John Charles Olmsted first arrived in Seattle on Thursday, April 30, 1903, setting in motion the creation of our city’s connected system of parks and boulevards that is still largely intact today. To recognize the Olmsted Brothers’ impact on Seattle’s modern-day parks system and its influence on citywide development, and to honor the firm’s significant standing and achievements in landscape architecture and city planning nationwide, the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks would like to celebrate April 30 as “Seattle Olmsted Day.”
John Charles’ first morning in Seattle started with a visit to two local highpoints – the then-designated county courthouse on First Hill, and Washington Hotel on Denny Hill – that afforded great views over much of the downtown area. After visually surveying the city core, Olmsted and his assistant, Percy Jones, were escorted by several park board commissioners and city surveyor Captain John Pratt on their initial sojourn of the larger metropolitan area, starting with a tour of Volunteer and Lincoln (now Cal Anderson) Parks, then moving eastward to Madison and, from there, crossing Union Bay to its northeastern shore. The group continued their explorations the following week, each day reaching and traversing another area of the city either by streetcar, boat or by foot. Olmsted walked Cotterill’s bicycle path system to Bailey Peninsula, now Seward Park, about two-and-a-half miles south of the city boundary, and Fort Lawton (today, Discovery Park). He and Jones observed improvements made at existing parks and noted the terrain and native vegetation and spectacular views to water and distant mountains throughout their site reconnaissance. Afternoons and evenings often consisted of meetings and dinners with city leaders.
The following Monday, May 11, Olmsted presented to the city council and urged them to acquire more, choicer land for parks and parkways before private development claimed these parcels. He particularly stressed setting aside shoreline and adjacent areas for public enjoyment and view opportunities, noting that “[y]our harbor front must be devoted to commerce, but around Lake Washington, Green Lake and other fresh water bodies there is an abundance of park possibilities, such views of wooded hills and outside views that are seldom met with. These lands, too, are going so fast that the city right now should take advantage of the time to secure them before they are all occupied or the native woods cut away.”
Olmsted also met with the Chamber of Commerce later that month and started sketching out a preliminary plan for park acquisitions. Given how ambitious his proposals were, Olmsted worked with the park commissioners to arrive at a much-reduced plan that could be more immediately attainable. Both his larger set of recommendations and a “reduced plan for the near future” are described in his final report, sent to the Board of Park Commissioners on July 2, 1903.
Following the approval of this plan, John Charles Olmsted and the Olmsted Brothers firm were hired by the Board of Park Commissioners several times in subsequent years to help develop site plans and detailed design for many of the parks and also to produce supplemental planning reports for an expanding city and in response to a growing awareness of the need for more playgrounds and playfields. The Olmsted Brothers further shaped the city’s public open space with their design of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition grounds, on the University of Washington campus, in 1909. The firm’s last project for the city was completed between 1935 and 1939, when James Dawson created plans for a new arboretum at Washington Park.