John Olmsted arrives in Seattle to design city parks on April 30, 1903.

  • By David Williams and Walt Crowley
  • Posted 5/20/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3290
On April 30, 1903, John Charles Olmsted and his assistant Percy Jones arrive in Seattle to begin designing Seattle parks. Earlier that year, the Seattle City Council forever changes the face of the city when it hires the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm of Brookline, Massachusetts, to develop a comprehensive plan for Seattle parks. Within 10 years Seattle has a park system that few can match.

"Taken Time by the Forelock"

John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), who designed New York City's Central Park, was the firm's principal designer in Seattle. He stepped off the train from Portland, whose parks system he was also designing, with assistant Percy Jones on the morning of April 30 and was greeted by the press and members of the City Parks Board. They took the planners to the cupola of the King County Courthouse (where Harborview Hospital now stands) to survey the city, and then led them on a whirlwind tour of selected parks.

Interviewed the following day by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Olmsted cautioned, "I have only been here but one day, and have only seen a small part of the city, so I am unable to tell you what plans would be best to beautify the parks of Seattle." He was impressed with the little he had observed, however, and continued:

"I think the landscape conditions in Seattle are remarkably fine. You have taken time by the forelock and purchased parks when the city was young. On one side you have the Sound and on the other you have Lake Washington. Besides these fine bodies of water there are Green Lake and Lake Union. The hills set off the parks well. One acre of park on the water is worth ten acres inland and surrounded by houses.

"In a general way it is the plan of the parks board to connect the parks by a driveway. Of course I am unable to give you any idea of the better plan to accomplish this, but before I leave I will be. The general scheme is to start the driveway on the shores of Lake Washington, carrying it around to Lake Union, through the university grounds, thence through the valley to Green Lake and around to the shore to Woodland Park, and from there to the military reservation at Fort Lawton."

"Natural Advantages"

"In the improvement of the parks, the plan will be to have play grounds, so that they will not be a nuisance to the residents about the parks. In Lincoln Park [on Capitol Hill] the question is whether to use it mainly for a play ground or lay it out with ornamental drives and gardens. From what I have seen of it, I think a playground in the center, with an ornamental edge, would be the better, but all of these things will have to be given more study.

"I do not know of any place where the natural advantages for parks are better than here. They can be made very attractive and will be in time one of the things that will make Seattle known all over the world" (Seattle P-I, May 1, 1903).

Five Months Later...

Olmsted walked and surveyed most of the city, writing to his wife in Massachusetts every day to relate his experiences. He submitted his plan in September, and it was quickly and enthusiastically adopted.

His 1903 master plan laid out a 20-mile-long system of parks and playfields strung along scenic boulevards. Lake Washington Boulevard linked Seward Park, Colman Park, Frink Park, and Washington Park (home of the future Arboretum), and he redesigned Capitol Hill's Volunteer Park (a former cemetery acquired in 1874). Olmsted's plan also created Ravenna Boulevard, lowered and landscaped Green Lake, and redesigned Woodland Park on Guy Phinney's former estate, which the city had acquired in 1899.

John Olmsted also designed the city's first neighborhood playgrounds. His proposed boulevards ringing the summit of Queen Anne Hill and connecting Ballard, Interbay, Magnolia Bluff, and Fort Lawton, which were only partially developed.

Return in 1908

Between 1905 and 1907, the area of Seattle more than doubled through annexations of Southeast Seattle, West Seattle, Ballard, and other communities. Olmsted returned to revise and expand his parks plan in 1908. Olmsted expanded his "emerald necklace" of boulevards by 30 miles to ring West Seattle and arc southeast to Jefferson and Seward parks. The city raised levies and spent $4 million to make much of Olmsted's plans a reality between 1904 and 1912.

Olmsted also made a plan for the University of Washington in 1904, and designed the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition grounds, "Fraternity Row" on 17th Avenue NE, Capitol Hill's "Millionaire Row" south of Volunteer Park, Fort Lawton's original housing areas, and the Highlands subdivision (a gated community on Puget Sound immediately north of the Seattle City Limits). Following John Olmsted's death in 1920, the Olmsted Brothers firm continued to consult on Seattle projects such as the Washington Park Arboretum until 1941.


Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer September 21, 1902; Ibid., May 1, 1903; Ibid., October 4, 1903; Ibid., October 18, 1903; Ibid., April 2, 2003; Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks website (www.cityofseattle.net/friendsofolmstedparks); Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation website(www.cityofseattle.net/parks); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Parks of Seattle: the Olmsted Legacy," (by David B. Williams) www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 15, 2001).
Note: This essay was updated on April 18, 2003.

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