Minneapolis Park and Rec Board negotiates new Wirth Home lease, could end tours

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It may be harder to get inside the Theodore Wirth Home soon.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is working on a new lease for Superintendent Al Bangoura. He moved into the house in January 2019 after moving to Minnesota. His family joined him in June, according to a Park and Rec Board spokesperson.

“They fell in love with the house, and I think it's awesome they want to stay there,” Commissioner Londel French said. “Probably would be the first black family to ever live in that house. To me that's significant, that's important, that's special.”

At Wednesday night’s Administration and Finance Committee meeting, Board Vice President LaTrisha Vetaw echoed those thoughts.

“When we first announced we were hiring Superintendent Bangoura, I couldn’t tell you how many calls, emails, text messages I got from the African American community asking me, 'Was he going to live in that house?' and how much it meant,” she said.

The board took action on Wednesday to allow Board President Jono Cowgill to negotiate a new lease for Bangoura.

The resolution said Bangoura “desires to lease the Wirth Home for residential purposes for a term of up to one year, with renewals concurrent with his tenure as Superintendent.”

Since the house was built for Theodore Wirth, nine of 11 superintendents have lived there. A Park and Rec Board spokesperson told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the two who did not already had homes in Minneapolis.

The home is surrounded by trees, with a sledding hill outside. It was a place of inspiration for Wirth.

“The way his grandson said it — he expanded, embellished and refined the parks system three times over,” said Joan Berthiaume, who co-founded the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society with Wirth’s grandson.

She shares Wirth’s legacy as she gives tours at the home. Berthiaume has recreated the era in which he lived with 350 artifacts, some belonging to Wirth himself.

“We show his first drawing for Lake Harriet,” she said. “All those things are on display in the drafting rooms on the lower levels of the house.”

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The tours started in 2018 when the home was vacant. Berthiaume said more than 2,000 people visited in a 10-month span, including groups of children.

“They are so inspired,” she said.

When Bangoura moved into the house, the tours continued. He and his family occupied the upper levels while Berthiaume used the first floor to share the building’s history.

“Despite less access to other parts of the house, we worked it out very well,” Berthiaume said.

The new lease could change whether the tours are permitted.

“I see this as an opportunity for us to take this show on the road, so to speak,” Vetaw said. “Let’s go talk about Theo Wirth in the neighborhoods of these underserved kids who have no idea who Theo Wirth is, where our park system came and started from.”

She also suggested moving the artifacts and tours to the Wirth Chalet.

Berthiaume said relocating the exhibit would be difficult.

“I’d have to have several moving vans to do it,” she said.

The tours are the culmination of decades of work.

“We’ve spent over $100,000 and 20 years doing this,” she said.

Commissioner French said he hopes a solution can be reached during the lease negotiations.

“Is there any kind of compromise or any type of thing that we could do to make sure that what they've been doing continues?” French said. “Because I think it's really good work what they're doing. I also think the superintendent needs to have a place where his family can feel like a family can feel like a house.”