Please Walk on the Grass: The Wirth-While Legacy of Common Ground
By Joan Berthiaume, Co-founder, Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society
Theodore Wirth (1863 - 1949)
Conrad L. Wirth, FASLA (1899 – 1993)
Theodore J. Wirth, FASLA (1927 - )
120 years ago in New York’s Central Park, a new forester was stopped by a park policeman while crossing the north meadow. He was firmly directed to retrace his steps, then take the long way home on the sidewalk. He vowed that hour as he plodded backward, “Things are going to be different if I am ever in a position of authority in park circles!” The new forester was Theodore Wirth.
He studied Landscape Architecture at night school and eighteen years later, Theodore Wirth became Superintendent of Minneapolis Parks, and he kept that vow. Theodore coined the phrase, “Parks are for the People” and received recognition across the country for his revolutionary policies in park planning and design.
Theodore Wirth designed and developed his second public rose garden on the shore of Lake Harriet. Photos courtesy of the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society and National Geographic Society
Theodore was the trunk of the Wirth family tree, which produced two more Landscape Architects. His son Conrad L. Wirth, FASLA, became the 1972 recipient of the ASLA Medal and his grandson Theodore J. Wirth, FASLA, became the 1982 – 1983 ASLA National President. Their stellar commitment to public access and respect for every park user is the hallmark of every park touched by Wirth planning and design. Millions of park users from Alaska to Florida and Maine to California as well as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait City, are the beneficiaries of this Wirth-While legacy.
In Superintendent Wirth’s last official annual report in 1935, he made a visionary recommendation for a metropolitan park system in Minneapolis, which was implemented two decades later, and is known today as Three Rivers Parks.
Theodore Wirth was born on the eve of the industrial revolution amidst the beauty of Switzerland where, “Every place was like a park and was available to the people.” Theodore was close to his mother who tended her rose garden at their home. His father Konrad Wirth was a schoolteacher who believed in providing healthy recreation for children, and established the first known after-school recreation programs and a summer camp in the Alps for underprivileged children.
These influences became the foundation upon which Theodore Wirth built his life and career.
He apprenticed in horticulture before studying engineering at the Technikum in Zurich then traveled to New York to gain further experience in public parks, where, Samuel Parsons, Calvert Vaux and Fredrick Law Olmsted, became his mentors. The democratic principles of the American public park movement became his passion. Theodore Wirth decided to become an American.
Theodore was a Landscape Gardner on Olmsted’s Niagara Falls project in 1895, when he married and became the first Superintendent of the newly reorganized Hartford Connecticut Parks. By 1903 Theodore had designed and developed Elizabeth Park, which became the inspiration for municipal Rose Gardens throughout the country. This attracted the attention of Park Commissioner Charles Loring who spent the better part of 1905 recruiting the talented Landscape Architect to become Minneapolis Park Superintendent. He immediately removed fences and pulled out the “Keep off the grass” signs, replacing them with his new “Please walk on the grass” signs!
Yellowstone National Park: Conrad Wirth’s Mission 66 was the most significant public access program in the history of the National Parks. His initiative accomplished 130 new visitor centers, 2,000 new homes for employees, and training centers at Grand Canyon and Harpers Ferry. It built and repaved 2,000 miles of roads.
Theodore Wirth implemented his plan for a garden city, where healthy children could grow and people could live in harmony with nature and with one another. Expanding park acreage threefold, he refined and embellished the natural beauty of Minneapolis. He reshaped the Chain of Lakes and linked them with canals saying, “It would be just like Venice.” Planning for parks within six blocks of every child, he sprinkled playgrounds across the city. Carefully designed tennis courts, public golf courses and hiking trails bloomed within the beautiful landscapes.
Wirth lined boulevards in every neighborhood in Minneapolis with trees, to provide elegant pathways to parks. He extended and implemented the Grand Rounds concept of Landscape Architect H. W. S. Cleveland, wrapping sixty miles of picturesque parkways around the City like an emerald ribbon.
His policy that “Parks are for the masses and not the classes,” was recognized by the Inter-racial Council Award. Minneapolis parks were known as the Best Park System in the Nation by 1928 drawing park planners from around the world to study this unique, one-of-a-kind park system. In his honor, the grateful City renamed their largest park, Theodore Wirth Park, in 1938.
At nearly 80 years of age, Theodore took up the task of writing the history of the park system he had created, which he published in 1948. “Minneapolis Park System, 1883 – 1944 by Theodore Wirth remains the only published history of Minneapolis Parks. Theodore died in 1949 at age 85. As was his plan, he was buried in Lakewood Cemetery, within view of his cherished home and his beloved .
Glacier National Park: Connie’s response to accusations of overbuilding was blunt, “There is plenty of wilderness left in our parks, and I am convinced that it is worthwhile opening a few windows into it through which more people can derive pleasure”.
Minneapolis Park System
In a long handwritten letter of condolence to his son Connie Wirth, Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. wrote about Theodore-
“ Dear Connie,
…a personal friend of mine [Theodore Wirth] for more than fifty years and a great contributor to the cause of parks. …When we can get together for a quiet chat, I want to talk to you about something he and my father [Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr.] had very much in common… which was, I believe largely responsible for the great accomplishments of both of them in park work… a deep-seated, constant and compelling interest in and sympathy with, the people using the parks .
While in Minneapolis, Connie and Theodore taught young Ted to walk — foreshadowing Ted’s future — following in their footsteps.
Conrad L. Wirth (Connie)
Connie was born at the Wirth home in the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden and growing up observing the planning and design process in Theodore’s offices, it was only natural when Connie Wirth decided to become a Landscape Architect.
Connie studied Landscape Architecture at Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst, Massachusetts. In his first professional position, Connie worked in San Francisco, with Donald McLaren, whose father was the creator of Golden Gate Park. In 1924, as a partner in Neal and Wirth, Landscape Architects and Town Planners, in New Orleans, Connie planned subdivisions that included parks and playgrounds. Theodore’s first grandchild, Theodore Julian Wirth, was born in 1927. By that fall, the Great Depression had become evident along the Gulf Coast. Neal and Wirth found themselves out of business.
With a recommendation from Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. in 1928, Connie accepted a position with the National Capitol Park and Planning Commission in Washington, D.C.
Three years later, Horace Albright asked Connie Wirth to transfer to the National Park Service as Assistant Director for Land Planning. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his public works.
Through his design and development, a decaying industrial site on the Mississippi River was transformed into the beautiful Boom Island Park, and gave the public access to this view of the Mississippi River and downtown Minneapolis.
Responsibility for the entire State Park Civilian Conservation Corps was given to Connie Wirth. These programs employed thousands of young men who built hundreds of parks.
Connie Wirth became most well known as the longest serving Director of the National Park Service and served under four presidents from 1951-1964 . He personally proposed his ambitious plan, Mission 66, to President Eisenhower. This massive park system redevelopment was intended to serve the rapidly expanding post war population needs and provide better public to access to the National Parks, yet preserve the areas of outstanding scenic beauty in their natural state.
Mission 66 accomplished 130 new visitor centers, 2,000 new homes for employees and training centers at Grand Canyon and Harpers Ferry. It built or repaved 4,337 miles of roads and 936 miles of trails. Concessionaire facilities were rehabilitated and expanded. $31 million of campsites were added in the parks and 1.7 million acres of new parklands were acquired. Under the Directorship of Conrad L. Wirth, Historic Sites were placed under the protection of the National Park Service.
Always on the cutting edge, Ted carried American public park design principles and environmental values to Saudi Arabia. Ted Wirth designed the one-and-one-half million acre Asir National Park on the escarpment overlooking the Red Sea, along with more than 80 urban parks.
Conrad L. Wirth had planned and implemented the development of the parks as was his charge, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” President Lyndon Johnson called him, “… one of the greatest, finest, best public servants anywhere in the world.”
After he retired in 1964, Connie worked as a consultant to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as a Trustee of the National Geographic Society and as a consultant to his son Ted’s private Landscape Architecture practice. He wrote his book, “Parks, Politics and People” to tell the story of his life and career — planning parks — for the people. He died at age 93 in 1993.
Theodore J. Wirth (Ted)
Ted was born in New Orleans, on the eve of the Great Depression and spent childhood summers in Minnesota with his horticulturist grandfather Olson and his parks grandfather Wirth. In the summer of 1944, 16 year old Ted worked in the Thoroughfare area in Yellowstone He recognized the natural beauty of this land, and realized his intention to follow in Connie and Theodore’s footsteps.
Two years of engineering training and experience as a surveyor on the Washington Monument for the National Capitol Park and Planning Commission, preceded Ted’s decision to enter the School of Landscape Architecture at Iowa State College. He graduated with honors in 1950.
With volunteer guides, Ted has given twelve tours of his grandfather’s historic home, drawing over 3,000 members of the grateful public. He has begun to assemble a staff and raise private funds. With permission from the park board, he will implement the Theodore Wirth Interperetive Learning center as a service to the public because — parks are for people!
Ted started his career in 1950, working for on a TVA project, for Kentucky State Parks. National park use had expanded to over 37 million visitors for the year 1951, when Regional Director Howard Baker recruited Ted to accept a position as Landscape Architect in the National Park Service Omaha office. Ted’s first project was planning public access to Rocky Mountain National Park by establishing roads, campsites, entrances, and vistas while following the mandate to conserve and protect the environment. Ted became the Landscape Architect at Grand Teton National Park for the next two years.
In 1955, the number of National Park visitors had increased to 56.5 million and Ted was sent to the Western Division office in San Francisco as the Planning Director and Landscape Architect, overseeing both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The profession of Landscape Architecture was rapidly gaining prestige.
Tommy Church, FASLA, of San Francisco, counseled Ted to gain a broader variety of experience in private practice. Ted established Wirth Design Associates, in Billings, Montana. Connie joined Ted as a consultant in 1964.
Ted created a team and his motto, “Have pencil, will travel” became more truth than fiction as Wirth Design grew to include seven field offices. addressing a complete range of projects in nearly every state in the country and abroad for more than 40 years, producing more than 300 municipal, state and national park projects. All projects met the Wirth standard, “parks are for the people” and balanced potential for public use and recreational development, with environmental protection.
In the early 1980’s, Ted imprinted the Wirth standard on the Minneapolis Park System again. He produced conceptual studies for the Cedar Lake Trails that generated over 60 miles of bicycle trails throughout the city.
Following Asir National Park, Ted successfully designed and developed more than 80 urban parks and environmental open spaces (known as “gardens” to those within Muslim culture) Just as he would have done in the USA, Ted held public meetings and took public surveys to create parks in Kuwait City. “You might as well have been any place in the United States,” Ted reflected when describing the process. “Everyone, everywhere, wants the same things for their public spaces -- safe, shady places with water features, gardens and soccer fields; where they can meet and their children can play together. Humanity should be able to find common ground through their public parks.”
Ted’s prolific career had spanned over half a century when he began to turn his focus to the history of public parks as a means to establish a greater understanding of the tremendous value they bring to the quality of daily life. He retired in 2004 and relocated to Minneapolis to implement a historic preservation project that he co-founded, the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, whose mission is, “to preserve, protect and interpret the rich history of the Minneapolis Park System.”
Ted and the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, privately funded and implemented the Theodore Wirth Interpretive Statue Garden in Theodore Wirth Park, unveiled during the Wirth-While Weekend June, 2004; and in 2006 they republished a limited edition of his Grandfather’s book “Minneapolis Park System, 1883-1944” The Legacy Society, with Ted’s assistance, has developed a plan to open the Theodore Wirth Interpretive Learning Center. October 4, 2006, Ted Wirth and the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, hosted tours and a reception at the historic home for the ASLA and IFLA leadership preceding the ASLA/ IFLA Congress in Minneapolis.
I suppose there is no other single man in the United States who has done so much for the healthful recreation and pleasure of so many people.–Senator Harry F. Byrd, speaking of Conrad Wirth.
Incoming ASLA President, Pat Caughey, FASLA, introduced Ted to his guests, “…Ted Wirth, FASLA, has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in providing stewardship and leadership in preserving our national parks and open spaces. As a former ASLA National President, Ted demonstrated his value as a nationally recognized landscape architect and leader of our profession”.
For three generations, Wirth Landscape Architects have demonstrated the honorable intent of their beloved profession and through its application, they have created Wirth-While public parks for the people.
See you in the Parks!
- Contributing Editor Nancy Johnson
- Contributions by Ethan Carr, author “Mission 66”, available June, 2007
- Further Contributions by National Geographic Society
- All resource material on file in the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society Archives
- “See you in the parks! The Wirth-While Legacy of Common Ground” Published by the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society will be available 2008
- For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The White House Rose Garden
Perhaps no other project was conducted more within the public eye than the restoration of the White House during the Kennedy administration. As National Park Service Director, this was the responsibility of Conrad L. Wirth, including directing the design and development of the White House grounds. Connie took a personal interest in the White House Rose Garden.
The following excerpt from a hand written letter dated August 22, 1964, by Jacqueline Kennedy to Conrad L. Wirth, best describes the White House restoration —
Dear Mr. Wirth . . .
You know how much he [President Kennedy] cared about the White House and how it looked to the world — His love and care for the grounds were in the tradition of Washington and Jefferson. Though he didn’t realize that-or consciously strive to emulate them. He just knew that the President’s House should live up to an ideal and you helped him achieve that ideal. I was always so amazed and touched that with all he had to do — he could find the time to care about the gardens. He loved the Rose Garden so — it brought him such peace — and to gaze out at green lawns instead of crab grass ones. He was so proud when it looked beautiful-and then he started to receive Heads of State there — instead of at Andrews Air Force Base. He was so aware that it was you who made all that possible He felt so relieved and sure that the White House would stay the vision it was — once it was safely under the guardianship of the Park Service. Now he is gone and you are no longer the head of the National Parks — But the two of you will always be linked together — and you made possible for him some of the happiest hours — for which I am grateful to you forever . . .