Since he took the job a year ago, Minneapolis Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura and his family have lived upstairs in the Theodore Wirth Home, the traditional house for leaders of the parks system, while the lower floors were regularly opened to tour groups.
Now Bangoura and his family want to occupy all of the historic home, which overlooks Lyndale Farmstead Park northeast of Lake Harriet.
“I want to stay in the house with my family because it, and the people I see outdoors daily using the park, reminds me every day why I am here and the responsibility I have to the people I serve,” Bangoura said in a statement this week. “I am inspired by it and by all those who lived here before me.”
If approved by the Park Board next week, Board President Jono Cowgill and Bangoura would negotiate a lease that would give his family greater access to the three-story, 110-year-old home.
Bangoura’s request has put into question the future of tours run by the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, which has brought more than 2,000 people into the house since 2018, co-founder Joan Berthiaume said. The nonprofit owns the library and papers of Wirth, the influential designer of the city’s parks system and the first superintendent to live in the house.
Berthiaume said she hoped her organization could retain some access to the house.
“Our mission is about the house and bringing people into the house where they can learn this history,” she said. “The house is critical to what we’re doing.”
In 2018, when no superintendent lived in the house, the Parks Legacy Society set up the Wirth Home with furniture and artifacts to conduct up to five tours per week and open houses on Sundays, according to its permit.
After Bangoura moved in, the kitchen, living room, dining room, basement and other areas were open to the public for up to nine days a month, according to the existing lease. Wirth’s furnishings remained on the main floor and lower level.
Bangoura said having to keep their personal belongings on the second floor made it “challenging” to live in the home. The family was usually not inside when the tours were taking place, where sometimes more than 100 people would show up.
“I am asking for the opportunity to live in the house fully with my family, as past superintendents have done,” Bangoura said. “The Board needs to make a decision on whether they want the house to serve as the superintendent’s home or another use, like a museum.”
While commissioners supported Bangoura’s request at a meeting earlier this month, they were split over what happens to the tours.
Commissioner Londel French said it was “historical” that Bangoura and his family were the first black family to live in the home and that they should arrange to open it up to the public a couple of times a year.
Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw said the Parks Legacy Society should consider hosting its tours elsewhere, such as the Theodore Wirth Chalet.
“I do not believe that the history of our parks has to be told at the Wirth House,” she said. “I do not believe that we would get the best candidates in the world to come and apply for this job if we did not offer that house to them. That is a big part of the perks.”
French and Vetaw also said Bangoura should be able to live in the house for free, as past superintendents did. He pays $1,325 a month, according to the existing lease; his immediate predecessor, Jayne Miller, was the only other superintendent to pay rent.
Commissioner Meg Forney also raised concerns about the condition of the house, which she said is overrun by red squirrels.
“It is a health and safety issue, having a squirrel running around,” she said.
The Parks Legacy Society’s last scheduled private tour is Feb. 9. Berthiaume said she hopes she can continue to coordinate with Bangoura for future tours.
“We feel like we made a good compromise, and if he wants to live in the house permanently, we’re willing to continue with that compromise,” she said.