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Theodore J. Wirth: a fine park planner with wise advice for Nov. 3 election

On Sept. 4, 2009, Theodore J. Wirth (Ted), an internationally recognized landscape architect who specialized in park planning, died at his home in Minneapolis.

On Nov. 3, 2009, Minneapolitans will be going to the polls. Every voter in Minneapolis can vote for park commissioners, one commissioner for the voter’s district and three at-large commissioners. I feel it is tragic that Ted Wirth will not be with us to cast his vote. It was important to Ted that we protect our parks by electing the best possible candidates for park commissioner — so much so that he left us his endorsements, with which I agree.

I first met Ted 10 years ago because, while reading his grandfather’s book, “Minneapolis Park System 1883-1944,” my curiosity was sparked. I wanted to know: Who was this man Theodore Wirth who designed and built the world-class park system that we Minneapolitans enjoy today? Al Wittman, a Minneapolis park historian, suggested I call the author’s grandson, Ted Wirth, who was living in Billings, Mont.

I said to Al, “What would Ted Wirth know? He is only a grandson.” Al explained to me that there was no one else alive who could tell me more about the elder Theodore Wirth — and he went on to tell me why.

The oldest grandson, a landscape architect
First, because Ted Wirth was the oldest grandson of Theodore Wirth, Ted knew his grandfather well. Ted spent childhood summers in Minneapolis at his grandfather’s home at 3954 Bryant Avenue South, the same home that was the deal-maker when the early park commissioners recruited the elder Wirth to Minneapolis to design and develop the one-of-a-kind Minneapolis Park System that we have today.

Second, because Ted, like his grandfather, had been educated to become a landscape architect.

Third, because Ted, like his grandfather, had dedicated a lifetime to public park and recreation planning.

Now I understood. I picked up the phone and called Ted Wirth, who happened to be at his Jackson, Wyo. design office. Once our dialogue began, it didn’t stop for 10 years.

Ted invited my husband and me to come there for a meeting. We flew to Jackson in November 1999. During that visit, many of my questions about Theodore Wirth were answered. In addition, I was fascinated to learn about Ted Wirth. It was clear to me why Al Wittman had referred Ted to me as the ultimate knowledgeable resource.

Cutting-edge work in park and recreation planning
I came to understand that Wirth family leadership was cutting edge in park and recreation planning. Ted’s long, prolific career was the final extension of his father’s and grandfather’s work. As the third generation Wirth landscape architect, Ted was the namesake and grandson of Minneapolis Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth (1863-1949) and the son of Conrad Wirth (1899-1993), the landscape architect who was the longest serving director of the National Park Service (NPS). Since 1950, Ted had designed and implemented a broad range of plans and projects in nearly every state in the country, as well as abroad.

Early in his career, Ted had worked for the National Park Service. One of his first projects had been planning public access to Rocky Mountain National Park. By 1955, he had become the planning director and landscape architect for the NPS’ Western Division, where he was in charge of all planning and development for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

In 1961, Ted established Wirth Design Associates in Billings.Wirth Design produced more than 350 municipal, state and national park projects. Some well-known examples of state park projects that Ted designed are Lake Tahoe State Park in California; LBJ Ranch State Park in Texas; Carver State Park in Minnesota; and Custer State Park in Custer, S.D. He also designed the North Dakota State Park System Master Plan.

Transformed decaying industrial site
In 1987, Ted was hired by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) to design and develop a decaying industrial site on the Mississippi River. Ted’s genius transformed this blighted property into the municipal park we know as Boom Island Park. Subsequently, Ted produced the conceptual studies for the Cedar Lake Trails, which generated 60 miles of bicycle trails throughout Minneapolis. In 2004, he designed and installed the Theodore Wirth Statue Garden at Theodore Wirth Park in honor of his grandfather.

* * *

That day in Jackson, Wyo., changed the course of my life, and it also changed the life of Ted Wirth. With great enthusiasm, Ted began to turn his attention to the history of public parks as a means to establish a greater understanding of the value they bring to the quality of daily life. He began traveling to Minneapolis on a regular basis so that he could teach Minneapolitans about his grandfather, who had been a true pioneer in the field of park and recreation planning.

Ted and I began to collaborate. The centerpiece of the project would be his grandfather’s home. We worked to have the building placed on the National Register. Because Theodore Wirth was the dean of the American municipal parks movement, and because Theodore Wirth’s design offices were within the home, on June 7, 2002, the National Park Service entered the historic home on the National Register of Historic Places as: “The Theodore Wirth Home and Administration Building,” a national historic site. Ted and I began giving tours. The public loved hearing Ted describe his grandfather while he showed them through the house. Ted was proud to show his grandfather’s office and the design studio, which were the actual location where his grandfather created the designs for the Minneapolis Park System.

A century after his grandfather had arrived, 78-year-old Ted turned his entire focus to Minneapolis parks history. He retired from his practice and relocated to Minneapolis in 2005. He put 55 years of experience to work. Together we assembled a proposal to the park board: We would fund, restore, furnish, staff and open the historic home as a learning center. Ted intended to implement a curriculum for school-age children during the week and adult tours on weekends. Our efforts ultimately were thwarted; Ted was discouraged that the project had become a casualty of bureaucratic politics, but he was hopeful that the upcoming city election would bring positive change.

Last summer, when his health declined, I promised Ted that I would carry on our work until his vision for the Wirth House became a reality. I received a big smile for that promise shortly before Ted’s last breath. According to Ted’s wishes, he was laid to rest beside his father and grandfather in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. Their dedication to parks for the people has given us a legacy of municipal, state, national and even international parks from which people benefit every day.

Wirth’s endorsements
I think it is very important that the citizens of Minneapolis know that Ted Wirth wanted very much to make a difference. Before Ted died, he decided to endorse the nine park board candidates that he believed would best represent the “Wirth-while” ideals upon which the Minneapolis Park System was established. And so, on August 13, 2009, knowing his time was limited, Ted mailed individual letters of endorsement to nine park commissioner candidates. Each letter was signed “See you in the Parks, Ted.”

Ted Wirth and I agreed on his choices. He believed the following nine park board candidates would best respect and respond to the public, while protecting our precious legacy of parks and recreation: District 1 — Liz Wielinski; District 2 — Michael Guest; District 3 — Scott Vreeland; District 4 — Anita Tabb; District 5 — Jason Stone; District 6 — Brad Bourn; citywide candidates — Annie Young, Tom Nordyke and John Erwin.

See you in the parks!

Joan Berthiaume is a Minneapolis resident and park historian who met Ted Wirth in 1999 and collaborated with him for 10 years on the Wirth House project.

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