City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks

City of Parks was published to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of the creation of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners in 1883.

The historic book is the first account of park history since Theodore Wirth’s memoir was published in 1945. Proceeds go to The Minneapolis Parks Foundation to build on the rich legacy of private contributions to the Minneapolis Park System.

City of Parks tells the stories of how Minneapolis acquired its revered parks and how the park system became an important contributor to the quality of life in all parts of the city.


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City of Parks relates in a highly readable narrative the events leading up to the historic action in 1883 and the decisions of the Minneapolis Park Board since then—the turning points in park history—that led to the Park System that defines the city 125 years later.

Inspired by Horace Cleveland and guided by Charles Loring and William Folwell, the park board created a system of parks connected by parkways—today’s Grand Rounds—along the most scenic features of the city. But the Board also acquired neighborhood parks that became centers of community life and planted the trees that shade city streets.

City of Parks relates in fascinating detail the contributions of many individuals whose names grace today’s parks: Maude Armatage, Eloise Butler, George Brackett, Francis Gross and many others. In addition the book chronicles the successes we know about and the failures we’ve forgotten of prominent park superintendents, such as William Berry, Theodore Wirth, Charles Doell and Robert Ruhe.

From parks that were once private gardens, garbage dumps and cemeteries, to a Park Board-operated airport, golf courses and a zoo, from lakes that disappeared or were made bigger, smaller or deeper, to the redevelopment of an industrial riverfront, City of Parks tells the stories of the public spaces that have become so important to Minneapolis. Along the way the Park Board has battled landowners, mayors and city councils, freeway planners and pernicious beetles that wiped out many of the city’s elm trees.

City of Parks tells how the people of a city fought to preserve natural resources and open spaces, and shape them to meet evolving needs. The stories are both inspiring and instructional as Minneapolis looks to understand its past and anticipate its future.

ISBN: 978-0-615-19535-3

Type: Hardcover

Pages: 256

Images: 146 (96 black and white, 43 color), 4 maps

Dimensions: 8.75 x 10.75 inches

Publication Date: July 11, 2008

Publisher: University Of Minnesota Press

David C. Smith

David C. Smith has been a resident of Minneapolis for more than 30 years. He grew up on the other side of the river, spending his childhood roaming the bluffs of the Mississippi River near Mounds Park in St. Paul.

Following graduation from Hamline University, where he majored in political science, he spent most of the next ten years outside of the United States. As a Peace Corps volunteer he was director of recreation at a national penitentiary in Colombia and the national basketball coach in Nigeria. He then joined the U.S. diplomatic service and served as vice consul at the American embassies in Spain and Zambia.

He is a freelance writer, writing for many publications and corporations. This is his first book. He lives in southwest Minneapolis with his wife and daughter.

On the three extraordinary men – Charles Loring, William Folwell and Horace Cleveland – who helped create and manage the fledgling park system (page 3):

Loring and Folwell were the thoughtful, immensely practical men who saw what needed doing and never lost sight of it. But Cleveland was a crusader. It was Cleveland who could incite a crowd to a “thunderous ovation” or a “cyclone of applause.” And he was an artist. He understood how to create a pleasing environment, how to lay out a road, a path, a park, how to interpret the gifts of nature for the enjoyment of the eye, the heart and the soul. But most of all he was a lover of nature’s beauty and its character-building beneficence.

On the expansion of the Park Board’s role in city life (page 40):

The park board even put up lights around the Central (Loring) Park (skating) rink in 1885. That’s when George Brackett made a motion that expanded the scope of park board responsibilities. His motion seemed only fair. If we’re going to maintain a rink at Central Park, he must have thought, the residents of other parts of the city should have rinks too. So Brackett suggested that rinks should also be maintained at Logan Park and at Murphy Square, “or the vicinity.” With those words, Brackett acknowledged that it was the activity, not the park, that was central to his proposal. By adopting Brackett’s resolution, the park board showed that it was willing to step off park land to provide a service that it believed was needed and no one else was providing.

On Theodore Wirth, Park Superintendent 1906-1935 (pages 108, 139):

Wirth may not have fathered the park system, but he did raise it through the difficult, often exasperating years of its adolescence. Parks were growing fast and not quite sure what they would become.

In the first thirty years of the century, Wirth and the park boards he served had created a fabulous park system by the standards of 1906. But the times had passed them by. Cleveland’s vision of preserving natural beauty had been achieved. But no vision for a park system to meet the city’s [recreation] needs in 1930 or beyond had replaced it.

On Francis Gross, Park Commissioner and Park Board President 1917-1919, 1936-1948 (page 150):

Gross provided the philosophical foundation for (post-war) plans. “The frontiers of human welfare, understanding and happiness,” he wrote, “are today as close, as real and as of great a scope as ever were the physical frontiers that challenged past generations. In spite of our professed principles of human justice, we still do not have equal opportunities in all quarters. The most satisfying argument for equal recreation opportunities for all remains the simple one of human justice.”

On Robert Ruhe, Park Superintendent 1966-1978 (page 171):

A large, intimidating man – often brutally frank – Ruhe was brought to Minneapolis to replace Howard Moore in 1966 to shake things up, to break the cozy status quo. His attitude…was that he would rather be blamed for doing something rather than be blamed for doing nothing. The “something” he did in his first four years changed the direction of the park board.

On the future of Minneapolis Parks (page 228):

When Jon Gurban presented his 2008 work plan to the park board on September 27, 2007, he concluded with two goals born of the work of nearly 150 years of park planning. Ultimately, he said, the goal of Minneapolis parks was to create “a sense of place and a sense of belonging.” Those were fitting—and consistent—goals for the parks that have largely come to define the city and millions of people who have lived in it since parks were created.