On the banks of the Rum River in Anoka, Minnesota, lies the long-neglected Windego Park Amphitheater designed by the celebrated Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell (July 2, 1880 – April 11, 1965). My story below for the Winter 2018 issue of Minnesota History outlines a remarkable design and the influential music educator behind it.
Landmarks: Windego Park Open-Air Theater
By, Frank Edgerton Martin
Completed in 1915 on the banks of the Rum River in Anoka, Minnesota—the Windego Park Open Air Theater is a rare work of open-air design by noted Minneapolis Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell. Gracefully set into a thirty-foot hill, Purcell’s design accommodated audiences of up to 1600 people on curving tiers cascading down to an orchestra pit and elevated stage. Beyond Purcell’s design and role, Anoka’s amphitheater is nationally significant in a larger story of City Beautiful planning and the drive for universal arts education in the Progressive Era.
In Ojibwe belief systems, the “Windego” was a terrifying cannibalistic giant who could never be satiated. From the late 19th century into the 1920s, there were rumors of Windego sightings in Roseau, Minnesota, possibly an influence on the naming of Windego Park. The ensuing amphitheater was the brainchild of Anoka resident Thaddeus P. Giddings, one of the most important American music educators of the twentieth century. As music department supervisor for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Giddings believed that “community singing” could bring music to all through participatory learning. Just as he was promoting funding for the amphitheater in Anoka, Giddings was also working with Theodore Wirth and the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners to bring live performances and “community sings” to the Minneapolis parks and schools. By the 1920s, parks across the Minneapolis including Riverview, Logan, and Farview were holding evening sings—often attracting thousands of people.
But Giddings’ vision for arts engagement at Windego was his first large-scale success. When it opened over an August 1915 weekend, the outdoor theater proved to be an instant hit—and continued to draw thousands of visitors over the decades to come. In a 1916 talk to music educators, Giddings described the amphitheater on a summer night:
The stage is very lovely when lighted for a performance, or when the moon is glittering on the river beyond…. It is one of the most graceful places imaginable in which to sing or speak…. The steepness and curve of the seats, the orchestra pit, the river behind. Many well- known singers and speakers have appeared here and all praise the perfect acoustics. The softest tone is heard in the most distant seat.
Beyond Purcell’s intimate canopied design, it was Giddings’ ability to plan musical and theater events that made the open-air theater so popular. Here Giddings honed his skills as a community organizer for the arts—a talent that led him, in 1936, to become the founding director of the Interlochen Music College in Traverse City, Michigan—now one of the most celebrated arts camps in the world. Giddings’ departure left a void in Anoka and interest in Windego Park events declined, largely coming to a halt in the 1940s. Despite several restoration attempts by the non-profit Windego Park Society (founded in 1997), the amphitheater continues to deteriorate and is now fenced off—an unfortunate condition for a rare historic resource rich in stories of education, design, and populism in the arts.
Frank Edgerton Martin holds a BA in Philosophy from Vassar College and an MSLA from the University of Wisconsin in Cultural Landscape Preservation and Landscape History. He is a design and preservation journalist, a historic landscape planning consultant, and specialized writer for architectural firms.
Gebhard, David, and Patricia Gebhard. Purcell & Elmslie: Prairie Progressive Architects. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2006.
P. Giddings, “An Experience in Community Singing,” MNSC Journal of Proceedings (McKeesport, Pennsylvania: The Conference, 1916), pp. 78-81. (Archives Anoka County Historical Society).