Washington Park Arboretum

color photo of five people standing on crushed rock path, partially obscured by tall New Zealand flax plants and other shrubs in foreground. Ornamental pampas grass and trees are in background.
New Zealand Focal Forest. Courtesy The Berger Partnership.

Washington Park is located between the Montlake and Madison Park neighborhoods at 2300 Arboretum Drive E, 98112. It is 230 acres.

In their 1909 report, the board of park commissioners gave a picturesque account of this site’s natural features, reporting that the park “occupies a huge ravine and is densely covered with tall trees and undergrowth characteristic of Western Washington. A charming stream of water traverses the ravine through the entire tract and the contour of the land is most adaptable for park purposes and especially for scenic driveways fittingly shaded by the beautiful natural growth.”

The city first acquired Washington Park from the Puget Mill Company in 1900. When John Charles Olmsted wrote his 1903 report on a system of city parks and boulevards, he recommended the city expand the park boundaries westward at least 100’ and preferably 200’ from the stream to “make it reasonably complete” and adapted to “the local topography.” He also suggested expanding the park eastward along Union Bay and securing land and water rights at Foster Island.  Olmsted further suggested revising the eastern boundary to “be on agreeable curvilinear lines, so adapted to the topography as to provide for a border street on good grades and curves.”

Plans for how a “pleasure drive” would connect Lake Washington Boulevard to the university campus through Washington Park evolved quickly over the next several months. In his 1903 report, John Charles initially proposed border streets winding along the east and west boundaries of the park for the near future, only eventually establishing a “pleasure drive. . . carried through the length of the park within its borders.” By 1904, however, the city had hired the firm to prepare drawings for a roadway alignment through the park. The Olmsted Brothers considered future uses of the park, locating the roadway so as not to “unduly cut up the level or gently sloping land,” although no park design efforts were being made at this time. The firm’s planting schemes (developed by James Frederick Dawson) for the corridor, which noted areas to be preserved as “wild growth” and areas to be cleared for interior views, was partially implemented in 1906-7. The park commissioners’ 1909 report stated that the park “occupies a huge ravine and is densely covered with tall trees and undergrowth characteristic of Western Washington. A charming stream of water traverses the ravine through the entire tract and the contour of the land is most adaptable for park purposes and especially for scenic driveways fittingly shaded by the beautiful natural growth.”

The Olmsted firm would not address Washington Park design again until the 1930’s, when Dawson was hired to provide a master plan for creating an arboretum within the park (see below).  But in the intervening years and decades, portions of the park were used in a variety of ways. A speedway for harness-racing was developed in 1908 along what is now “Azalea Way.”  The playfields at the south end of the park were created in 1909, following fill of the Madison Street trestle bridge. A viaduct, built in 1910-12, was artfully concealed within the structure of a pedestrian bridge (Wilcox Bridge) to cross the ravine. An archery range was established on Foster Island in the 1920’s. And Broadmoor golf course came into being in 1915.

In 1924, the idea of creating an arboretum in the park was proposed by the University of Washington’s forestry school.  Eventually, an agreement was reached whereby Seattle Parks would retain ownership of the land, and the university would own the plant collections. Collectively they hired The Olmsted Brothers’ James Dawson, who grew up on the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum (his father was the first plantsman there), to create a master plan for the plant collections.

The preliminary general plan, which met with unanimous approval, proposed an “Azalea Way” where the speedway formerly was located. Dawson referred to this as one of the greatest displays of flowers in the world and would include Japanese flowering cherry trees, dogwoods, and rhododendrons to provide bloom over an extended season. Other site plan elements included sculpting Arboretum creek into a series of pools and waterfalls with rock outcrops to display alpine plants; nestling Rhododendron Glen on a hillside seep; and locating the Rosacae collection were Washington Playfield is today. Lagoons were proposed for the area to the north where the former lake bed rests to display collections that thrive in this environment. An overlook, gatekeeper’s residence (stone cottage), and administration building (complete with herbarium) were also part of the plan, the latter slated for the northern edge of the lagoons closest to the University.

Plant collections were to be organized by taxonomy rather than through ecological and geographical cosideration. The Olmsted Brothers used what is known as the Engler and Prantil taxonomic system, different from what is followed in contemporary arboreta today and thus making these landscapes unique. This was also a departure from the Arnold Arboretum’s practice, which loosely arranged plants into taxonomic families that in turn were broken down geographically by continent of origin.

Elements of the Olmsted general plan were executed from 1936 to 1946.  From 1946 to 1972, Brian O. Mulligan became the Arboretum Director and shaped the site substantially.  Mulligan moved collections to sites that were better suited for growing conditions or for needing more space.

Features of the Olmsted Brothers’ plans that are most evident today include Lake Washington Boulevard, Azalea Way, the Stone Cottage and Stone Overlook, and the pond in the Japanese Garden.

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