Winedgo Park: a rare amphitheater design by William Gray Purcell


Circa 1930 postcard showing the complex shade canopy system that Purcell designed based on Roman precedents. The fabric could extend over the much of the seating area.

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.

Windengo Sheet 1 top

Purcell & Elmslie Plan View for Amphitheater. Northwest Architectural Archives.


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.


Fenced off and deteriorating, the Windego Park Amphtheater, summer 2017.


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).



Beauty Spots: The framing of nature and urbanity in Midwestern towns


Red Wing Broadway Park

Broadway Park in Red Wing Minnesota. Postcard circa 1925.

In 19th century midwestern and High Plains towns, there was a natural urge to create enclosed and urbane settings as an escape from the surrounding open landscape. The history of their city parks tells a story of the of the desire to create “beauty spots”—places of geographic fantasy and a kind of “paradise” on the plains.

A generation later, in the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts eras (1900-30), midwestern towns began to build even grander, neo-classically inspired settings with pergolas, performance halls, and amphitheaters. Surrounded by churches and the neo-classical Sheldon Auditorium, Broadway Park in Red Wing, Minnesota may be one of the most beautiful small civic spaces in the country.

Postcards show how towns wanted their parks to be seen by others. Though retouched with color and perhaps some early “photoshopping” to remove flawed elements—they document civic aspiration and pride.

The following images capture the range of town oasis parks from the very formal to the rustic. This page will continue to be updated.



Set on the edge of the transition to the tall grass prairie in western Minnesota, the city of Morris began as a railroad town with few trees and flat open vistas. They began building parks—as seen here with City Park still in its rough-cut early years. Postcard circa 1930.


Orklyn Park Lake City

City Park and Fountain Rice Lake, WI

Rice Lake’s City Park combines the European formality of a tiered fountain and symmetrical planning with the curvilinear shoreline and vistas of Rice Lake.


Litchfield Central Park



City Park Decorah, IA

City Park Decorah, Iowa. The “rustic style” of bridges and buildings relied on local materials and highlighted regional topography.



Poised on a hillside that was once the Lake Superior western bank, Duluth, Minnesota has a remarkable parks system with rustic beauty spots and trails following streams, ravines, and creeks.



Pine Walk at Monastery Dubuque, IA

Pine Walk at Monastery Dubuque, Iowa.  The Rule of Saint Benedict describes monks  as “lovers of the place.” Building on this appreciation of locality and the need for windbreaks, many monasteries, cemeteries, and campuses planted dramatic allees of pines for wind shelter and walks.


All titles, text, and captions copyright Frank Edgerton Martin, 2018.