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Theodore Wirth

1863 - 1949

Inducted October 1988

 "Parks are for the people."
~Theodore Wirth

Theodore Wirth, a Swiss landscape gardener, became widely recognized in the beginning of the twentieth century as the dean of the park movement in America. While serving as superintendent of parks in Hartford, CT, he developed the fi rst municipal rose garden in the nation, and thereby set a standard for emerging park departments to follow.

His greatest accomplishments in the park field occurred while he was superintendent of the Minneapolis Park Department. Under Wirth’s direction, the Minneapolis system, developed around its chain of lakes, became widely acclaimed. His ambition was to make the Minneapolis park system unequaled in the country with its natural majesty and recreation opportunities. A true love for the grace of nature and landscape, coupled with skill in the horticultural adornment of land in both formal and informal gardens, enabled Wirth to develop and advance park philosophy in America.

While initially a follower of the old school park concept––parks should be established first for beauty and aesthetic dignity and secondly for passive recreation––Wirth soon become a strong proponent for the establishment of playgrounds and the use of parks for active forms of recreation.

Commissioners and officials planting trees at Lake Calhoun in 1916. This was part of the development for the Minneapolis Parkway System. Commissioner R. E. Fischer; J. A. Ridgeway, Secretary of the Board; Commissioners Harry B. Cramer, Joseph Allen, P. C. Deming; Attorney C. J. Rockwood; Commissioners W. F. Decker, A. A. McRae, Francis A. Gross; and Theodore Wirth, Superintendent of Parks.
Minneapolis Park Legacy Society


First Municipal Rose Garden in Elizabeth Park, Hartford, CT, early 1900s.
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Wirth was a founding member of the American Institute of Park Executives in 1898. He passed his commitment to parks and to the environment on to his family. Two of his sons (Conrad and Walter Wirth) and a grandson (Theodore J. Wirth) have maintained his heritage of service to the park movement. The National Park Foundation established the Wirth Environmental Award to honor the century of leadership provided by Wirth and his son, Conrad, who served as director of the National Park Service for many years.

Wirth’s philosophy of park use was that the parks are for the people. Under his direction of the system “keep off the grass” signs disappeared from Minneapolis parks, and he introduced playgrounds and other features of park utilities suitable for the intensive use to which municipal park systems are put. Horticultural advancement in park work was one of his aims. One of the most important principles to which Wirth adhered in his park administration work is 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 these 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 refectories, boat, and other revenue-producing facilities be operated by the park department in the interest of the public.

A pioneer in many phases of planning, Wirth was one of the first to advocate beauty along highways. He emphasized the importance of roadside improvement from the standpoint of appearance. This influenced greatly how local, state, and federal agencies viewed the significance of their natural resources.

Wirth brought fame to himself, as well as to Minneapolis, through his park work, and he received high honors as a park planner and executive. Minneapolis Parks were rated number one in the nation by 1928. Their distinguishing feature, a chain of lakes within the city limits, each surrounded by park property, is a worthy memorial to his work and vision.

Theodore Wirth received the Pugsley Medal in 1930 “for his services in developing the Minneapolis Park System.” The Pugsley Medal is the most prestigious award that recognizes outstanding contributions to the promotion and development of public parks in the United States.
Minneapolis Park Legacy Society

Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • Wirth, T. (2006 Limited Edition). Minneapolis Park System 1883-1944. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Park Legacy Society.

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