Woodland Park

By 1903, Woodland Park was a newly-acquired city park, having been purchased from the widow of entrepreneur Guy Phinney just four years earlier.  At the time, it was Seattle’s largest park at 179 acres. The ‘Woodland Park Estate’ property  wa originally purchased by Guy Phinney in 1889 as a residence plus commercial ‘pleasure park’ in the English estate park tradition.  Phinney built a large house where the Woodland Park Zoo’s south parking lot is now, a formal garden where the Rose Garden is, and erected an impressive stone entrance at 50th and Fremont Avenues. He built a bandstand, hotel, and set paths through the wooded hillside down to Green Lake, where he built a bathing beach, bathhouse, and ballfield. He also built a private trolley line to connect the park to the Fremont neighborhood immediately south so Seattleites could visit his park. The aristocratic tradition typically demanded a deer park and so, by 1893, a small herd had been established in the park. With Guy Phinney’s sudden death that year, his widow sold the property to the City of Seattle in 1899 for $100,000. This caused considerable consternation with many people, given that Woodland Park was several miles out of town.

In his 1903 report, John Charles Olmsted suggested maintaining some of the site’s zoo function, “There being less natural beauty in the upper portion of the park, since it is flat and has no view and has been mainly cleared of the original forest, it would be comparatively unobjectionable, if it thought desirable, to devote part of this portion of the park largely to a collection of hardy wild animals.”

Concerning the less-developed eastern portion of the site, however, Olmsted observed that a “large portion of this park is covered with the remains of native woods. Most of the largest and best trees have been cut, but what remain are amply sufficient to preserve the typical characteristics of the woods which originally clothed all the region.” He noted that much improvement could be made without ruining the natural features of the park, allowing that the many recreational activities already there (tennis, baseball, cricket) were very popular, with more fields being added at the south end of Green Lake to create the ‘largest recreation grounds’ in the city.

The Olmsted Brothers’ 1903 report also recommended four boulevard segments relating to Woodland Park. One was a pleasure drive that would run through the park itself, entering from its northeast corner at Green Lake Boulevard, gently turning back and forth as needed to climb the grade into the park, then leaving the park at the northwest corner. From this point, a second parkway, “Ballard Boulevard,” would head down the western slope of Phinney Ridge in a broadly sweeping switchback and eventually cross the Ship Canal to connect to the proposed boulevards on Queen Anne and Magnolia (today, remnants of a boulevard landscape exist along 57th Street leading west from the park, but the route did not continue). 

These two segments, had they been realized, would have further extended the park and boulevard system including Lake Washington Boulevard and Seward Park. A third drive would have been Pine Grove Boulevard, following current-day’s N 50th street straight east to connect Woodland Park to the University campus; this was never constructed as a boulevard. Lastly, two spurs were suggested, one connecting Green Lake Boulevard to Pine Grove Boulevard (50th Street) to the south, and the other extending Green Lake Boulevard along the southwest edge of the Lake as far as Aurora Avenue.

In 1908 the Olmsted Brothers firm was hired to create a design for Woodland Park. Consistent with his 1903 recommendations and believing that native forests are vital to urban areas, J.C. Olmsted retained the natural woods on the eastern slopes leading down to Green Lake. As he wrote to Park Commissioner J.M. Frink: “One of the most essential landscape features of Woodland Park is the woodland from which it derives its name. To the dwellers in the city, the woodland landscape is one of the most interesting and refreshing sorts as it forms a very complete contrast to all the ordinary city streets and squares and parks.” Olmsted further recommends “against the clearing away of underbrush, natural ground-covering, big picturesque stumps and mossy and large logs in the woods of Woodland Park except in limited areas for special purposes. . . . “

The preliminary design for Woodland Park, dated February 1910, shows the formal gardens of the old Phinney estate while adding new pathways, roadways, and a “Ballard Boulevard” (today, 57th Street). The zoo was to be retained and, typical of zoo design of the day, several great spaces with animal quarters were placed on the periphery of the upper Woodland Park property. Just to the west of the south entrance, the plan showed a large wading pool/toy boat sailing area with large play lawns; several tennis courts were also sited in that area. The natural woodland in the eastern portion of the site was to be retained, the area embellished with a network of trails and some lawn area. A ‘music grove’ was proposed to be carved into some of the steep topography in the center of the park property.

The plan includes a large, central lawn area on the upper plateau ringed by a driving lane and pedestrian paths. This Great Lawn was a central focus and organizing principle of the Preliminary Plan. Olmsted worked to provide views into the Great Lawn from various points throughout the site. The lawn has steadily shrunk over the years as the Zoo has expanded, though a remnant of the Great Lawn is still enjoyed by picnickers and concert goers in the North Meadow and by giraffes and zebras in the African Savanna.  The main loop pathway around the zoo, still in use, originated from the Olmsted plan.

Olmsted also made recommendations to minimize the impact of the electric railway running through the park. He suggested building earthen embankments supported by stone walls to absorb and deflect noise and constructing archways across the rails to carry drives and walks. He predicted the future need to run a roadway through the park and suggested the drive should run adjacent to the rail line ‘but need not be wide.’

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. Though the Olmsted Brothers did extensive design of the zoo’s site, we only know of two buildings for which the firm provided drawings – a shelter house near the wading pool and the extensive preliminary drawings for the Monkey and Aviary house, eventually termed The Primate House. The shelter house disappeared decades ago while the Primate House remained until 2005, when it was demolished to build the Zoomasium.

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, 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.

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