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Treasure or ‘dump’? Minneapolis Park Board weighs future of Wirth house

December 17, 2018

One of the perks of being a superintendent for the Minneapolis Park Board is living in a grand, six-bedroom house near Lake Harriet.

Despite its prime location and enticing rent, only half of the park leaders have moved in over the years, leaving the 108-year-old Dutch Colonial mostly vacant for months at a time.

With Al Bangoura, the incoming superintendent, likely to move in, questions are swirling about the future of the house. A historical group that gives tours may have to pack up its items and leave. And the Park Board begins debating next week how much rent Bangoura will pay, a controversial issue for the last superintendent.

Theres some wonderful things and some not so wonderful things, Board President Brad Bourn said about the house. There was nothing wrong with how it was leased to [the previous superintendent], but we want to make sure everything is right.

Bangoura, the Park Boards pick to lead the system, says he would be honored to live at the board-owned house on Bryant Avenue S.

As I look toward a move back to Minneapolis, Id love to explore ways to live in the house (at a minimum until I can get settled and find a home), he said in an e-mail.

As a private house, however, it has had its issues. Superintendents past have complained about the lack of privacy.

Several large windows in the downstairs drawing room overlook a popular sledding hill and Kings Highway. The dining room looks out over a neighborhood ice-skating rink. And throughout the house, windows in the bedrooms and living room face an active street.

It is in a park theres no fence, theres no boundaries and someone can walk up to the building, Michael Schroeder, the Park Boards assistant superintendent for planning, said at a meeting this summer to determine a fair price to rent the house.

Named the Theodore Wirth Home after the park systems famed second superintendent, the house was most recently leased to former Superintendent Jayne Miller, who made $165,000 a year.

At the start of her lease in December 2010, Miller paid $640 monthly for 644 square feet that included the kitchen and two second-floor bedrooms. From 2011 until she left in February of this year, she paid $1,154 a month to lease 1,222 square feet, including the kitchen and parts of the second and third floors.

Before Miller, no one had lived in the house for 15 years. She was the first superintendent to live there since David Fisher moved out in 1995.

If I remember correctly, [he] left because so many kids came knocking on the door to use the privy, Commissioner Meg Forney said at the summer meeting. So it definitely is a public space.

Asked this week about the future of Wirth House, Forney said she wants to take a look at all historic properties the Park Board owns and determine potential other uses, including the Longfellow House on S. Minnehaha Park Drive.

I dont see it could be sold on the open market. All hell might break loose, Forney said about the Wirth house. The value is priceless.

It is unclear how much the board will charge Bangoura to rent part of or the entire house, or the stipulations of the lease, but that could be determined on Wednesday when board members discuss his contract. The interim superintendent, Mary Merrill, does not live in the house.

House is a dump

Surrounded by a vast, sloping lawn, the house sits on the south end of a nearly 17-acre parcel across from Lakewood Cemetery. The Southside Operations Center sits on the northern end of the property, while a dog park and a recreation center are in the middle.

The Wirth house was last renovated in 1988 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

As of Oct. 31, the Park Board has spent $14,544 for maintenance. Last year, it spent $16,388, according to the board. When Miller lived there, the board paid for utilities (gas, electric and water), which totaled $4,893 in 2017. As of Sept. 30, the board paid $3,399 in utilities. Because the house and its property are on public land, it is tax exempt.

Despite the perks of living there, it is in need of repair.

This house to be frank is a dump, Brian Rice, board attorney, said at the July meeting. It hasnt had any major improvements, its not in particularly good shape. Its in a good neighborhood, its historic, but it doesnt have a new kitchen and a bunch of other things.

Even with the drawbacks, former superintendents have been able to score a good deal.

After the initial bump, rent did not increase in the most recent six years Miller lived there. Her lease agreement was criticized for being below market value. A local property management company hired by the board at the time said a fair price for the space she rented was between $1,016 and $1,202.

A quick scan of rentals in the neighborhood, East Harriet, now show $950 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bath to $1,850 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Whole-house rentals range from $1,095 a month for 800 square feet to $4,500 a month for 4,895 square feet.

Zillow says the median home value in the area is $379,800. Forney, a real estate agent, estimates the Wirth house is valued at around $500,000.

Any real estate is determined by the land, she said. I have no idea, but a house that size and in that neighborhood, we are looking at perhaps a half a million dollars.

Historical value

With the house sitting empty, the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society moved back in this summer to open the house for tours, which had stopped when Miller lived there. Since August, the society has added historical items, story boards and photos of the Wirth family. It said more than 900 people have toured the historic building since then.

Joan Berthiaume, co-founder of the organization, is worried that the tours will have to stop if Bangoura moves in.

For his part, Bangoura said he wants to strike a balance between having private family time and a quiet place to work while allowing the public to have access to the house.

Berthiaume and other guides take visitors on a walking tour of the house, telling them how the Park Board used it to lure Wirth to Minneapolis in the early 1900s.

If it were up to Berthiaume, she would find a way to make sure the society could have a more permanent space.

She helped start the foundation with Wirths grandson so local residents and visitors could learn more about the man credited with helping develop the city park system.

If the superintendent chooses to live here, I dont want to stop teaching the history, she said recently. Because I love it.

Karen Zamora 612-673-4647 Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora

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