By David B. Williams
Creating an elaborate park system was probably the furthest thought
from their minds when the Denny party arrived at Alki Point on
November 13, 1851. All they could see through the rain were trees,
more trees, and water. Building a home was far more important
than building a place to play. And yet, just 33 years later Seattle
had its first park and 20 years after that, the city had a comprehensive
plan for major parks and parkways that would rival any found in
the United States.
Few cities in the world can claim
such an achievement. Today's citizens owe a debt of gratitude
to the landscape architects most responsible for crafting this
master plan-the Olmsted family of Brookline, Massachusetts, who
are best known for designing Central Park and the Boston and Buffalo
park systems. The Olmsted Brothers firm worked in Seattle for
34 years, designing 37 parks and playgrounds including Colman,
Frink, Green Lake, Interlaken, Jefferson, Mt. Baker, Seward, Volunteer,
Washington Park and Arboretum and Woodland parks, as well as Lincoln
Park (now known as the Bobby Morris Playfield), Hiawatha Playground
and Lake Washington, Magnolia, and Ravenna boulevards.
Park planners across the country
recognize Seattle's Olmsted park system as one of the best preserved
and best designed in the United States. More importantly, while
many eastern cities have only one or two Olmsted-designed parks,
Seattle has an extensive multi-park plan linked by boulevards.
It is this legacy that makes Seattle one of the most livable spots
in the country.
In the Beginning
Although the Olmsted Brothers are sometimes credited with starting
Seattle's park system, five public parks existed when the firm's
lead designer, John Charles Olmsted, arrived in 1903. The city's
park movement had begun inauspicously in 1884, when the city converted
the town cemetery into a five-acre park and named it Seattle Park.
Now known as Denny Park, for David and Louisa Denny, who donated
the property, the land was located on the outskirts of town. Visitors
reached the park from a narrow track cut through the surrounding
The system grew tenfold in 1887.
George Kinnear donated 14 acres at the base of Queen Anne hill.
The city also designated 40 acres on top of Capitol Hill as Lake
View Park. A few years later the name was changed to City Park
and finally in 1901 to Volunteer Park, to honor veterans of the
While the city created these parks,
five privately owned parks also opened to the public. The owners
of Seattle's trolley system created Madison, Madrona, and Leschi
parks. Often described as "pleasure grounds," they included
pavilions, horse tracks, amusement rides, and dance halls. They
served one purpose for the developers: promotion and sale of the
surrounding land, which also happened to be owned by the trolley
Another developer, William Beck,
owned the fourth private park, Ravenna, which he had named for
the Italian city. Beck cleared the surrounding land but left the
deep ravine mostly intact. He built meandering paths through the
forest of Brobdingnagian-sized Douglas fir and western red cedar,
installed benches and pavilions, and developed the sulfur springs.
Beck charged $0.25 to enter his park.
The biggest change to Seattle's nascent
park system occurred in 1900 with the acquisition of the fifth
private park, Woodland, and what would become Washington Park.
The city bought Woodland Park for $100,000 from the Guy Phinney
estate. With the purchase, Seattle gained over 100 acres of mostly
cleared land, along with Phinney's personal zoo including herds
of wild deer, elk, and buffalo. Seattle also acquired most of
Washington Park from the Puget Mill company, who later developed
Broadmoor Country Club.
Public sentiment, however, did not
favor such extravagant purchases. A local newspaper, the Argus,
wrote about the proposed acquisition of Woodland Park: "If
this park was properly located there might be some excuse for
paying the enormous price. But to pay more than it would bring
to cut up into town lots for a piece of land much of which is
barren wilderness, and none of which possesses the features that
Seattle should demand in a park, is little short of criminal."
No more large tracts of land would be acquired for another eight
Hiring the Olmsted Brothers
Despite this vocal opposition to the purchase of Woodland Park,
the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners decided in 1902 that it
wanted a more elaborate park system. To reach this goal, the Board
planned on hiring the best landscape architect in the country,
Frederick Law Olmsted. In addition, the Park Commissioners believed
that the Olmsted name would add an air of distinction to the growing
When the Board contacted the landscape
architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, however, they discovered
that Frederick Law Olmsted was in poor health. He would die the
following year. His son, Frederick Jr., had joined the firm, now
known as the Olmsted Brothers, but he was teaching and could not
make it to Seattle. The firm wrote that their senior partner,
John Charles Olmsted, was available. The dubious Board wanted
to know more about this 'other' Olmsted. After the firm sent a
letter listing his extensive park planning work, which they normally
felt was rather unnecessary, the Board finally hired John Charles
Olmsted. Rarely did the Board of Park Commissioners ever make
such a wise decision in choosing the 'wrong' man.
Although the Park Commissioners did
not know it, John Charles Olmsted was the most experienced landscape
architect in the country in 1903. His career had begun in 1875,
when he apprenticed with his stepfather, Frederick Law Olmsted
Sr. The younger Olmsted's credits included design work on the
Boston, Louisville, and Rochester park systems, as well as numerous
private estates throughout the east.
Olmsted and his assistant Percy Jones
arrived in Seattle on April 30. They could not have timed it better.
Money from the Klondike Gold Rush had helped Seattle become a
more wealthy city. Furthermore, the anti-park tide had started
to retreat. A 1902 full-page article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
had urged the city to acquire more land and to develop an elaborate
park system. The story, Let Us Make a Beautiful City of Seattle,
ended with sparkling endorsements for parks from many of the city's
Olmsted also had two important documents
that helped his evaluation. Eleven years earlier in 1892, Superintendent
of Parks Edward Otto Schwagerl had produced a city-wide plan for
the development of a park system. Schwagerl proposed two parks
on Puget Sound (Ft. Lawton and Alki Point) and two on Lake Washington
(Sand Point and Seward Park). Parkways would link these parks
with the privately owned "pleasure grounds" and with
the existing public parks. Schwagerl wrote "[T]he establishment
of a fine system of Parks and Drive-ways as such is manifestly
the most effective means of rendering a city a beautiful and desirable
place of residence."
In 1900, Assistant City Engineer,
George Cotterill, had produced a plan for a 25-mile system of
bicycle paths around the city. Olmsted incorporated several miles
of these trails into his plan, including the paths through what
would become part of Interlaken and Washington parks.
With these plans, and accompanied
by a host of park commisioners, Olmsted and Jones spent the month
of May surveying the city by horse, trolley, foot, and boat. They
left on June 6 and sent their formal report back to Seattle on
July 2, 1903.
The Seattle City Council approved
the Olmsted Brothers' "A Comprehensive System of Parks and
Parkways" on October 19, 1903. Olmsted wrote that the "primary
aim should be to secure and preserve for the use of the people
as much as possible of these advantages of water and mountain
views and of woodlands, well distributed and conveniently located."
He recognized the changing real estate market and urged the city
to move swiftly to acquire as much land as possible especially
"all the borders of the different bodies of water."
Seattle's citizens actively supported
the plan. In the eight years following the original proposal,
city citizens passed bonds totaling 3.5 million dollars (about
$57 million in 1999 dollars) for park enhancement.
One other event also made a significant
impact on their plan. In March 1904, the city voted to give the
Borad of Park Commissioners powers separate from the City Council.
The pre-1904 powers of the Park Board were later characterized
by its successors: "After learning it was necessary to kneel
to the council and play the political game to secure appropriations
on the work, nearly all of these 35 commissioners resigned or
retired in disgust."
With this change, the new board would
have the same independence as park boards in eastern cities. Taking
advantage of this change in the power structure, the Olmsted Brothers
proposed to "furnish a competent and experienced park superintendent"
and then pay him, too. Their man, John Thompson, remained the
Superintendent for 17 years. With new power the Board began to
implement the Olmsted plan for Seattle.
The central feature of the Olmsted plan was a twenty mile-long
parkway that ran from Bailey Peninsula (Seward Park) to Fort Lawton
(Discovery Park). From Bailey the pleasure drive would snake along
the lake shore, climb up and wrap along the bluff that now encompasses
Colman and Frink Parks, dive back down to the water at Madrona
Park, and eventually turn inland to Washington Park. From here
the roadway would cut to the UW campus, pass through it to Ravenna
Park and the adjacent ravine (Cowen Park), and eventually parallel
the brook that flowed from Green Lake. The parkway would continue
through Woodland Park, descend to the northwest corner of Queen
Anne, wrap around the hill's north end and through Interbay to
Smith's Cove with a final extension along the Magnolia bluffs
to Fort Lawton.
In addition, spur roads would connect
Lake Washington Boulevard at Mt. Baker Park to Beacon Hill Park
(Jefferson). A second link went from Washington Park along Interlaken
Boulevard with forks to Volunteer Park and Roanoke Park. Another
boulevard would connect Kinnear Park on Queen Anne with Magnolia.
Although the Olmsted report focused
on park and boulevard development, it also promoted a new concept
to Seattle-playgrounds. According to David Streatfield, a University
of Washington landscape architecture professor, John Charles Olmsted
was a pioneer in this concept. "Olmsted believed that playgrounds
were a necessity for a civilized society. Children would learn
fairness and decency via sports in the playground." says
Streatfield. In the firm's 1908 report to the Park Commissioners,
Olmsted recommended locating small parks and playgrounds, oriented
toward young children and women with babies, within a half a mile
of every home. He also supported additional playgrounds and outdoor
gymnasiums for older boys.
The 1903 report was the beginning
of a relationship between the Olmsted Brothers and Seattle that
lasted until 1941. Initially, the city hired the firm to make
plans for all the parks it already owned, none of which had been
formally designed. The city then asked the firm to create plans
for the new lands it acquired: Colman, Cowen, Frink, Green Lake,
Leschi, Madrona, Ravenna, Seward, and Schmitz Parks. The Washington
Park Arboretum, designed by John Charles Olmsted's collaborator
and successor in Seattle, James Dawson, was the Olmsted Brothers
final, major public project in Seattle.
One of John Charles Olmsted's main
concerns in Seattle was that parks should fit into their surroundings.
In the 1903 report Olmsted wrote: "The different parks of
the city should not be made to look as much like each other as
possible, but on the contrary every advantage should be taken
of differing conditions to give each one a distinct individuality
of its own."
David Streatfield points out at Colman
and Frink Parks: "It is clear that Olmsted recognized the
fragility of the environment in these ravines." He did not
alter the rough terrain, wild growth, and tall trees, except next
to the roads. The winding roads follow the land's contours, while
the overpasses allow people to easily move through the park. Many
consider these parks to be the best examples of Olmsted park design
On the other hand, since Volunteer
Park was located within a "highly finished style of city
development," Olmsted proposed a formal design with large
grassy areas and extensive flower beds, the clearing of densely
growing fir trees, and construction of an observation tower. Another
style emerged at Washington Park, which combined a shady brook
and swampy areas surrounded by native trees with "marked
open spaces, [not] of large extent, and ... covered smoothly with
grass so as to adapt it for use by large crowds."
Olmsted did not always leave the
land alone, though. He recommended lowering Green Lake by four
feet to create a "lake within a park." The city took
this further and eventually dropped the lake seven feet, creating
almost 100 acres of additional land
According to Jerry Arbes, Board Member
of the National Association of Olmsted Parks and also of Friends
of Seattle's Olmsted Parks, the key to appreciating what the Olmsteds
did for Seattle is not to look at the separate parks but to look
at the system as a whole. "There is a sense of connection
in the Olmsted plan," says Arbes. "The interlinked parks
provide a diversity of experience, yet one senses a relationship
between these separate elements."
All of this was a far cry in the future on that dreary November
day in 1851. A virgin wilderness of unknown proportions spread
out in all directions from the Dennys and their clan. Their vision,
though, was so grand that they named the place "New York,
Alki" - New York bye and bye.
Seattle's founders rightly saw no
need for preserves or parks in their forested domain. Fifty years
later, though, civic leaders, and most importantly, John Charles
Olmsted understood that the city's growth had changed the fabric
of the landscape so that Seattle's citizens now needed places
away from "the restraining and confining conditions of the
Almost 100 years later, parks have
become even more central to the city's existence. Surveys by the
Park Department over the last 30 years show that parks act upon
us at a level we don't always understand. When asked if they used
parks, many of those surveyed initially said "No," but
when probed further, the respondents realized that they walked,
biked or drove through or by a park, and most often one designed
by the Olmsted Brothers, almost every day. Part of the park system's
appeal is that these greenspaces do not feel like designed landscapes,
but blend into their residential surroundings. noticed the trees
and water in the parks on almost a daily basis.
This is part of the Olmsted Brothers
legacy to Seattle-that so much land was protected and that the
designs were good enough to survive to the present. How many Seattleites
had their first experience with the natural world in an Olmsted
park? We are fortunate. We still have places like Schmitz Park,
which has hints of the virgin forest that once covered this land;
Interlaken Park, which remains the province of frogs and quiet
streams; or even a more formal park like Woodland, where anyone
can sit quietly under an 80-foot-tall oak and forget the city
Equally as important is that the
Olmsteds also gave the city a philosophy that protecting our natural
scenery was and still is important. John Charles Olmsted wrote
in his initial report to the city that it should "secure
and preserve...these advantages of water and mountain views."
According to Don Harris, Director of Environmental Programs for
the Department of Parks and Recreation, this admonishment still
guides city planners. He cites the 1989 King County Open Spaces
and Trails Bond, which provided funding to preserve 531 additional
acres of green space, as an example.
Harris says: "Over the years
we have created a wonderful mix of larger parks such as Gasworks
and Discovery and smaller jewels like Thornton Creek and Maple
School Ravine, but the key element was the Olmsted legacy. It
has helped provide the links that sustain the system."
For More Information in Seattle
The water tower in Volunteer Park is a good place to begin for
those interested in learning more about the Olmsted legacy. In
1997, the Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks created a multi-faceted,
interpretive exhibit that details the city's association with
the Olmsted Brothers. It includes photographs, maps, text, field
notes, and historic postcards that address the creation of Volunteer
Park, Seattle's water system and its relationship to the parks,
specifics on what the Olmsteds designed in Seattle, and a history
of the Olmsted family's design work.
The permanent exhibit is open daily from 10am to dusk. The water
tower also provides some of the best views of the city.
An ADA accessible version of the
Olmsted Interpretive Exhibit is located at the Seattle Department
of Parks and Recreation. For more information contact Parks and
Recreation at 206-684-4075.
The Friends of Seattle's Olmsted
Parks was formed in 1983 to promote awareness, enjoyment, and
care of the the city's Olmsted parks and landscapes, both public
and private. For more information about joining or volunteering
or to receive a brochure that details many of the features displayed
in the water tower please contact:
Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks
P.O Box 9884, Seattle, WA 98109
© David B. Williams