Seattle’s Olmsted Parks

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John Charles Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects firm developed a park and boulevard system for the City of Seattle between 1903 and 1912. In addition to the system plan, Olmsted and other landscape architects from the Olmsted Brothers firm also developed plans for individual landscapes, including the University of Washington campus, Volunteer Park, the Washington Park Arboretum, Hiawatha Park, and others.

The system plan and these individual plans share a number of Olmstedian characteristics:

  • Parks and boulevards located on hilltops or along shorelines take advantage of views, incorporated as "borrowed landscapes" into the designs.
  • In more formally designed parks, "rooms" consisted of sweeping lawns bordered by planting beds that featured multiple layers, from ground covers to mid-height shrubs to taller trees.
  • Olmsted encouraged the preservation and use of native vegetation.
  • Many parks incorporated playgrounds for Seattle's younger citizens.
  • Paths and drives often follow curvilinear lines through the landscapes.
  • Formal sections of boulevards are flanked by rows of trees, informal sections that travel through woodland parks incorporate the existing vegetation along the street borders.

Woodland Park

Woodland Park was designed by the Olmsted Brothers between 1909 and 1912. It is located between the Phinney and Green Lake neighborhoods at 1000 N 50th St, 98103. It is currently 90.9 acres.

The 179-acre ‘Woodland Park Estate’ property was first purchased by Seattle entrepreneur Guy Phinney in 1889 to develop as his own residence as well as to create a commercial ‘pleasure park’. He built a small menagerie (zoo) in the northwest corner of the property, a bandstand and paths through the wooded hillside down to Green Lake, where he built a bathing beach and bathhouse as well a ball field. He also built a private trolley line to connect the park to the Fremont neighborhood to the south. After his sudden death in 1893, the City of Seattle purchased the property from his widow for $100,000 in 1900.

In the 1903 Olmsted Bros. report, it is noted that although part of the property had been developed, much of the land was still ‘charmingly close to nature.’ The existing attractions made the park well known and was ‘the most cherished piece of park property in the system.’ They comment that much improvement can be made without ruining the natural features of the park.
Although Woodland Park was not categorized as a playground, they comment that the many recreational activities already there (tennis, baseball, cricket) are very popular and more fields were currently being added by filling at the south end of Green Lake to create the ‘largest recreation grounds’ in the city.
There were four boulevards suggested by the Olmsted Brothers in the1903 report that related to Woodland Park. First, they suggested that a boulevard run through the park itself, entering from its northeast corner (at Green Lake Boulevard), rising gradually towards the south then gently turning back and forth as needed to climb the grade, then leaving the park at the northwest corner. Second, a connection to the Queen Anne boulevard system could be established by a road leading from the northwest corner of the park, running northwesterly, then turning to run southwesterly in order to navigate the steep slopes in that area; this boulevard was to continue to cross the Ship Canal and connect to the Queen Anne boulevard system at Nickerson and 13th Ave. Remnants of a boulevard leading west form the park exist but it did not continue the full length recommended. Third, there was a recommendation to construct the Pine Grove Boulevard by widening Pine Grove St (current day N 50th St) in a straight direction eastward connecting Woodland Park (and Green Lake Boulevard) to the University (former A-Y-P Exposition grounds); this boulevard was not constructed. Last, improvements to the Green Lake Boulevard were suggested by adding two spurs of the boulevard: one along the west edge of Woodland Park extending the boulevard south to the Park Grove Boulevard; the second extending the boulevard along the southwest edge of the Lake as far as Aurora Avenue.

In 1904, the trolley line that circled Green Lake was extended through Woodland Park to connect from 59th St / Aurora Avenue at the north to Woodland Park Avenue to the south of the park.

In a letter dated Jan 22, 1908, JCO addresses the planned lowering of Green Lake by 4 feet. He advocates using this opportunity to construct the southwest spur of Green Lake Boulevard. He suggests locating the electric trolley and roadway along the curves of the shore but warns they should be adequately fenced and screened from view with plantings. He asks for two or more footbridges over or under the roadway. He suggests using the fill from the roadway grading to fill in the low places near Green Lake in accordance with the office’s grading plan for Woodland Park. He also advises against clearing existing vegetation in order to preserve the ‘wildness of the woods.’

The 1909 Park Commissioners report describes Woodland Park as a key piece of the park system that serves the residents living north of Lake Union. The main recommendations for the park from the Olmsted Bros firm concern minimizing the impact of the electric railway running through the park. They suggest building earthen embankments supported by stone walls to absorb and deflect noise; archways should be constructed across the rails to carry drives and walks. They predict the future need to run a roadway through the park; they suggest the drive should run adjacent to the rail line ‘but need not be wide.’ They suggest planting large groves of trees and keeping most of the park in lawn to accommodate varied uses. They suggest keeping the menagerie on the upper (west) part of the park as ‘it is flat and has no view’ and comment that the zoo should consist mainly of hardy species in large outdoor enclosures. They mention that space for recreational activities and a formal garden in the upper park should be set aside; they suggest an outlook tower on the highest land for visitors to obtain distant views.

The preliminary design for Woodland Park, dated February 1910, shows a major formal entrance planned at the southern end of the park at Fremont Avenue. A formal flower garden with a conservatory was planned just to the east of the entrance. Just to the west of the entrance, the plan also shows a large wading pool/toy boat sailing area with large play lawns; several tennis courts are also sited in that area.
The zoo components were concentrated in the southwest corner of the park with formal tree-lined allees and symmetrical layouts of houses and yards for the animal exhibits. The Olmsted office prepared detailed designs for the animal houses.
The west and north edges of the park were planned with large fenced paddocks for buffalo, elk, deer, etc.

The plan indicates a large, central lawn area on the upper plateau that is ringed by a driving lanes and pedestrian paths. A ‘music grove’ was proposed to be carved into some of the steep topography in the center of the park property. An extensive system of trails, paths and roads traversed the site, many leading from the upper park area down to Green Lake. The plan also showed recreational ball fields at the far east of the property, adjacent to a spur of the Green Lake Boulevard.
There is a note on the plan stating ‘present electric railway to be removed.’ There is another note indicating ‘proposed relocation of electric railway’ along the spur of Green Lake Boulevard at the northeast corner of the park, per their 1908 letter to the commissioners.

A planting plan for the upper park, dated September, 1911, indicates existing trees to be moved and groves of trees and shrub masses to be planted in the central green area and along the paths.

The zoo was opened in 1904. The rose garden was established by the Park Board in 1922 in the area indicated on the Olmsted plan. A ‘pony ring,’ for children’s rides was installed sometime around 1922. In 1932, the bowling green was added.

In 1930, the Seattle City council voted to extend Aurora Avenue through Woodland Park in order to extend the ‘speedway’, a north-south highway that the new Aurora Avenue Bridge made possible. The road was opposed by the mayor and citizens groups (who forced a referendum vote), but the road was approved and was built in 1932, bisecting the park into two halves connected by three wide footbridges over the 6-lane road.

Woodland Park Additional Info

Woodland Park News

Designed

∆ Cal Anderson Park

∆ Cheasty Boulevard

∆ Cheasty GS: Cheasty Blvd

∆ Colman Park

∆ Frink Park

∆ Green Lake Park

∆ Hiawatha Playfield

∆ Hunter Boulevard

∆ Interlaken Park

∆ Jefferson Park

∆ Kinnear Park

∆ Lakeview Park

∆ Lake Washington Boulevard

∆ Madrona Park

∆ Magnolia Greenbelt

∆ Montlake Boulevard

∆ Mount Baker Boulevard

∆ Mount Baker Park

∆ Puget Boulevard Commons

∆ Schmitz Boulevard

∆ Schmitz Park

∆ Seward Park

∆ Volunteer Park

∆ Washington Park Arboretum

∆ Woodland Park

Influenced

∆ Alki Beach Park

∆ Cowen Park

∆ Dearborn Park

∆ Denny Blaine Park

∆ Denny Park

∆ Discovery Park

∆ Golden Gardens

∆ Hamilton Viewpoint Park

∆ Leschi Park

∆ Lincoln Park

∆ Madison Park

∆ Marshall Park

∆ McGraw Square

∆ Miller Playfield

∆ Pioneer Square

∆ Ravenna Boulevard

∆ Ravenna Park

∆ Salmon Bay Park

∆ Sunset Hill Viewpoint Park

∆ Union Station Square

Recommended

∆ Ballard Playground

∆ Beacon Hill Playground

∆ Beer Sheva Park

∆ Boren Park

∆ Cascade Playground

∆ City Hall Park

∆ Fairview Park

∆ Garfield Playfield

∆ Gasworks Park

∆ Genesee Park

∆ Gilman Playground

∆ Greenwood Triangle

∆ Howell Park

∆ Interbay Athletic Field

∆ Kerry Park

∆ Licton Spring Park

∆ Longfellow Creek GS: North

∆ Magnolia Boulevard

∆ Magnolia Park

∆ Myrtle Edwards Park

∆ Observatory Courts

∆ Pritchard Island Beach

∆ Queen Anne Boulevard

∆ Rainier Playfield

∆ Roanoke Park

∆ Rogers Playground

∆ South Park Playground

∆ University Playground

∆ Viretta Park