Thanks to Theodore Wirth for My Skating Rink!

Bryant wading pool. From City of Minneapolis.

Bryant wading pool. From City of Minneapolis.

I used to live at 33rd Street and Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis which is within two blocks of two parks – Painter Park and Bryant Square Park. Nearly every night in the winter, after dinner I would grab my ice skates and walk over to Bryant Square for a little skating. Usually I would skate for less than a half hour, but it was nice to get out, be outside, and have a little exercise. The rink was not that well-maintained. Every few weeks it would be resurfaced, but one broomball game in cleats could make the rink unusable for weeks. In the summer, Bryant Square has a small wading pool. Although I did not have children at the time, I frequently enjoyed a book while dipping my feet in the pool and watching the families splash around.

I moved to Saint Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood and had one park a block away and another five blocks away. Winter came and I discovered that neither park had an ice rink. The closest ice rink was more than a half mile away and was maintained by volunteers. When there were not volunteers to do the work the rink was not maintained. After researching ice skating options, I found that Saint Paul has very few rinks, but they are large, well-maintained, and refrigerated. The surface of these rinks is like glass. But, these rinks were far enough away that I was not going to go for a 20 minute skate after dinner.

Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have many beautiful parks. When I visit other cities and see their lack of public access to amenities like lakes or rivers or the lack of access to small neighborhood parks, I am grateful for the thoughtful foresight that went into planning our cities. My ice rink experience, however, caused me to reflect upon how parks amenities are different in the two cities. This article focuses on two amenities – ice skating rinks and pools – and how provision of those shapes community and my theories on how the history of park development in each city still impacts us today.

According to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minneapolis has:

  • 47 free outdoor skating rinks with free loaner skates,
  • 2 indoor skating arenas (only Parade Stadium has open skating),
  • 62 wading pools or splash pads,
  • 12 public beaches, and
  • 2 public pools.

According to the Saint Paul Department of Parks and Recreation, Saint Paul has:

  • 14 free outdoor skating rinks (what they call general rinks),
  • 4 refrigerated rinks (also open to the public at no cost except skate rental),
  • 2 splash pads,
  • 1 public beach, and
  • 4 public pools or water parks (each with entry fees of about $5 a person or $20 for a family up to five people).
Como Pool. From City of Saint Paul.

Como Pool. From City of Saint Paul.

In short, Minneapolis has a lot of small amenities, spread all over the city. A splash pad is not a pool, but most parks have one. The ice rinks are mediocre, but they are all over the city, the park building is typically open as a warming house, and most have free skates to borrow which makes it accessible to more people.

Saint Paul has fewer, but nicer amenities. The pools have water slides, separate pools for lap swimming, diving wells, and family locker rooms. The ice rinks are refrigerated, resurfaced frequently, have warming rooms, and nice skates to rent.[1]

The History of Twin Cities Parks Theory

horace cleveland

H. Cleveland. From MNopedia.

Why is this? My theory is that the history of park development and land use decisions when our cities were born still impacts things like ice rinks and wading pools. Horace W. S. Cleveland is the father of the parks systems in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul. He first came to town in 1872 at the request of the president of the University of Minnesota. He was from Chicago where he believed parks were being built for the benefit of the wealthy and where he experienced the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Cleveland felt that parks should be for the “toiling multitude” to have “refreshment and recreation after the labors of the day.”[2]

This portends the view of parks adopted by the Social Reform Movement of the 1890s that forwarded the belief that parks were necessary for public health and social equity. In addition to his belief in the importance of parks to working folks, his experience with the Great Chicago Fire impressed upon him the importance of green spaces in preventing fires. Cities with complete grid systems that were fully developed had no natural fire breaks. Wide boulevards spaced throughout the city provided recreation and safety. His lecture in 1872 at the University encouraged the Twin Cities to use parks to preserve its natural assets, such as lakes, rivers, hills, and bluffs; increase property values and attractiveness to new comers; and to provide recreation for working people.

His influence led to purchases of large tracts of land that make up our major regional parks. Land for Como Park was purchased in 1872 following his lecture. Lake Phalen, Minnehaha Falls Park, Rice Park, and the Grand Rounds can be attributed to him. Summit Avenue is an example of his wide, fire-breaking boulevards. These make up the skeleton of our park system. He does not mention small, neighborhood parks and makes no mention of children. His focus was “ornamental public squares connected by grand boulevards” and preservation of natural spaces.

The idea that parks were for families and children was a new idea. The first play yards for children came about in the late 1880s. The first was in Boston in 1889 and was seen as a way to increase quality of life for children living in its slums.[3] This idea grew out of Progressive Era belief that playgrounds could improve the mental, physical, and moral well-being of poor children. Early playgrounds were often attached to settlement houses that provided education, food, child care, and social activities. Planners of this era, however, had not caught on to the idea of play yards or how children might benefit from parks.

T. Wirth.

T. Wirth.

Theodore Wirth came to Minneapolis in 1904 as the Superintendent of Parks, 30 years after Cleveland laid the groundwork for the park systems. Minneapolis certainly owes its many small neighborhood parks to his vision. Wirth’s goal was a playground for children within a quarter mile of every child and a complete recreation center within a half mile of every family. He continued the work of Cleveland by developing large park systems like the Grand Rounds, Minnehaha Falls, and public access to the many lakes. Influenced by the Settlement Movement and public health theories of the day, he also focused on children and access to parks for families. Look at a map of Minneapolis and you can see the many small parks dispersed throughout the city.[4]

Contrasting Street Layouts

According the wonderful book “The Street Where You Live: A Guide to the Place Names of St. Paul” by Donald Empson, development in Minneapolis and Saint Paul had some distinct differences. Basically, Minneapolis laid out development plats, including space for parks, and then had developers purchase and develop those plats. The city required property owners to agree to assessments for parks in advance of their development, which led to more parks in wealthier areas. Overall, however, Wirth’s influence and the pre-planned development process led to lots of neighborhood parks.

In Saint Paul, major streets, including Cleveland’s grand boulevards, were laid out by the city, but roads and land use between them were mostly left to developers. Saint Paul did not have Wirth’s goal of a park within a quarter mile of every child. Developers were required to set aside a certain amount of land for parks within their plats, but the specifics were left to each developer. This is why some streets jog a bit at major thoroughfares and why there are so many “triangle parks.” Triangle parks were one way developers could meet the park requirement while maximizing profit through more saleable lots. Thanks to Cleveland, areas near the river (like Hidden Falls) and the bluffs were left undeveloped.

Very little happened in parks development after the early 1920s until the 1960s. City lands were mostly platted or developed. Public money dried up in the Great Depression and World Wars, leaving little for purchase of large amounts of land for parks. Most improvements came out of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, but that was improving existing parks. In the 1960s and 1970s some parks money was set aside during the War on Poverty, but, like the 1930s this was mainly for improvements rather than new purchases.

So, today we see large regional parks in both cities (thanks Cleveland), lots of small neighborhood parks in Minneapolis (thanks Wirth), and fewer neighborhood parks in Saint Paul. How does that legacy, then, relate to me ice skating after dinner? How does this legacy impact community and use of parks? Why does Minneapolis have 62 splash pads and 47 skating rinks? Why do I have an ice rink in my yard?

Backyard Rinks vs. Park Rinks

Wirth’s influence is still seen in Minneapolis through its provision of amenities at nearly all of its neighborhood parks. Playgrounds, small park buildings with basic programming, ice rinks, splash pads, and baseball diamonds are plentiful, but not fancy. Nearly every child in Minneapolis does have access to these things within walking distance of their homes. The ice rink at Bryant Park was not well-maintained and was dependent on the weather. The wading pool is not a water park with slides, a zip line, or a lazy river (like Como Regional Park Pool).

Cleveland’s influence, his focus on grand parks that serve as connection points, is still seen in Saint Paul. There are many neighborhood parks, but they mostly lack the amenities of Minneapolis’ neighborhood parks. Saint Paul focuses on large, regional amenities. Its public pools have zip lines, water slides, and diving platforms. They are not free, but are affordable at $20 for a family of five. Its ice rinks are refrigerated, have hockey boards, and posh warming houses. Recreation centers are often beautiful buildings that offer tons of programming and activities.

In Minneapolis, going to the park to ice skate was almost thoughtless – I just grabbed my skates and went. Other folks seemed to have this same idea. Once I met a man who had recently moved to Minneapolis from Guatemala. He had his free loaner skates and was trying to figure it out. He told me that “ice skating is a Minnesota thing and he wanted to be Minnesotan.” I spent that evening, hand-in-hand, skating backwards and showing him how to skate. He did not have to pay any fees. He did not have to drive across town. Ice skating was accessible. Other users of Bryant Square were similar. Often there was a pick-up game of hockey with participants ranging from twelve-year old boys to men in their 60s who had been Gopher hockey players 40 years earlier. This was also true of the wading pool. When I lived in Hamline-Midway, I would sometimes take my children to Brackett Park in Seward to use the pool. Some children would be in swimming suits, but many were in clothing or their underwear. They had used the playground equipment, got hot, and cooled off with a dip in the pool. Parents walked over from their houses, not necessarily planning to go swimming. I would chat with other parents while watching our children play.

The rink outside the Landmark Center in Saint Paul.

The rink outside the Landmark Center in Saint Paul.

When I moved to Saint Paul I discovered that skating after dinner was not as easy. The four refrigerated rinks were far enough away that they become an Event. The other day my family decided to skate at the Landmark Center’s Winter Skate Rink. It is beautiful – the ice is great, the warming house comfortable, it is situated well next to historic buildings. It feels quaint. It was a day’s outing that meant taking a bus downtown. It was an Event – meaning something we plan to do. Rather than being a block from home and running home if we need something, we have to make sure the kids have what they need to be warm, fed, and comfortable. When we go to Great River Water Park at Oxford/Jimmy Lee or the Como Pool it is an Event. We pack swimsuits, we bike there, we bring snacks. It is something we put on the calendar – it’s not splashing for a bit in the wading pool.

I do not think that one is better than the other. I like both. The sense of community is different, though, and is shaped by how the parks were designed. Minneapolis’ neighborhood parks and their many skating rinks and splash pads bring neighbors together in casual, unintentional ways. Saint Paul’s regional rinks and pools draw families focused on an activity and each other – not their neighbors as much. People come from all over the city and region to enjoy a specific activity with their families, not as a way to spend 30 minutes after supper.

My backyard rink.

My backyard rink.

Our desire for after supper ice skating led my husband to build our own rink. We have been building a rink for six years. Our rink, which is an example on a very small scale of privatizing public amenities, has built its own community. Curious neighbors lean over the fence when Marc puts up the boards. Dog walkers stop for a chat while we circle. Some neighbor kids have permission to skate when they feel like it and it makes me happy to come home to teenagers playing pick-up hockey in my yard. We would not have that rink if there was a park rink a block away, so thanks Theodore Wirth and Horace Cleveland for your legacies!




[1] Note that this year, due to weather, Minneapolis has only been able to flood 22 rinks and Saint Paul four of its regular rinks.

[2] Tishler, William H. and Virginia S. Luckhardt. (1985) “H. W. S. Cleveland: Pioneer Landscape Architect to the Upper Midwest.” Minnesota History Magazine.

[3] Cavallo, Dominick. Muscles and Morals: Organized Playgrounds and Urban Reform, 1880–1920. 1981.

[4] The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board has a great blog. Who knew? There is lots of information about Theodore Wirth at

Dana DeMaster

About Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster, MPP, is a program evaluator and researcher for human services programs who lives and bikes in Saint Paul. When she’s not analyzing data, she can be found rabble-rousing for neighborhood bike improvements in Saint Paul, playing Legos with her two children, or sewing practical things. You can find some of her other writing on the Grease Rag and Wrench blog.