepin County Library report that we are probably only weeks away from the transfer of the park board’s historical archives to the downtown Minneapolis library. A valuable trove of historical information will be preserved, protected and made available to the public as never before.

1927-christmas-card

Theodore Wirth outside the house built by the park board at Lyndale Farmstead in 1910. This 1927 Christmas card was found in the park board files moved from the City Hall clock tower to park board headquarters to prepare them for their imminent transfer to the Hennepin County Library. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Among the more intriguing documents discovered in preparing those archives for transfer to a better place was a letter from Theodore Wirth to Charles Loring, July 4, 1905, after Wirth visited Minneapolis to consider taking the position of Superintendent of Parks. Upon returning to his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he held a similar position, Wirth wrote to thank Loring for his hospitality and, more importantly, to outline his terms for accepting the position in Minneapolis.

The letter was an exciting discovery because for many years I and others have looked for evidence that Loring and the park board had agreed in 1905 to build a house for Wirth. That house was eventually built in 1910, four years after Wirth came to Minneapolis, at Lyndale Farmstead on Bryant Avenue near Lake Harriet. Theodore Wirth lived in the house until 1945, ten years after he retired as park superintendent. It was occupied by succeeding superintendents from then until David Fisher moved out of the house to one of his own choosing in the mid-1990s. The house became the residence of the superintendent once again in 2010, however, when Jayne Miller chose to live there when she moved to Minneapolis.

The construction of a house on park property for Wirth was very controversial in 1910. The park board’s authority to build it was challenged in court. The park board justified its decision in part by claiming that the structure was not just a residence, but an administration building — and also claimed that the house fulfilled a condition of Wirth’s employment years earlier.

Although park board plans to build the house as a residence for Wirth survived a court challenge — by a split vote in the Minnesota Supreme Court — historians, including me, had found no proof that the park board had agreed to provide housing for Wirth. I had seen a copy of Wirth’s five-page letter from 1905 proposing the terms of his employment, but the pertinent portions of that copy were utterly illegible. Now, we can read them in Wirth’s original ink.

1905-07-04-letter-to-cml-p4-rev-excerpt

In his July 4, 1905 letter Wirth wrote that among his conditions for accepting the park superintendent’s job in Minneapolis, “I would expect that as soon as circumstances permit I be furnished a house and privileges similar to what I am having now.” As superintendent of parks in Hartford, Connecticut, Wirth and his family lived on the second floor of a large house that stood on land donated as a park to Hartford. The ground floor of that house served as a concession stand and visitors center.  (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

In a subsequent letter to Loring, Wirth wrote that while he was torn between staying in Hartford or moving to Minneapolis, he had stated his terms for accepting the Minneapolis job and the park board had agreed to them, so he felt honor-bound to accept the new job. That is as close as we can get, without seeing Loring’s actual response to Wirth, to knowing that Loring and the park board had agreed to meet Wirth’s expectation of a house.

Why had the original letter been missing for so long? We found it in a file of park board correspondence not from 1905, but 1911! No one ever would have looked for it there. I suspect it was filed there after the court case had been decided and the supporting documents were no longer needed and were thrown into a current file. It probably hadn’t been looked at between 1911 and last summer.

Proper Attribution: A Park within a Half-mile of Every Residence?

Another discovery of interest to me in the documents soon to take up permanent residence at the library was a memorandum from Wirth that sheds light on the often-repeated claim that he championed a playground within a half-mile of every residence in the city.

The attribution of that claim to Wirth often presumes that he not only supported it but that it originated with him. I have scoured Wirth’s writing and the park board’s published records for the source of that particular measure for playground location. No luck. I couldn’t find that standard proposed by Wirth even in the hundreds of pages he wrote for his annual reports.

The only similar claim I was able to find was in the autobiography of Wirth’s son Conrad, who was the director of the National Park Service 1951-1964. In Parks, Politics and the People, published in 1980, more than 30 years after his father’s death, Conrad associated the “park within a half mile” concept with his father.

Then came the deep dive into once dusty archive boxes. A 1916 committee file contained many petitions signed by residents of south Minneapolis asking for a park at 39th and Chicago — what eventually became Phelps Field. Theodore Wirth submitted his opinion to a joint committee considering the issue. He opposed the playground because it was within the district already served by Nicollet (Martin Luther King) Field and Powderhorn Park. He explained,

“It is conceded by playground authorities from all parts of the country that one good-sized playground per square mile of city area is sufficient for even densely populated districts.”

That hardly seems the statement of a man who had created the standard. While I have not researched the subject on a national scale to see where the standard did originate, it appears that the park per square mile standard was already widely used. Keep in mind that Minneapolis was fairly late to the practice of establishing playgrounds under the auspices of a park board, so it was an unlikely pioneer in developing standards for playground locations. To the credit of Minneapolis and Theodore Wirth, however, Minneapolis probably came closer to meeting that standard eventually than almost all other cities.

By the way, the park board did not take Wirth’s advice in this instance and approved the acquisition of Phelps Field despite its proximity to other playgrounds and the large amount of grading that Wirth asserted would be required to make the land into usable playground space.

Hundreds more documents, like these, that provide information and insights into the creation and evolution of Minneapolis’s parks will soon be available to everyone at the library.

Congratulations!

The transfer of the park board archives culminates the work of several years. Park commissioners, led by Scott Vreeland, superintendent Jayne Miller, and park board staff, especially Dawn Sommers and former real estate attorney Renay Leone, deserve thanks for their commitment to preserving park historical records. The project also owes a great deal to the cooperation of Josh Schaffer in the City Clerk’s office, and Ted Hathaway, director of Special Collections at Hennepin County Library.

I would encourage local historians, especially those with an interest in the first half of the 20th Century, as well as park enthusiasts, to take a look at the archives once Ted and his staff at the library can make them available. They provide a fascinating historical view of not just a park system, but a city.

David C. Smith    minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

100 Years Ago: Altered Electoral Map and Shorelines

What has changed in 100 years? A few times on this site, I have looked back 100 years at park history. I’ll expand my scope this year because of extraordinary political developments. Politics first, then parks.

The national electoral map flipped. The electoral map of the 1916 Presidential contest is astonishing. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won a close re-election against Republican candidate Charles Hughes, a Supreme Court Justice. Compare red and blue states below to today. Nearly inverted. The Northeast, Upper Midwest and Far West — well, Oregon — voted alike. Republican. And lost.

1916_electoral_map

The 1916 electoral map was nearly opposite of the 2016 electoral map in terms of  party preference. Unlike 2016, President Wilson won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, but his electoral-vote margin was smaller than Donald Trump’s. If the total of votes cast in 1916, fewer than 19 million, seems impossibly low even for the population at that time, keep in mind that only men could vote. (Source: Wikipedia)

While Minnesota’s electoral votes were cast for the Republican — although Hughes received only 392 more votes than Wilson out of nearly 400,000 cast — Minneapolis elected Thomas Van Lear as its mayor, the only Socialist to hold that office in city history. One hundred years later, Minneapolis politics are again dominated by left-of-center politicians.

The population of Minneapolis in 1916 and 2016 was about the same: now a little over 400,000, then a little under. Minneapolis population peaked in mid-500,000s in mid-1950s and dropped into mid-300,000s in late 20th Century. One hundred years ago, however, Minneapolis suburbs were very sparsely populated.

The world 100 years ago was a violent and unstable place. World War I was in its bloody, muddy depths, although the U.S. had not yet entered the war, and Russia was on the verge of revolution. Now people are killed indiscriminately by trucks, guns, and bombs. People worldwide debated then how to address the excesses of capitalists, oligarchs and despots unencumbered by morality. We still do.

One notable change? Many Americans campaigned in 1916 to put women in voting booths, in 2016 to put a woman in the Oval Office.

Continuing Park Growth: North and South

How about progress in parks? The Minneapolis park board added significantly to its playground holdings in 1916 and 1917 as public demand for facilities and fields for active recreation increased. In North Minneapolis, Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park was expanded and land for Folwell Park was acquired. In South Minneapolis, Nicollet (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Park and Chicago Avenue (Phelps) Park were purchased and land for Cedar Avenue Park was donated. In 1917, the first Longfellow Field was sold to Minneapolis Steel and steps were initiated to replace it at its present location.

One particular recreational activity was in park headlines in 1916 for the very first time. A nine-hole course was opened that year at Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park, the first public golf course in Minneapolis. Golf was free and greens weren’t green, they were made of sand. In less than ten years, the park board operated four 18-hole courses (Glenwood [Wirth], Columbia, Armour [Gross], and Meadowbrook) and was preparing to add a fifth at Lake Hiawatha.

The Grand Rounds were nearly completed conceptually, when first plans for St. Anthony Boulevard from Camden Bridge on the Mississippi River to the Ramsey County line on East Hennepin Avenue were presented in 1916. Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth also suggested that the banks of the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls might be made more attractive with shore parks and plantings, even if the railroads maintained ownership of the land. One hundred years later we’re still working on that, but have made some progress including the continuing purchase by the Park Board of riverfront lots as they have become available.These have been the only notable additions to park acreage in many years.

One important result of the increasing demand for playground space in Minneapolis one hundred years ago was the passage by the Minnesota legislature in 1917 of a bill that enabled the park board to increase property tax collections by 50%. In 2016, the Park Board and the City Council reached an important agreement on funding to maintain and improve neighborhood parks.

 Altered Shorelines

In a city blessed with water and public waterfronts, however, some of the most significant issues facing the Minneapolis park board in 1917 involved shorelines — beyond beautifying polluted river banks.

The most contentious issue was an extension of Lake Calhoun, a South Bay, south on Xerxes Avenue to 43rd Street. Residents of southwest Minneapolis wanted that marshy area either filled or dredged — dry land or lake. There was no parkway at that time around the west and south shore of Lake Calhoun from Lake Street and Dean Parkway to William Berry Parkway. As a part of plans to construct a parkway along that shoreline, the park board in 1916 approved extending Lake Calhoun and putting a drive around a new South Bay as well.

south-bay-map2-rev

This drawing from a 1915 newspaper article shows the initial concept of a South Bay and outlines how it would be paid for. (Source: Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, June 20, 1915)

The challenge, of course was how to pay for it. The park board’s plan to assess property owners in the area for the expensive improvements was met with furiuos opposition and lawsuits. Many property owners thought that assessments they were already paying for acquisitions and improvements over the years at Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet and William Berry Park were too heavy. The courts eventually decided in favor of the park board’s right to assess for those improvements, but by then estimated costs for the project had increased and become prohibitive and the South Bay scheme was abandoned.

Instead land for Linden Hills Park was acquired in 1919 and the surrounding wet land was drained into Lake Calhoun in the early 1920s. Dredged material from the lake was used to create a better-defined shoreline on the southwestern and northwestern shores of the lake in 1923 in preparation for the construction of the parkway.

Flowage Rights on the Mississippi River and a Canal to Brownie Lake

Minneapolis parks also lost land to water in 1916. The federal government claimed 27.6 acres of land in the Mississippi River gorge for flowage rights for the reservoir that would be created by a new dam to be built near Minnehaha Creek. Those acres, on the banks of the river and several islands in the river, would be submerged behind what became Lock and Dam No. 1 or the Ford Dam. In exchange for the land to be flooded, the park board did acquire some additional land on the bluffs overlooking the dam.

The other alteration in water courses was the dredging of a navigable channel between Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake, which completed the “linking of the lakes” that was begun with the connection of Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun in 1911. The land lost to the channel was negligible and probably balanced by a slight drop in water level in Brownie Lake. (A five-foot drop in Cedar Lake was caused by the opening of the Kenilworth Lagoon to Lake of the Isles in 1913.)

Another potential loss of water from Minneapolis parks may have occurred in 1917. William Washburn’s Fair Oaks estate at one time had a pond. I don’t know when that pond was filled. The estate became park board property upon the death of Mrs. Washburn in 1915. Perhaps in 1917 when the stables and greenhouses on the southwest corner of the property were demolished, the south end of the estate was graded and the pond was filled. Theodore Wirth’s suggestion for the park, presented in 1917, included an amphitheater in part of the park where the pond had once been.

The Dredge Report

The year 1917 marked the end of the most ambitious dredging project in Minneapolis parks — in fact the biggest single project ever undertaken by the park board until then, according to Theodore Wirth. The four-year project moved more than 2.5 million cubic yards of earth and reduced the lake from 300 shallow acres to 200 acres with a uniform depth of 15 feet.

That wasn’t the end of work at Lake Nokomis, however. The park surrounding the lake, especially the playing fields northwest of the lake couldn’t be graded for another five years, after the dredge fill had settled.

Dredging may again be an issue in 2017 if the Park Board succeeds in raising funds for a new park on the river in northeast Minneapolis. Dredges would carve a new island out of land where an old man-made island once existed next to the Plymouth Avenue Bridge. But that may be a long time off — and could go the way of South Bay.

Park Buzz

One other development in 1917 had more to do with standing water than was probably understood at the time. The Park Board joined with the Real Estate Board in a war on mosquitoes. However, after spending $100 on the project and realizing they would have to spend considerably more to achieve results, park commissioners terminated the project. It was not the first or last battle won by mosquitoes in Minneapolis.

As we look again at new calendars, it’s always worth taking a glance backward to see how we got here. For me, it is much easier to follow the course of events in Minneapolis park history than in American political history.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

Comments: I am not interested in comments of a partisan political nature here, so save those for your favorite political sites.