Theodore Wirth was one of the driving forces that transformed Minneapolis into a city known for its parks, lakes and fabulous recreational opportunities. Hired by the Board of Park Commissioners in 1906, Wirth built upon H.W.S. Cleveland’s park master plan which called for large scenic park areas connected by parkways. Thanks to the work of Charles Loring and other Board Commissioners, more than 1,800 acres of park land had already been secured by the time Wirth arrived, with proceedings well underway to acquire many more acres via purchase and donation. Most of the acreage was secured for its excellent scenic qualities including Lakes Harriet, Calhoun, and Isles, Minnehaha Creek, Minnehaha Park, land on both banks of the Mississippi River, Sandy Lake at Columbia Park, and the beginnings of Glenwood (now Wirth) Park. These parks and the pleasure drives that connected them became known as the Grand Rounds, a title suggested by Park Commissioner William W. Folwell.
Under Wirth’s supervision lakes were dredged, parkways built, wetlands filled, shorelines reshaped, channels created, trees planted and parkland beautified. During his tenure, millions of tons of earth were rearranged to meet Wirth’s vision for useful parks--land dry enough to drive on or water deep enough to sail on. In addition to the large scenic parks, Wirth and the Park Board responded to residents’ demands across the city to buy and improve land for neighborhood parks. However, in order to get a new neighborhood park, residents had to agree to be assessed for the cost of the land acquisition and its beautification. In 1910 Wirth oversaw the design and construction of the first golf course in Minneapolis at Glenwood (now Wirth) Park. This new recreational activity proved so popular that four more courses were built; Armour (now Francis Gross), Columbia, Meadowbrook, and Hiawatha. During Wirth’s tenure an additional 3400 acres were added to the park system – some were neighborhood parks while others were more scenic such as Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha, Shingle Creek and Victory Memorial Drive.
At the request of the Minneapolis City Council in 1927, Wirth and Board of Park Commissioners purchased the defunct Wold-Chamberlain automobile racing track located just beyond the city’s limits. The Board then became the owners of the official Municipal Airport, which is exactly where the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport still stands today (although it is no longer owned or operated by the Park Board).
At age 72, right before he retired in 1935, Wirth worked in collaboration with the State Department of Highways to develop a tentative study plan for a “Metropolitan Park System”--with a governing commission--to encompass the Mississippi, the Minnesota and Crow Rivers. This plan set the stage for the resulting regional park system that today includes more than 52,000 acres in six counties (Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Washington), serves more than 35 million annual visitors and is governed by the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board remains one of the best park systems in the country and even the world (as noted by U.S. News & World Report). Our thanks are due to the godfathers of the Minneapolis Park System for setting this gold standard of parks; namely H.W.S. Cleveland, Charles Loring, and William Folwell and Theodore Wirth. Their vision for scenic connected parks, available and accessible to all, ensured that parks are integral to the quality of life Minneapolis residents still enjoy today.
~MaryLynn Pulscher, Minneapolis, MN