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Park History - Olmsted Parks

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Seattle’s park system is a public resource that makes Seattle one of the nation’s most livable cities. Thanks to City leaders who had the foresight to hire the Olmsted Brothers firm, the Olmsted Plan for Seattle’s parks has been the basis of our modern day park system. To learn more about the Olmsted Legacy in Seattle, visit the Olmsted Interpretive Exhibit currently on display at the Volunteer Park Water Tower, located at the south entrance to Volunteer Park.


In 1903, on the recommendation of the Board of Park Commissioners, Council contracted with the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts to conduct a thorough survey of Seattle's park possibilities, and to submit a comprehensive plan that could be used to guide future work. This move was largely brought on by the public interest generated through the purchase of two large tracts, Woodland and Washington Parks, in 1900; and by the desire to prepare Seattle for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

The Olmsted Brothers had inherited the nation's first landscape architecture firm from their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park and the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. John C. Olmsted, the stepson of Frederick Law and the senior partner in the firm, spent several weeks in the summer of 1903 studying the topography of Seattle and its parks. His report was accepted by Council on October 19th of that year.

Although J. C. Olmsted's primary goal was to locate a park or a playground within one half mile of every home in Seattle, the dominant feature of the plan was a 20-mile landscaped boulevard linking most of the existing and planned parks and greenbelts within the city limits. Furthermore, it emphasized the speed with which the plan should be realized; desirable sites would soon be developed privately, or priced beyond the means of the City.

The Olmsted Brothers plan included numerous playgrounds and playfields, a manifestation of the new concept of public recreation which had been introduced with success in the East. These sites included buildings devoted to recreation (field houses) and facilities like ball fields, tennis courts, and playground apparatus which had unique maintenance requirements relative to park facilities. Hence, from quite early on, the Parks Division and the Recreation Division of the Department each had their own maintenance personnel.

During the first ten years after its submission, most of the primary elements of the plan would, through purchase, gift, condemnation, or bonded indebtedness, be incorporated into the city's structure.

Seattle became a city with hundreds of vistas, turns in the path or the road that offer views in every direction, each slightly different from the one just before or just after-. and these were wonderfully exploited in the Olmsted boulevards and the new parks they connected. In a city that was little more than fifty years old one could claim to find something older cities could not match. (Seattle, Past to Present, Roger Sale [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976]. 85).

The Olmsted Brothers continued to work in Seattle, for both private and public clients, until 1936, when James Dawson of Olmsted Brothers made his last visit to the city to plan the Washington Park Arboretum. Over that 33-year period the firm would see more of its designs realized in the region: the campus of the University of Washington, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (which would dictate the future of the U.W. campus), and the State Capitol plan.


DESIGNED, Influenced or Recommended


DESIGNED, Influenced or Recommended
  • Ballard Parkway
  • Beach Drive
  • Beacon Avenue
  • Seward Park Avenue

Updated December 9, 2015

More Information

John Charles Olmsted 1903
Photograph courtesy
National Park Service

Waterfall in Frink Park Photo courtesy of Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks

Gas Works Park 1960

Green Lake Park 1930

Volunteer Park 1913

Volunteer Park Preliminary Plan by Olmsted Brothers - April 1909 Photo courtesy of Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks

Washington Park
Olmsted Links

Olmsted Park Plans Cybertour
Parks & Boulevard Plans
An interactive map
of Olmsted Parks at
www.historylink.orgthis link will take you off the City of Seattle web site.
> view the mapthis link will take you off the City of Seattle web site

Olmsted in the News

Seattle Daily Journal:
Another scenic century - Seattle looks back at Olmsted from the centennial horizon
this link will take you off the City of Seattle web site

Seattle PI: City celebrates
park pioneer Olmsted
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Seattle PI: From quiet places
to busy play areas,
city parks still work in progress
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Seattle PI: A walk in the park:
How it was all planned
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South Seattle Star:
In praise of parks
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