Archive for the ‘Theodore Wirth’ Tag

Delineators in Minneapolis Park Plans

When the park board employed its first full-time engineers it’s likely that those engineers also did the drafting or “delineating” of the plans for new parks. The assumption is supported by the attributions on the first plans published in Minneapolis park board annual reports that included someone’s name other than that of Theodore Wirth, who became superintendent of parks in 1906. In the 1908 and 1909 annual reports, the park system’s two engineers, A. C. Godward and W. E. Stoopes, were cited as both engineer and delineator and no other delineators were credited. There may have been none.

Brief biographical sketches of Godward and Stoopes are provided in a previous post on Engineers, so I’ll begin with the first delineator who was never cited as an “engineer” on a park plan. That man was…

I. Kvitrud. I haven’t even discovered his first name. (Note 11/29: Thanks to an anonymous tip, which I’ve confirmed, I learned that Mr. Kvitrud’s first name was Ingwald. Thanks, “T”. For the Google spiders, that’s Ingwald Kvitrud!) Kvitrud was identified as the delineator of three park plans in 1910 and 1912. He was an engineering graduate of the University of Minnesota and served as an officer of the Minnesota Engineering Society in 1910 and 1912. He was hired in 1914 as a full-time instructor in Drawing and Geometry at his alma mater and he was still employed there in 1919, his annual salary having increased in five years from $900 to $1500, according to University records.

The most interesting reference I’ve found to Kvitrud was in an article in the San Francisco Call, July 19, 1913. In a story datelined Minneapolis, Kvitrud was identified as the Minneapolis park board clerk in charge of selling material from the demolition of buildings for a park at The Gateway. Read more

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Engineers in Minneapolis Park Plans

I was curious about the people who created the park plans I featured in the Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans, 1906-1935, which was presented in three installments recently (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3). The catalog identifies all the plans and drawings published in Minneapolis park board annual reports during the tenure of Theodore Wirth as Minneapolis’s park superintendent.

I’ve tried to piece together info on the men whose names appear on those plans as engineers or delineators using park board reports, newspaper archives, and miscellaneous documents found through online searches. I’m not aware of any other background information at the park board on the early engineering and planning staff.

The park board engineering staff about 1915 in their 4th floor offices in City Hall. From left: Alfred C. Godward, Charles E. Doell, Clyde Peterson, Herman Olson, Dick Butler, “Spud” Huxtable, “Spike” Miller and Al Berthe. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The man whose name appears on almost all of the plans, Theodore Wirth, superintendent of parks, is already well-known. Most of the others, much less so—although two of them, Charles Doell and Harold Lathrop, became very well-known nationally as park administrators.

During that time, the park board employed no “landscape architects.” The profession was still relatively new. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) was founded in 1898 and the first university programs in the field were created at Harvard and MIT around the turn of the century. This was after the first generation of true landscape architects in the United States, led by Frederick Law Olmsted and H W. S. Cleveland, had already passed from the scene. Cleveland had been the Minneapolis park board’s advisor and landscape architect from the creation of the park board in 1883, and had helped define the profession in this country. The park board had also hired landscape architect Warren Manning on a few occasions from 1899-1904 to provide advice and park plans after Cleveland retired.

Theodore Wirth was likely hired as park superintendent in Minneapolis in part because he had some experience designing parks in Hartford, Conn. He is credited with the designs of Colt and Elizabeth parks in Hartford. (Early in Wirth’s time in Hartford, the landscape architect role was filled by the Olmsted Brothers, the firm run by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted. The senior Olmsted was a native of Hartford.) Wirth certainly played the role of landscape architect in Minneapolis, but I’m not aware of him ever calling himself one. He was active in the American Institute of Park Executives, and its predecessor organizations, but never ASLA. For ten years, 1925-1934, Wirth’s name appears on park plans as “Sup’t & Engineer” even though he did not have a formal engineering credential—apart from a course at a technical school in his native Switzerland as a young man. That course may have focused more on gardening than engineering. His first jobs were as a gardener. I could only guess at Wirth’s reasons for taking the “Engineer” title on park plans for the first time at age 62.

During his long tenure in Minneapolis, Wirth built a staff of men with Civil Engineering degrees—all from the University of Minnesota—not landscape architecture degrees or training. The first landscape architect hired full-time by the park board was Felix Dhainin in 1938. (If anyone could tell us more about Dhainin, I’d appreciate it.)

Here’s what I learned about the engineers for the park board 1906-1935. I’ll get to the draftsmen and delineators in a later post. Turns out the most interesting of all the park board engineers wasn’t featured in annual report plans at all! Read on

Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans: Volume III, 1926-1935

The thirty annual reports produced while Theodore Wirth was superintendent of parks in Minneapolis—1906-1935—were rich in detail and illustrations. Those reports included 328 plans, designs and maps of parks and park structures. The publication of those plans usually coincided with the acquisition or development of new properties or the improvement of older ones, so they are a good guide to where to find some discussion of those park properties in annual reports or proceedings. So, long ago I catalogued all of those plans in one document to create a searchable guide to park development during those years. I have relied on that list for the last few years and assumed other researchers and park lovers would find it useful as well.  I’ve already posted the first twenty years worth of plans, and today is Volume III, 1926-1935.

Detail of a plan published in the 1912 annual report showing a proposed canoe house on a peninsula in Lake Harriet. (1912 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners)

The plans published in annual reports were not the only plans created by the park board staff in the years Wirth was superintendent of parks. They are mostly conceptual plans, rather than working plans. The park board requested many of the plans specifically as park commissioners considered various park proposals and possibilities.

The number of employees in the park board’s engineering department are not published in every annual report, but in most years for which that info is provided, it appears that one or two draftsmen were employed. A few of their names appear as “Delineator” or “Del.” on the plans. Sometime in the near future, I’ll provide a guide to some of the names of the people who helped prepare plans.

The titles of the plans are verbatim as they appear on plans. I’ve also copied dates, names and titles as they appear, but have added some punctuation to make them easier to read. Parenthetical comments identify current park names or mention important plan elements.

The annual reports from 1931 to 1935 were not typeset in order to cut costs during the Depression. The reports also contained very few plans or illustrations, not just to reduce printing costs, but because the park board had no money to spend on improving parks. Continue reading

Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans: Volume II, 1916-1925

A few days ago I published the first installment (1906-1915) of a Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans presented in the annual reports of the Minneapolis park board while Theodore Wirth was superintendent of Minneapolis parks (1906-1935). Today I publish the second installment of plans and drawings in annual reports covering 1916-1925.

Along with this “volume” I want to add a dedication and explanation: I am publishing this list of plans for anyone to use, like the rest of the research I have posted here, partly out of my interest in the  subject and our civic history. But I also want to acknowledge former park superintendent Jon Gurban’s role in my research. When Jon informed me in early 2007 that I had been selected to write the history of the first 125 years of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board—the book City of Parks was the result—he had one request. He asked that, in addition to writing the book, I would share with park board staff and him other useful, important and interesting information that I uncovered in my research. While conducting research just to write my book proposal that winter, I had found several items that I had brought to his attention that I thought were fascinating. He said that my enthusiasm for those finds and my willingness to share them were factors in me getting the assignment.

So this Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans is published with a nod to Jon Gurban, in my experience an honorable man treated dishonorably by some with whom he shared a passion for Minneapolis parks.

This plan for the Minnehaha Stone Quarry from the 1919 annual report is representative of the plans listed below. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Remember that many of the plans presented in annual reports were conceptual plans and many were not implemented or were revised extensively. Most of the plans were created by park superintendent Theodore Wirth, with exceptions as noted. It would be a mistake, however, to assume  because Wirth created the plans that the ideas for the parks also came from him. Some of the plans grew from Wirth’s own vision, while many other plans were requested by the park board or were concepts that had been bouncing around for some years.

This catalog will be most useful for park planners and historians, but also provides many insights into our park system for casual observers or fans of particular parks. After I publish the last third of the catalog (soon), I’ll provide a bit of information on the various individuals who are credited on these plans—as well as some others who weren’t given credit.

The titles of the plans are verbatim as they appear on plans. I’ve also copied dates, names and titles as they appear, but have added some punctuation to make them easier to read. Parenthetical comments identify current park names or mention important plan elements. /s/ indicates a signature.

A quick explanatory note: 1925 was the first year that Theodore Wirth added “engineer” to his title on park plans. That doesn’t indicate a new credential for Wirth, but the departure of A.C. Godward as the park board’s engineer. Godward had taken the job of Engineer for Minneapolis’s new City Planning Department in June 1922, but continued to supervise engineering at the park board, too. When Godward left the park board completely in 1925, his assistant, A. E. Berthe, kept the title Assistant Engineer and Wirth took the Engineer title himself. Despite Wirth’s praise for Berthe’s work, and Berthe being listed in annual reports as “head” of the engineering department, he remained the Asst Engr to Wirth until 1935, when Berthe was listed as Park Engineer or Civil Engineer and Wirth as General Superintendent.

Go to Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans, 1916-1925

Minneapolis Park Planning: Theodore Wirth as Landscape Architect. Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans, Volume I, 1906-1915

In Theodore Wirth’s 30 years as Minneapolis’s superintendent of parks (1906-1935), he produced annual reports that contained 328 maps, plans or designs for parks and park structures. Most of the plans were accompanied by some explanatory text, which provides a rich record of park board activity and Theodore Wirth’s priorities.

Theodore Wirth, Superintendent of Parks, 1906-1935 (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The annual reports include plans for recreation shelters, bridges, parkways, parks, playgrounds, gardens, golf courses, and more. Nearly every Minneapolis park is represented in some form, from if-cost-were-no-object conceptual designs for new parks to the “rearrangement” of existing parks. Many of the plans were never implemented due to cost or other objections; others were considerably modified after input from commissioners and the public.

In many cases over the years, Wirth referred in his written narratives to plans published in prior years that he hoped the board would implement. Sometimes it did, often it didn’t. One of the drawbacks to implementing Wirth’s plans was the method of financing park acquisitions and improvements during much of his tenure as superintendent. The costs of both were often assessed on “benefitted” property, along with real estate tax bills. In other words, the people who lived near a park and received the “benefit” of it—both in enjoyment and increased property values—had to pay the cost, usually through assessments spread over ten years. To be able to assess those costs, however, a majority of property owners had to agree to the assessment, and in many neighborhoods property owners refused to agree until plans were modified considerably to reduce costs.

Phelps Wyman’s plan for what is now Thomas Lowry Park from the 1922 annual report is one of the only colored plans and one of the only plans that wasn’t produced by the park board staff.

Many of the annual report drawings contain a “Designed by” tag, but many do not have any attribution. For those that don’t, it is sometimes unclear who the actual designer was. In many cases it would have been Wirth, but in some cases—the golf courses are notable examples—others would have been responsible for the layouts even though they weren’t credited. William Clark, for instance, is known to have designed the first Minneapolis golf courses, Wirth said so, but only Wirth’s name appears on these plans, not Clark’s.

Also, because these plans were created while Wirth was superintendent does not mean that the idea for each project originated with Wirth. Some of the demands for the parks featured here pre-dated Wirth’s arrival in Minneapolis by decades. Other plans were largely his creation. In most cases, however, Wirth was responsible for implementing those plans.

The majority of the drawings were reproduced on a thin, tissue-like paper that could be folded small enough to be glued into the annual reports. The intent was to publish plans large enough to be readable, but not too bulky.  The paper is fragile and easily torn when unfolding; I doubt that many of the plans survive. Even where efforts have been made to preserve and digitize the annual reports, such as by Hathitrust and Google Books, the plans on the translucent sheets are not reproduced. In many cases it would require a large-format scanner to digitize them from the annual reports. Originals do not exist for most of these plans, because they were not working plans.

This plan for the original Longfellow Field in 1912 was typical of the plans in the annual reports,

Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans

I’ve been threatening for some time to do something that probably only the planners at the Minneapolis park board and a few others will appreciate. I’m publishing a complete list of the park plans that appeared in the annual reports of the park board. I’m periodically asked when a certain park was discussed, acquired or planned and I search my list of annual report plans quickly to provide some direction. I hope that by publishing this catalog of park plans I can save other researchers a great deal of time.

Unfortunately I do not have copies or scans of the plans themselves. Neither does the park board. You’ll have to go to the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis to view the original annual reports and see these plans. The Gale Library at the Minnesota Historical Society also has copies of the park board’s annual reports for many years.

I’ve started this catalog with the 1906 annual report, the first year that Theodore Wirth was responsible for producing the report, his first year as superintendent of Minneapolis parks. (Several of H.W.S. Cleveland’s original park designs were reproduced in earlier annual reports. I’ll provide a list of those in the very near future. You may still view the very large originals of many of Cleveland’s plans, by appointment, at the Hennepin History Museum. It’s worth a visit!)

The annual reports of the park board were divided into several parts: a report by the president of the park board, reports by the superintendent and attorney, financial reports, and an inventory of park properties. Most of the plans described here were a part of the superintendent’s report. For that reason, I’ve cited the date on Wirth’s reports rather than the date of the president’s report, which at times differed.

I will post the catalog of plans, maps and drawings in three “volumes” due to the size of the file—more than 9,000 words in total. Go to the Catalog of Minneapolis Park Plans 1906-1915

Who, Exactly, Were the “Huns”?

Discussions of Minneapolis during World War I in a recent post have pointed to another factor that may have reinforced the willingness of the park board to sell the first Longfellow Field to Minneapolis Steel and Machinery as the company expanded to fulfill military contracts: Theodore Wirth, the superintendent of Minneapolis parks was a German speaker and, based on newspaper accounts from early in his tenure as parks superintendent in Minneapolis, he spoke English with a German accent.

Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis parks superintendent, 1906-1935.

Not only did the president of the park board, Francis Gross, have close ties to German immigrants and descendants as president of the German-American Bank, and, presumably spoke German, based on accounts of his speeches, but the park board’s top administrator, Wirth, who was from Winterthur, Switzerland, only several miles from the German border, also spoke German. Seems suspicious, nein?

Even though Wirth had immigrated to the U.S. thirty years earlier, was not from Germany, and Switzerland was neutral during the war, I don’t know if those distinctions were known or made by most people. Could someone like Wirth have felt pressure to profess or demonstrate his “loyalty” to the U.S.—perhaps by agreeing to the sale of park land to a growing munitions maker?

Remember those were days of loyalty oaths, “Americanization” meetings, and arrests of “enemy aliens.” I recently read that the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, German-born Karl Muck, was arrested as an enemy alien in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March, 1918. He was accused of nefariously featuring too many German composers in his programs—damn that Beethoven!—and was suspected of using his score markings as a secret code. His claim that he was a naturalized citizen of Switzerland proved true, but didn’t keep him from being locked up in a prison camp in rural Georgia for 17  months. He had been offered a conducting job once by Kaiser Wilhelm. He was kept in prison for ten months after the end of the war that made the world safe for democracy, perhaps to ensure that he wouldn’t detonate a lethal Eroica in a crowded concert hall.

Wirth’s native tongue and the proximity to Germany of his hometown may have had no bearing on his standing in Minneapolis or on park board actions during WWI, but in a world where musicians could be locked up for their taste in fugues, it is not out of the question that it crossed someone’s mind. Especially when you read of speeches like those of former President Theodore Roosevelt on a stop in Minneapolis in October 1918. Minneapolis Tribune reporter George E Akerson wrote on October 8:

Theodore Roosevelt, American’s foremost private citizen, yesterday preached his gospel of thorough-going Americanism, to more than 15,000 persons in Minneapolis. At five different meetings, the former president, exhibiting all of his old time aggressiveness, delivered his message, never missing an opportunity to pillory the “Huns within our gates” along with the “Huns without.”

Theodore Roosevelt addressing more than 5,000 workers at Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, October 7, 1918. As WWI neared its end, Roosevelt urged vigilance against the “Huns within.” His black armband signified that he had lost a son in the war. (Minnesota Historical Society.)

Roosevelt was not referring specifically to Germans as much as to those he perceived as enemies of the U.S government, but that would have been a fine distinction to those reading the lead quoted above. The taint of all Germans, past and present, could easily be inferred. One of Roosevelt’s five speeches in his one-day stop in Minneapolis was at the munitions factory of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, pictured above.

The derogatory “Hun” to describe Germans was derived from the Huns of Attila fame and equated with “barbarian.” Germans and Huns had little in common historically, but the term was a staple of Allied propaganda during the war. Some older warriors, such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, stuck with the term in WWII, but “Krauts” became the more popular alternative.

David C. Smith

Canoe Jam on the Chain of Lakes

The newspaper headline hinted of a sordid affair: “Long Line Waits Grimly in Courthouse Corridor.” Many were so young they should have been in school. Others had skipped work. They stood anxiously in the dim hallway, waiting. News accounts put their numbers at 500 when the clock struck 8:30 that April morning. Many had already been there for hours by then. They prayed they would be among the lucky ones to get permits to store their canoes at the most popular park board docks and on the lower levels of the lakeside canoe racks, so they wouldn’t have to hoist their dripping canoes overhead.

The year was 1912 and nearly 2,000 spaces were available on park board canoe racks and dock slips at Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. Nearly all of them were needed, which represented a huge increase over the 200 permits issued only two years earlier. The city was canoe crazed.

By contrast, in 2011 the park board rented 485 spaces in canoe racks at all Minneapolis lakes, in addition to 368 sail boat buoys at Calhoun, Harriet and Nokomis.

Canoeing was extremely popular on city lakes, especially after Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun were linked by a canal in 1911, followed by a link to Cedar Lake in 1913. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The demand for canoe racks was so great that park superintendent Theodore Wirth proposed a dramatic change at Lake Harriet at the end of 1912 to accommodate canoeists.

Wirth’s plan (above),  presented in the 1912 annual report, would have created a five-acre peninsula in Lake Harriet near Beard Plaisance to accommodate a boat house that would hold 864 canoes. The boat house would have been filled with racks for private canoes, as well as lockers for canoeists to store paddles and gear. The boat house, in Wirth’s words, “would protect the boat owners’ property, and would relieve the shores of the unsightly, vari-colored canoes.”

The board never seriously considered building the boat house and that summer the number of watercraft on Lake Harriet reached 800 canoes and 192 rowboats. Most of the rowboats and about 100 of the canoes were owned and rented out by the park board. Even more crowded conditions prevailed at smaller Lake of the Isles where the park board did not rent watercraft, but issued permits for 475 private canoes and 121 private rowboats.

Rental canoes were piled up on the docks near the pavilion at Lake Harriet ca. 1912. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The park board’s challenge with so many watercraft wasn’t just how to store them, but how to keep order on the lake. An effort to maintain decorum on city lakes began in April 1913 when another year of permits was issued. The park board announced before permits went on sale that because of “considerable agitation about objectionable names” on boats and canoes the year before, permits would not be issued to canoes that bore offensive names.

The previous summer newspapers reported that commissioners had condemned naughty names such as, “Thehelusa,” “Damfino,” “Ilgetu,” “Skwizmtyt,” “Ildaryoo,” “O-U-Q-T,” “What the?,” “Joy Tub,” “Cupid’s Nest,” and “I’d Like to Try It.” The commissioners decided then that such salacious names would not be permitted the next year, even though Theodore Wirth urged the board to take the offending canoes off the water immediately.

When the naming rules were announced the next spring, park board secretary J. A. Ridgway was given absolute power to decide whether a name was acceptable. To begin with he allowed only monograms or proper names, but used his discretion to ban names such as “Yum-Yum” even though that was the name of a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Even proper names could be improper.

Despite the strict naming rules, all but 75 of the park board’s 1400 canoe rack spaces were sold by late April, and practically all remaining spaces were “uppers” scattered around the three lakes.

The crackdown on canoe-naming wasn’t the end of the park board protecting the morals of the city’s youth on the water however. Take a close look at the 1914 photo below by Charles Hibbard from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection.

The photo shows canoeists listening to a summer concert at the Lake Harriet Pavilion. Notice the width of the typical canoe and how two people could sit cozily side-by-side in the middle of the canoe. Now imagine how easy it would be to drift into the dark, get tangled up with the person next to you and make the canoe a bit tippy. Clearly a safety issue.

The Morning Tribune announced June 28, 1913 that the park board would have no more of such behavior. “The park board decided yesterday afternoon, ” the paper reported, “that misconduct in canoes has become so grave and flagrant that it threatens to throw a shadow upon the lakes as recreation resorts and to bring shame upon the city.”

The solution? A new park ordinance required people of opposite sex over the age of 10 occupying the same section of a canoe to sit facing each other. No more of this side-by-side stuff, sometimes recumbent. According to the paper, park commissioners said the situation had become one of “serious peril to the morals of young people.” Park police were given motorized canoes and flashlights to seek and apprehend offenders.

The need for flashlights became evident after seeing the park police report in the park board’s 1913 annual report. Sergeant-in-Command C. S. Barnard, referring to the ordinance that parks close at midnight, noted a policing success for the year. To get canoeists off the lake by midnight, the police installed a red light on the Lake Harriet boat house that was turned on to alert lake lovers that it was near 11:30 pm, the time canoes had to leave the lake. Barnard reported that the red light “has been a great help in getting canoeists off the lake by 11:30 p.m., but owing to the large number who stay out past that time (emphasis added), I would suggest that the hour be changed to 11 o’clock in order to enable the parks to be cleared by 12 o’clock.”

Indignant protest against the side-by-side seating ban arose immediately. Arthur T. Conley, attorney for the Lake Harriet Canoe Club, suggested that the park board show a little initiative and arrest those whose conduct was immoral rather than cast a slur on “every woman or girl who enters a canoe.” If Conley believed the ordinance was a slur on men and boys as well he didn’t say so, but he did add, “We dislike to hear that we are engaged in a sport which is compared with an immoral occupation and that we are on the lake for immoral purposes.”

In the face of protests, the new ordinance was not vigorously enforced and was repealed before the start of the 1914 canoe season. The Tribune noted in announcing the repeal that “the public did not take kindly to the ordinance last year and boat receipts at Lake Harriet fell off considerably on account of it.”

Despite the repeal of the unpopular ordinance, boating fell off even more in 1914. In the annual report at the close of the year Wirth attributed the decline partly to a terrible storm that passed over Lake Harriet on June 23 resulting in the drowning of three canoeists. Newspapers reported dramatic rescues of several others. By 1915 the number of canoe permits had dropped under 1400 even though canoe racks had been added to Cedar Lake, Glenwood (Wirth) Lake and Camden Pond.

The popularity of canoeing continued to decline. Wirth noted in 1917 that there had been a very perceptible decrease again in the number of private boats and canoes on the lakes. While he attributed that decline partly to unfavorable weather, he also noted the “large number of young men drawn from civil life and occupations to military service” as the United States entered WWI.

There were only six sail boats on city lakes in 1917, and all six were kept on Lake Calhoun. The first year that the park board derived more revenue from renting buoys for sail boats than racks for canoes was not until 1940. From then until now sailing has generated more revenue for the park board than canoeing.

The number of canoe permits leveled off for a while in the 1920s at about 1000 per year, but the canoe craze on the lakes had passed, much as the bicycle craze of the 1890s. During the bicycle craze the park board had built a corral where people could check their bikes while at Lake Harriet. That corral held 800 bicycles. At the peak of the much shorter-lived canoe craze in the 1910s, the park board provided rack space at Lake Harriet for 800 canoes. Popular number. Fortunately, the park board did not build permanent facilities—or a peninsula into Lake Harriet—to accommodate a passing fad.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Letters from Theodore Wirth: Gardener Above All?

The letters Theodore Wirth wrote to his friends during his 1936 around-the-world voyage, which included a quote on the Calhoun Beach Club, reveal little about Minneapolis parks, but quite a bit about the man.

When Wirth retired as Minneapolis park superintendent in 1935—he was forced to retire due to civil service age rules—he travelled with his wife to Hawaii, Samoa—where he visited his son, a U. S. Navy officer—Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the Canary Islands, England and on to his boyhood home in Switzerland. Over the course of his travels he wrote ten “general letters” to his friends in Minneapolis. The first was dated December 15, 1935 from a ship sailing from Los Angeles to Honolulu and the last was dated September, 1936 from Winterthur, Switzerland, his home town.

As Wirth explained in General Letter No. 2:

There are so many of you back home that it is of course impossible for me to write to you all. Even if I could do so, it would mean that I would be writing on the same subject time and again. I bargained for a good solution of this problem with Mr. Bossen (his successor as park superintendent) and Miss Merkert (his secretary for many years) before we left home, and I am to write a general letter from time to time, which is to be typed and circulated as may be deemed advisable.

The very method of distributing his letters speaks to his Swiss efficiency, but the content of those letters reveals a good bit about the man as well. Most of his letters are inconsequential newsy travelogues, but I am struck that he was most passionate and enthusiastic about plants on many stops during his voyage.

From his first letter, when he wrote of visiting John McLaren, the famous superintendent of San Francisco parks, he singled out trees for comment. Of California’s Redwood State Park, which McLaren took him to visit, he wrote, “the big Redwood trees are worth a world’s trip to see.” It is the first of many references to the grand and unusual plant life he observed.

Of course he wrote also of parks, commenting on a new park being built in Honolulu, and city planning, noting that Adelaide, Australia was the best-planned city he’d ever seen or heard of. But many of his most detailed observations were about plants.

In New Zealand he makes note of the “elaborately planted” grounds at Lake Rotorua, the “gorgeous tree ferns” towering 50 feet above the undergrowth, even the high yields of New Zealand’s wheat farms.

Of a tour of Sydney’s botanical garden with the curator, he notes a fine specimen of Morton Bay Fig, Ficus Macrophylia with a crown 110 feet in diameter and begonias eight to ten feet tall, concluding “there is no end to what I could report along the lines of plant life here.” He writes that Sydney has much more land set aside for recreation and open space than Minneapolis—Australians are “enthusiastic devotees or every worth while sport”—but it is “sadly lacking” in street tree plantings.

Melbourne is “lavishly decorated with floral displays,” he writes, but he also recounts his travel to see gigantic gum (Eucalyptus) trees six to eight feet in diameter and 150 tall, a “truly majestic sight, not unlike our glorious Redwoods,” and notes that the tuberous begonias at the Fitzgerald Gardens there were the largest he had ever seen.

He writes with special enthusiasm about the bulb nurseries of Holland and how the bulbs were auctioned, mentioning that he had letters of introduction to three bulb-growers from his friend O. J. Olson, a St. Paul florist. He encouraged every florist to visit Holland in May.

Thank you, Sonia Abramson
Copies of the ten letters, 48 pages, Wirth sent to his friends were given to the park board in August 2011 by Ed Abramson. Ed’s aunt, Sonia Abramson, was an employee of the park board, working most of her life in administration. Sonia must have been among those who received copies of the letters after Miss Merkert typed them from Theodore Wirth’s handwritten originals. Ed and his sister-in-law, Cookie Abramson, discovered the letters after his aunt died in 1998 at age 93. Ed recalls that his aunt “loved doing what she did.” “She did a marvelous job for the city and the park board treated her well. It was a win-win,” he said.

Wirth makes two other references to things Minneapolis in his letters — in addition to his Calhoun Beach Club reference.

He provides this account of Pago Pago: “The Pago Pago harbor is not any larger than Lake Calhoun. Imagine the lake surrounded by abruptly-raising, densely wooded mountains from 1,700 to 2,200 feet high—absolutely landlocked—the entrance from the ocean not visible once you are in the harbor.”

He also notes that while sailing from Samoa to Fiji, one morning on deck he was “agreeably surprised” to run into Edward C. Gale, a prominent Minneapolis attorney, son of Samuel Gale and son-in-law of John Pillsbury. They travelled on the same ship until they reached Auckland, New Zealand.

Wirth’s ten letters conclude with a description of parks and playgrounds in Switzerland which suggests where Wirth’s views of parks originated. Among his observations:

“The forests of Switzerland are both the nation’s park and playground in the fullest sense of the word.”
“People flock to the woods singly and in droves to find their recreation.”
“The Swiss people are an exceedingly nature-loving nation — the natural scenic beauty of their homeland makes them so.”
“Playgrounds, as we so properly advocate, build and maintain in the States, are not as essential here in Switzerland.”
“The entire population is more or less self-taught in their practice of exercising, physical culture and body development.”
“Playground activities are managed by the school authorities.”
“Park construction and operation are better known here under the name of “Gardenbau” and the branch of government that has jurisdiction over all pertaining to it is the one of Horticulture.”

These claims tend to corroborate my  impression that Wirth never quite understood the American affinity for organized ball games and competitive sports. While many, many neighborhood playgrounds were designed by Wirth, there was nearly always in his layouts a clash between his instinct to create gardens—at least visually pleasing spaces—and his recognition of the popular demand for playing fields.

Theodore Wirth accomplished many things as a park superintendent, but I believe, as these letters suggest, his first love was gardening and horticulture.

David C. Smith

Lake Calhoun Bath House and Calhoun Beach Club: From “Disfigurement” to National Register

Charles Loring was the first to sound the alarm about businesses across Lake Street from the Lake Calhoun Bath House, but no one put the criticism so bluntly as Theodore Wirth.

The Calhoun Beach Club loomed over the beach and lake in 1940. The old three-level diving platform was a bit less timid than today’s rafts. (Minneapolis Tribune, Minnesota Historical Society)

Four days after the official dedication of the new bath house—with changing rooms, lockers and showers, not to mention $10,000 worth of sand on the new beach—Loring appeared in person at the August 5, 1912 meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners, a board he had once presided over, to plead for the park board to acquire the land across Lake Street from the beach before it became filled with “refreshment stands.” He wasn’t proposing a massive acquisition: the park board already owned Dean Parkway to the west and much of the land between Calhoun and Lake of the Isles to the east. Loring only wanted the board to buy the strip between Lake Street and the railroad tracks sandwiched between existing park lands.

It didn’t. Which gave rise to one of the most novel criticisms ever of a Minneapolis landscape. From one of the most unusual locations.

Writing from a ship sailing from Capetown, South Africa to the Canary Islands in 1936, Theodore Wirth wrote this about Durban, a South African city on the Indian Ocean (see Letters from Theodore post):

Modern Durban. The buildings might still be “monster rent barracks,” to use Wirth’s phrase, but the atmosphere at Durban’s beach has changed much more since 1936 than at Lake Calhoun. This photo looks nothing like what I remember from a visit in 1980.

Along the city side of the Durban Bay is the Marine Parade or Ocean Beach, flanked by a number of imposing modern buildings serving apartment and hotel purposes. The latter are called “flats” here and some of them are deserving of no better name, for they are anything but attractive. I am inclined to classify them as “monster rent barracks” — a still worse disfigurement of an otherwise attractive landscape than our Calhoun Beach Hotel at Dean Boulevard.

Theodore Wirth’s first opinion on the land across from the bath house was expressed in the 1912 annual report when he seconded the words of Loring and then board president Wilbur Decker encouraging the board to acquire the land to preserve it from commercial development.

Their fears may have been prompted by unpleasantness around Minnehaha Park in the  early 1900s. Saloons and other commercial establishments near the falls had contributed to an objectionable environment in the park. In the 1905 annual report of the park board, president Fred Smith wrote that a new pavilion, changes in policing and support from the city administration had “done much to redeem Minnehaha from its unsavory reputation and make it a place where women and children can visit and enjoy their picnics without fear of molestation or insult.”

I can imagine that specter haunting Loring in particular, a man who had run for mayor of Minneapolis in 1882 on a strong anti-saloon platform. Loring also deserved most of the credit for the park board acquiring Minnehaha Falls, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, the three jewels in the park crown at the time, and I’m sure he took a proprietary interest in their well-being, which would not have included “refreshment stands” nearby.

Despite their fears, the land across Lake Street from the immensely popular bath house — it was called the best beach between the oceans — was not filled with houses of debauchery. At least that’s the inference we can draw from another round of encouragement for the park board to acquire the land in 1917. Still it didn’t happen.

Another ten years passed before grand plans for the property took shape. It would become a residential building fitted with its own entertainment and recreation facilities. Curiously, the last mention of the development in park board proceedings is Wirth’s recommendation on April 20, 1927 that the board consent to a building permit for the facility as long as the building did not come within 15 feet of park property along Dean Parkway. The board agreed. Perhaps plans for the property were too far along for Wirth and the park board to fight, or they had no real alternative after taking no action themselves for 15 years

But perhaps Wirth’s objection in 1936 was not that the building was there, but that it was unfinished. Although construction began in 1927 the building remained unfinished and empty until 1946. In a bit of irony, the property Wirth worried would fall into private hands and the building which he said “disfigured” the lake was the site of a tribute dinner to him in 1946 before he moved from Minneapolis to San Diego for health reasons.

The Calhoun Beach Club was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 for its architecture and engineering. The building now adjacent to the commercial and residential “club” was the focus of a fight in 1988 to limit the height of buildings around Minneapolis lakes. That battle resulted in a city ordinance that limits the height of such buildings. When the Calhoun Beach Club was first designed in 1927, at ten stories, it was the tallest building in the city outside of downtown.

David C. Smith

Pioneering Minneapolis Landscape Architects: Wyman, Morell and Nichols, but not Wirth?

I’ve been surprised at the interest generated by posts here about landscape architects who worked on Minneapolis parks, so I’ll add the latest info I have on a few landscape architects.

I once compiled a list of all the park designs and plans published in the annual reports of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners for the first 60 years of its existence, 1883-1943. For the most part, that means the plans of Horace W. S. Cleveland, who designed the first Minneapolis parks, and Theodore Wirth, who was superintendent of parks 1906-1935.

From the time Cleveland stopped working, about 1893, until Wirth was hired in 1906, the Minneapolis park board did not have a landscape architect — nor the money to pay one following a severe economic downturn — except for hiring Warren H. Manning for various projects from 1899 to 1905. No Manning plans for Minneapolis parks have survived, although his in-depth written recommendations for Minneapolis parks were published in the 1899 Annual Report of the Minneapolis park board. More on Manning in a later post.

While Wirth was superintendent, he prepared nearly all park plans himself, although I believe he identified himself more as a gardener and engineer than a landscape architect. He listed himself as “Sup’t.” on most of his park plans until 1926 when he added “Eng’r.” He was an early and active member of the American Institute of Park Executives, but did not, to my knowledge, join the American Society of Landscape Architects. Wirth was not included in Pioneers of American Landscape Design, a compilation by Charles Birnbaum and Robin Karson of Americans who influenced the nation’s landscape. I think that is an oversight.

While Wirth gets too much credit from some in Minneapolis for creating the city’s park system, his omission from a list of more than 160 prominent landscape designers in the United States probably gives him too little credit for shaping one of the nation’s premier urban park systems.

Wirth’s omission from the “pioneers” list is more striking because three landscape architects who practiced in Minneapolis while Wirth was parks chief were profiled as pioneers: Anthony Urbanski Morell, Arthur Richardson Nichols and Phelps Wyman. I don’t believe it could be argued that any of the three had nearly as great an impact on the landscape of Minneapolis — and perhaps urban parks in general — as Wirth did, although they all worked in other locations as well.

I have already written about Wyman, but would like to add notes on Morell and Nichols’s  involvement with Minneapolis parks and update info on Wyman.

Morell and Nichols

Morell and Nichols became partners in 1909 and relocated to Minneapolis to take advantage of connections they had made in Minnesota while working for a New York landscape architect on projects in Duluth — the Congdon Mansion and the Morgan Park neighborhood — according to Pioneers of American Landscape Design. Their names first appeared in Minneapolis park board documents in the park board’s annual report of 1910. They are cited as the creators of a design for Farwell Park in North Minneapolis for the David C. Bell Investment Company, one of the city’s most prominent real estate developers. The 1.2-acre park was platted in the Oak Park (not Oak Lake) Supplement in 1889, but it wasn’t until 1910 that the developer asked the park board to take control of the land and improve it as a park using a plan the developer provided. The plan itself was not unusual, but it was the first landscape plan to appear in an annual report that had not been commissioned by the park board. That Wirth chose to publish the plan in the annual report suggests his regard for Morell and Nichols. Wirth encouraged park commissioners to approve the plan, which they did. Wirth wrote in the 1910 annual report:

The proposed arrangement of lawns, plantings and walks, is very pleasing and appropriate to the surroundings and the present topography of the grounds, and the execution of the plan will not involve a very large expenditure.

Improvements to the park were begun in 1911 and completed in 1912. The Bell company originally paid for the work, but was reimbursed by the park board.

Regional Parks

The other references to Morell and Nichols in park board annual reports were in the 1930 and 1935 reports in connection with their work for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, when they prepared a preliminary study for a county-wide park system in 1922 . Theodore Wirth referred to their plan in the 1930 annual report in his yearly words of encouragement for the Minneapolis park board to lead the effort to create a regional park authority. Wirth advocated including Minnehaha Creek, Bassett’s Creek and Shingle Creek, from their sources in Hennepin County lakes to the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, in a regional park system. In the 1930 report, Wirth included a map of the territory embracing the sources of Shingle Creek and Bassett’s Creek and highlighted park areas recommended by Morell and Nichols in their earlier report. Among the areas they had suggested for parks in northwest Hennepin County were portions of the shores of Medicine Lake, Bass Lake, Eagle Lake, Lime Lake, and all of Sweeney Lake adjacent to Glenwood Park. The map legend indicated that Robbinsdale planned to preserve the entire shorelines of Twin Lakes and Crystal Lake as parkland as well. Too bad that didn’t happen.

Five years later, in the 1935 annual report, Wirth’s last as park superintendent, he published his own “Tentative Study Plan” for a park district for the west metropolitan region. Wirth had been directed by the park board in February 1935 to undertake the study in hopes that the board could apply for federal work relief funds to begin to implement a metropolitan park plan. Although funds were not forthcoming for that project, the idea of a county park system eventually led to the creation of what is today the Three Rivers Park District.

Wirth submitted his report to the board in November 1935 and it was published in its entirety in that year’s annual report. Wirth noted that his plan had been created in collaboration with Arthur Nichols, who was then the consulting landscape architect to the Minnesota Highway Department. Wirth wrote that he and Nichols had spent one afternoon a week for two months touring possible park and parkway sites in suburban and rural Hennepin County and had completed their research with aerial reconnaissance of prospective parks.

These two events in which Morell and Nichols worked with Wirth on park design don’t tell us much about their practice, except that they seemed to have an effective working relationship with Wirth and were well-known to him and other decision makers, from developers to county commissioners. Phelps Wyman also knew Morell and Nichols. Morell was a consultant to the Minneapolis Planning Commission on which Wyman sat as the representative of the park board in the early 1920s. Wyman and Nichols had worked together for the US Housing Corporation in Washington, D.C. during the Great War. Moreover Nichols had been the first graduate in 1902 of MIT’s landscape architecture program, which Wyman completed a few years later. Having attended the same educational institution at a time when few academic programs in landscape architecture existed would have likely created some bond between them.

Phelps Wyman and Victory Memorial Drive

Of the three “pioneers” in landscape design, Wyman had by far the most input on park landscape architecture in Minneapolis due to his service as an elected park commissioner 1917-1924. In an earlier post I noted Wyman’s design of what is now Thomas Lowry Park, his proposed plan for Washburn Fair Oaks, and his suggestion of a traffic circle to relieve congestion at the Hennepin and Lyndale Avenue bottleneck. What I overlooked in that post was perhaps Wyman’s most creative park design, which Wirth included in the park board’s annual report of 1929 even though the plan had been created eight years earlier. (Phelps resigned from the park board and moved to Milwaukee in 1924, one reason I didn’t consider looking for Wyman’s influence on park designs in documents from the late 1920s.)

In the 1929 annual report Wirth included Wyman’s “Preliminary Sketch of Victory Memorial Drive” from 1921 to illustrate the need for grade separations between parkways and city streets in some locations. In Wyman’s sketch, Broadway Avenue West tunneled under a large plaza at the intersection of Victory Memorial Drive and Lowry Avenue North. Wirth provided no explanation of why Wyman created his “decorative scheme” for the parkway, but it is a fascinating design.

Phelps Wyman’s design for Victory Memorial Drive, 1921 (1929 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners)

Among Wyman’s more interesting ideas — in addition to putting  Broadway underneath an extensive plaza:

  • Three plazas would have anchored the drive: one at Camden (Webber) Park was labelled “America Mobilized,” the monument plaza and flag pole at the northwest corner of the drive was titled “Humanity,” and the Lowry Avenue Plaza was called “America at Peace.”
  • Another plaza, “Freedom of Seas”, would have connected Victory Memorial Drive to Crystal Lake between 39th and 40th avenues north. The only connection I can imagine between a stretch of land along a Robbinsdale lake and a “Freedom of Seas” park is the sinking of the Lusitania, an important factor in the U.S. entry into WWI and the resulting dead young men and women who were honored along Victory Memorial Drive.
  • The west side of Victory Memorial Drive from Lowry Avenue to 45th would have been reserved for “Public Institutions.”

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Minneapolis Parks 100 Years Ago

The Minneapolis park board and other park activists in town have a full plate this year: a new park superintendent, reorganization and significant staff turnover, Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition and Initiative, development of Boom Island and B. F. Nelson parks, proposed green finger of parks running into downtown from the river through Gateway Park past the library, potential power plant—Crown Hydro—on park property, and a budget inadequate to do much else. Those are only a handful of the bigger challenges.

But, hah!, Wilbur Decker and Theodore Wirth, park board president and superintendent respectively in 1911, would smirk at this puny agenda. It’s nothing compared to what the park board did 100 years ago. Here’s a summary of what the park board accomplished in 1911. Continue reading

Has the Park Board Neglected Northeast Minneapolis?

The argument is sometimes made, particularly by “Nordeasters,” that northeast Minneapolis is park poor and that the Minneapolis park board has neglected that part of the city.  “Underserved” seems to be the popular word. The idea even flowed as an undercurrent through the recent Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition. The thinking goes that ever since Minneapolis and St. Anthony merged in 1872, and took the name Minneapolis, power, money and prestige—not to mention amenities such as parks—have accumulated west and south of the river. (Read Lucille M. Kane, The Waterfall That Built a City, for a fascinating examination of why that might have happened.)

While writing recently about Alice Dietz and the marvelous programs she ran at the Logan Park field house I thought again about the perceived neglect of Northeast and whether it might be true. I concluded that it is not; northeast Minneapolis has been a victim of industry, topography and opportunity, but not discrimination or even indifference. What’s more, all those elements have now realigned, putting northeast Minneapolis in the position to get a far bigger slice of the park pie in the foreseeable future than any other section of the city.

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