Switzerland and Midwest Connections: Theodore Wirth — Splendid parks for the people

Switzerland in the USA
4 min readApr 13


Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

The name Theodore Wirth is well known in Minneapolis and he is the person most responsible for the high quality of the city’s park system. The National Park Foundation established the Wirth Environmental Award to honor the century of leadership provided by Wirth and his son, Conrad, who became the longest serving director of the National Park Service.

From Winterthur Apprentice to Legendary Park Designer

Born in 1863, Theodore Wirth was the second child of Johann Conrad, a school teacher in Winterthur, and his wife Martha Wiget Wirth. He showed an early interest in horticulture and completed a three-year apprenticeship followed by an engineering course at the Technicum in Winterthur, which enabled him to become a professional gardener. He interned at the Kew Gardens in London and the Jardins des Plantes in Paris, before emigrating to New York in 1888.

In 1896, Wirth was hired as the first professional superintendent of parks for the City of Hartford, Connecticut. When the city took over the estate from Charles Pond, as Elizabeth Park, he planted 275 trees, and 21,000 shrubs. Between 1900 and 1902, the stock grew to 250,000 plants, including begonias, chrysanthemums, cannas, and geraniums. As early as 1902, flower shows had taken place at the nursery, attracting thousands of visitors. He designed 60 acres of the remaining land as a picturesque pleasure ground complete with brooks, ponds, meadows, and forests. Wirth even brought in a flock of sheep “for the pleasure and enjoyment to the visitors.” By 1905, news of the rose garden was published all over the country as having few equals. It is recorded that on a single Sunday in 1905, 10,000 people came to the park and in 1906, there were 215,000 visitors. In 1911, a large manufacturer of postcards reported that his company sold more postcards of Elizabeth Park than any other park in the country.

Charles Loring, representing the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, recruited Theodore Wirth in 1905 to take over the Minneapolis Park System. Wirth agreed on the condition that the Park Board would build a home for him and his family. He further stipulated that the house must be in a city park because he wanted to be able to observe people actually using the parks. Wirth and architect Lowell Lamoreaux co-designed the house in Lyndale Farmstead Park, which was completed in 1910. Three upper floors became the Wirth family home, whilst the lower level contained Wirth’s office and a large room where his staff of draftsmen helped him design and re-design nearly all of Minneapolis’s parks. Wirth also oversaw the construction of neighborhood parks all over the city and he remained superintendent from 1906 to 1935. He continued living in the house and working as Superintendent Emeritus for a while before passing away in 1949 at age 86.

The Wirth Legacy

Between 1910 and 1930, Theodore Wirth developed almost every municipal rose garden in the United States and Canada. He passed away in 1949 at age 86. Of his three children, Walter Wirth became superintendent of parks in New Haven, Connecticut. His other son Theodore enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy, attaining the rank of admiral. Conrad Wirth studied landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts and was in private practice for five years as a landscaper and town planner, before working for the National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Washington. He joined the National Park Service in 1931 as assistant director in charge of the nation’s Civilian Conservation Corps. As director of the park service from 1951 to 1964, Conrad Wirth developed a 10-year “Mission 66” program to spruce up the national parks for the service’s 50th anniversary in 1966. He served as the first chairman of New York State Historic Trust and executive director of the Hudson Valley Commission. Conrad was the first recipient of the Wirth Environmental Award named in honor of him and his father by the National Park Foundation. A grandson, also named Theodore, made a name for himself as a landscape architect who during his long career designed more than 350 park and recreation areas throughout the United States and as far away as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

For more information, you can visit the Minneapolis Park and Recreation website here: https://www.mnrpa.org; and the Elizabeth Park Conservancy here: http://www.elizabethparkct.org .

St. Louis Park with Wirth Chalet in Minneapolis (Courtesy Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)
Theodore Wirth at his desk in early 1900s. (Courtesy Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)



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