In The Beginning
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.
Hiring the Olmsted Brothers
Despite vocal opposition to the 1899 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 city.
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.
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 leading citizens.
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 Board 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.”
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 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 Park). 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 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 in Seattle.
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 town.”
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.
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 for awhile.
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.”
Based on a HistoryLink.org essay by David B. Williams.
Sources: William White, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Annual Report of Board of Park Commissioners, Seattle: 1903; Annual Report of Board of Park Commissioners, Seattle: 1909; Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle’s Parks (Seattle: Greenwood Publications), 1979.