Theodore Wirth (1863-1949)
Theodore Wirth (1863-1949) was inducted into the Recreation and Park Hall of Fame in 1988. He received the Pugsley Silver Medal in 1930 “for his services in developing the park system. He was widely recognized in the first third of the 20 century as the dean of the local parks movement in America. He was a horticulturist, professional park planner, and administrator who immigrated to the in the late 1880s from Switzerland.
His father was a school teacher in Winterthur, Switzerland, who, in the 1800’s conceived and implemented after-school recreation programs and summer camps in the Alps for Swiss children. Theodore bonded closely with his teacher father. At weekends and vacation times they roamed the beautiful Swiss valleys and lower mountain sides, studying flowers and trees and rocks. He studied botany and geology on these trips.
As a schoolboy, Wirth showed interest towards horticulture and spent most of his leisure in the greenhouses and gardens of a neighboring florist. As soon as he had finished high school he became an apprentice with Stahel Brothers, one of the leading horticultural firms in Switzerland. After his apprenticeship of three years, he took a special course in engineering at the Technicum in Winterthur which qualified him as a professional gardener.
One of Wirth’s first jobs was in 1883, in the landscape department of the National Exhibition in Zurich where he assisted in the laying out and maintenance of the exhibition grounds. Consistent with the custom of those days, he sought experience abroad and spent four years in London and Paris. In London, he was employed for two years by a grower and florist. His work for this firm in arranging window box decorations for private residences in all parts of the city took him daily to The Covent Garden flower market. After working for a few months in the orchid houses of Sanders & Company in St. Albans, he went to Paris in 1886 and was employed in the Jardins des Plantes and later with a commercial establishment. He returned to Switzerland to take a position on a large private estate near Constance, and in the winter of 1887-1888, he entered the service of the City Gardner of Zurich in order to be able to attend night school in that city. By that time, Wirth had decided to go to America, and his night school studies were courses in English.
In April, 1888, Wirth landed in New York. In order to establish himself in the New World, he worked for a short time for a private gardener in Morristown, New Jersey. He had been promised a position in Central Park, New York, and while waiting for this job to become available, he worked for a rose grower in South Orange, New Jersey. By summer, his New York municipal position became a reality, and he worked in the New York Parks Department greenhouses and with the planting and forestry crews for a year.
Within two or three years he had worked up to the position of sub-superintendent of Riverside Park in New York City. A change of city administrations left hundreds of municipal employees without jobs, but Wirth found employment with the state of New York at Niagara State Reservation and later at the Perkins estate at Glen Cove, Long Island. Here he worked under a Frenchman, Felix Mense, who was manager of the estate. A few years later he married Leonie Mense, the manager’s eldest daughter.
In 1896, he accepted an offer to become superintendent of parks in Hartford, Connecticut, where he began his long and distinguished career in the public parks field. A new park commission had just been organized and the construction period of the city park system had just begun. He served in Hartford for ten years, developing the parks system based on plans provided by Olmsted. There he developed the first municipal rose garden in the nation, and his work at Hartford set the standard for park departments. He began to receive offers from other cities as his reputation grew and in 1906 he accepted a similar position as superintendent of parks in Minneapolis where he remained until his retirement 30 years later in 1936 at the mandatory age of 72.
At Minneapolis, he demonstrated that he was an imaginative planner and excellent designer, and he was one of the first park administrators to establish a professional recreation department as part of his organization. His plans provided for parks around all natural waterways and lakes, a playground within a quarter-mile of every child, and a complete recreation center within a half-mile of every family. In January, 1906, when Wirth arrived in Minneapolis, the park system consisted of 57 different properties, covering an area of 1810 acres with a total inventory value of $3.5 million. When he retired in 1935, the inventory showed a total area of 5241 acres contained in 144 properties with a total value of $19.1 million. He transformed marginal undeveloped land into parks, golf courses, flower gardens and boulevards. To eliminate swampy sections and frequent flooding, he dredged lakes and graded their banks. Then he designed a thoroughly integrated and coherent park system influenced by Olmsted’s visionary insights.
Wirth’s ambition was to make the Minneapolis Park System unequaled in the country with its natural majesty and recreation opportunities. He was successful. The Minneapolis Park System was so outstanding that park planners from throughout the world came to study its development. Organized around its chain of lakes, the system became widely acclaimed for its aesthetic and functional integrity. During his tenure as superintendent, Wirth also championed the expansion of the park system to the outlying areas of Hennepin County, an idea manifested today in the form of Three Rivers Park District.
Wirth made extensive and imaginative use of the Elwell Law passed in Minnesota in 1911, which provided for the issuance of bonds for acquisition and improvement, secured by levying assessments on those who lived proximately and thus benefited from the parks. Wirth visited neighborhood improvement associations and civic groups throughout the city, presenting plans of what could be provided in their area with estimates of cost. When the audience were informed of what the annual assessment per property would be over a given period (often ten years), they invariably voted to form a special assessment district and proceed with the project. If they elected to wait until the city as a whole appropriated funds for it, it would be many years, if ever, before the projects came to fruition, but if they formed the special district and paid the assessment it became a reality within two years. This mechanism was a key to Wirth’s success in Minneapolis. For example, between 1920 and 1924, twenty-six projects were made possible either wholly or partially through this law.
Possessed by a true love for the grace of nature and landscape, coupled with his skill in the horticultural adornment of land in both formal and informal gardens, Wirth advanced park philosophy and practices across America. Initially, Wirth was a follower of the traditional school of thinking that parks should be established first for beauty and aesthetic dignity and second for passive recreation. However, by the time he arrived in Minneapolis he had become a strong proponent for the establishment of playgrounds and for the use of parks for active forms of recreation. He tore down fences that surrounded Minneapolis’ park turf areas, and put up signs reading “Please Walk on the Grass” to emphasize his conviction that parks were to be used. Wirth understood the significance of beauty in human life, and while he maintained places of great beauty as public parks, he also came to be appreciated as an advocate of active recreation.
Wirth adhered to the principle that the expense of facilities for any special interest, such as golf, together with the cost of operation and maintenance, should be met by those who participate in those specialized forms of recreation. He also insisted that no service in parks should be conducted for private gain, and remained opposed to concessions in parks. He advocated that boat, food and other revenue-producing facilities be operated by the park department in the interest of the public.
The park, parkway and playground system, which Wirth masterminded, is perhaps the community’s biggest asset and has made the city famous throughout the nation. He provided a synopsis of the Minneapolis Park System in the October 1943 issue of Planning and Civic Comment. In a testimonial presented at his retirement, the park board expressed its “sincere love, admiration and esteem for his ability as a designer and administrator, his devotion to duty, his loyalty and his unflinching adherence to professional and moral ethics.”
In 1944, Wirth wrote a detailed history of the Minneapolis Park System 1883-1944. In his preface comments to the book, the president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners observed, “A pioneer and leader in every phase of park planning, administration, and service, Mr. Wirth is known throughout the land as Dean of park men, and is heralded as an authority in his beloved profession.” In his honor, the Board renamed an existing 38-acre water area as Theodore Wirth Lake, which was in Glenwood Park. This park subsequently became Theodore Wirth Park. At 743 acres, it is the largest park in the Minneapolis park system. In 2002, the NPS entered the Theodore Wirth Home and Administration Building on the National Register of Historic Places because:
It was built as a home for Theodore Wirth, an international figure in the field of park design, by the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners to encourage Wirth to come to Minneapolis to expand, design and develop the Minneapolis Park System.
His administration offices within the building were the actual location where Theodore Wirth designed or redesigned the award-winning Minneapolis parks.
The house was constructed to Wirth’s specification and located in the middle of Lyndale Farmstead Park. Wirth wanted to be inspired by watching people using parks.
In 2004, the Theodore Wirth Statue Garden, designed by his grandson Theodore J. Wirth, was opened. It consisted of a larger than life statue of Wirth surrounded by twelve children representing the diverse population of Minneapolis and his policies of equal access for all people regardless of race or economic status. The children are depicted enjoying the new found recreation opportunities Wirth provided for them when he encouraged active play and recreation in Minneapolis Parks.
Theodore Wirth held membership in the American Planning and Civic Association for many years, but his outstanding organizational work was with the American Institute of Park Executives, of which he was a charter member in 1898. He wielded tremendous influence in that organization serving three terms as president, one year as director, and three years as treasurer. As the sole surviving charter member, Wirth attended the fiftieth anniversary of the American Institute of Park Executives in 1948. Soon afterwards he was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter at the age of 86.
Theodore Wirth shared his commitment to parks and recreation with his family. Two of his three sons, and a grandson, maintained his heritage of service to the park and recreation movement. Conrad L. Wirth became director of the National Park Service; Walter L. Wirth was superintendent of parks in New Haven, Connecticut, and superintendent of the Salem, Oregon, Regional Parks System. Both sons held the office of president of the American Institute of Park Executives. The third son, Theodore, ignored the family tradition of horticulture in favor of a career in the U.S. Navy, attaining the rank of admiral.
Sources used in development of this biography:
- Planning and Civic Comment, 1949, 15(1), pp. 64-65.
- Conrad L. Wirth (1980). Parks, politics, and the people. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Theodore Wirth (1945). Minneapolis park system 1883-1944. Minneapolis: Board of Park Commissioners.
- The Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society (2004) The MPLS Mirror, 2 (1).
Biography included in:
Crompton, J. L. (in press). Twentieth century champions of parks and conservation: The Pugsley Award Recipients 1928 – 1964. Volume 1. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.