In March 1896, the Board of Park Commissioners hired Swiss landscape architect, Theodore Wirth, as the first professional superintendent of parks for the City of Hartford. Born in Winterthur, Switzerland in 1863, he interned at the Kew Gardens in London and the Jardins des Plantes in Paris. In 1888, he immigrated to New York, working for Central Park.
When the city took over the estate from Charles Pond, as Elizabeth Park, there were already a large variety of trees, gardens, farm buildings, and existing plantings.
Working with the Olmsted firm as consultants, Mr. Wirth’s design reflects a combination of both schools of landscape design.
Mr. Wirth had the existing buildings on Asylum Avenue moved to the “Farmstead,” a centrally located spot where he could establish nursery operations. Two greenhouses, designed by the New York firm of Lord & Burnham, were built in 1898–1899. Within three years, the new nursery had produced over 240,000 plants.
The former mansion of Charles Pond became a community center. A refreshment counter opened at the Pond House’s piazza and west parlors in 1900, and in 1902, a free library operated from the house. Mr. Wirth and his family lived upstairs.
In 1900, Mr. Wirth prepared a General Plan for Elizabeth Park, Mr. Wirth’s vision to create a botanical park. To East Lawn, he planted 275 trees, and 21,000 shrubs. The entrance from Prospect Avenue, “Sunrise,” was made into a formal promenade with long panels of turf and flowerbeds.
The Elizabeth Park nursery was furnishing all flowers, shrubs, and trees for all city parks. Between 1900 and 1902, the stock grew 190,000 to 250,000 plants, including begonias, chrysanthemums, cannas, and geraniums. As early as 1902, flower shows had taken place at the nursery, attracting thousands of visitors.
Mr. Wirth designed 60 acres of remaining land as a picturesque pleasure ground complete with brooks, ponds, meadows, forests, and overlooks, all connected by a network of meandering roads and paths. To deal with the flow of water, Mr. Wirth had nearly two miles of drainpipe installed. He also constructed a rustic stone bridge to replace the wooden bridge built in 1898.
In 1900, a flock of sheep was brought in, “for the pleasure and enjoyment to the visitors.” Baby lambs, born in the spring, were a favorite of the visitors. Mr. Wirth had a sheepfold constructed along the southern end of East Meadow, near the east shore of Laurel Pond.
Birth of the Rose Garden in Elizabeth Park
Mr. Wirth began the construction of the Rose Garden (now the Helen S Kaman Rose Garden) in 1903, at a cost of $2,500.00. The initial garden covered 1.25 acres.
The layout featured a rustic summerhouse built on a four-foot rise in the center. The garden is closed in by trellises planted with climbing roses. The original plan had 116 beds, each containing from 18 to 60 plants of one variety. The walks are all turf. To build the garden, Wirth had an irrigation system installed using a series of water pipes.
In September 1904, electric streetcars lead to the park via Prospect Avenue, increasing the number of park visitors. By 1905, news of the rose garden was published all over the country as a rose garden of special merit and as having few equals.
It is recorded that on a single Sunday in 1905, 10,000 people came to the park. In 1906, there were 215,000 visitors. In 1911, a large manufacturer of postcards reported that his company sold more postcards of Elizabeth Park than any other park in the country.
Theodore Wirth resigned his position as park superintendent, effective January 1, 1906, having served the City of Hartford for 10 years. He became the developer of the Minneapolis park system, where he created the second oldest municipal rose garden. His talent and innovation is evident still at Elizabeth Park. Between the years of 1910 and 1930, Mr. Wirth developed almost every municipal rose garden in the United States and Canada. The Wirth children, Theodore, Walter, and Conrad, in Hartford, Connecticut, just before the family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Theodore Jr. was born in 1900 at the original Pond Mansion. He returned to Elizabeth Park in 1990 to commemorate a plaque in honor of his father, Theodore Wirth, Sr. Two of his sons, Conrad and Walter followed in his footsteps. Conrad became director of the National Park Service. Walter was superintendent of parks in New Haven CT, and superintendent of the Salem Oregon Regional Parks System. Theodore enjoyed a distinguished career, attaining the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy.