Dunn Gardens

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 7/22/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5719

Dunn Gardens, in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood, is one of the best-preserved examples of a summer estate created by the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm for wealthy clients in the Pacific Northwest. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the only Olmsted residential garden regularly open to the public in Washington state.

The Olmsted firm, established in 1858 by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), designed some of the most notable urban parks in the United States, including Central Park in New York City, the capitol grounds in Washington D.C., and Boston Commons. By the early 1900s, the Olmsted imprint carried enormous prestige, especially in the young and rapidly growing cities of the Pacific Northwest, where it was considered a sign of civic maturity. Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane all hired the firm to develop comprehensive plans for their city parks.

Olmsted and his partners took a naturalistic approach to urban planning. Rather than impose a rigid grid on land that had been bulldozed and flattened, they worked with the natural topography, incorporating as much of the native vegetation as possible and integrating the planned landscape into its larger surroundings. A characteristic Olmsted plan included wide, curving boulevards that connected a series of individual parks, each reflecting the characteristics of its individual site. The parks often featured broad lawns, punctuated by stands of native trees and shrubs, suggesting both the expansiveness and the shelter of nature.

These same principles guided the work done by the company for its private clients. Olmsted designers created almost 200 private gardens in the Northwest (140 in Washington alone), primarily for entrepreneurs with freshly made fortunes. The projects included formal estates with year-round residences, as seen in the Highlands subdivision, a 380-acre gated community north of Seattle. The company also designed summer estates, some with working farms and others intended simply for respite from the bustle of urban life. Dunn Gardens was one of the latter.

Birth of a Garden

Arthur G. Dunn Sr. (1861-1945) made his first fortune in the Northwest fish canneries industry, and then made another by investing in real estate in the Seattle area. A native of Cape Vincent, New York, he moved to Seattle in 1889 to join his childhood friend and neighbor, Elton Ainsworth, who had written to Dunn encouraging him to come West and make his fortune. Legend has it that Dunn came to the city with a stake of only $280. He went into business with Ainsworth, and the two quickly prospered.

In Seattle, Dunn became friends with John Agen, another wealthy entrepreneur. Agen owned a 20-acre parcel of land just north of what were then the city limits. The property consisted mostly of gently sloping, newly logged forest, with panoramic views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Dunn, who lived on First Hill with his wife and five children, wanted a summer home in “the country.” He had been offered property in the Highlands, but found the neighborhood covenants too restricting (he wanted to be able to keep chickens at his retreat, a practice forbidden in the exclusive subdivision). In 1914, he bought half of Agen’s property. The two friends hired the Olmsted firm to landscape their adjoining estates simultaneously (for a slight reduction in fees).

The project was assigned to James Frederick Dawson, who worked closely with John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), the stepson and nephew of Frederick Law Olmsted, on many of the firm’s projects in Seattle. Dawson produced a plan that reflected both the spatial relationship of the two properties and the social relationship between the two families. Architect Charles Gould, of the Seattle firm of Bebb and Gould, designed the residences on the two estates, working with Dawson to ensure that the houses took advantage of the available views. Both were placed on the eastern edges of broad lawns, looking west toward the water and mountains (a vista that has since been obscured by maturing evergreens).

Stage One

In keeping with the Olmsted style, Dawson’s plan retained and enhanced the property’s natural features, including stands of tall, second-growth Doug-firs and cedars and a wooded ravine winding down to Puget Sound. An area of undeveloped forest served as a buffer between the two estates and the public roadway to the east. A shared entry road wound through almost a mile of forest before splitting into two long and gently curving driveways, culminating in grand loops in front of each house. A system of curvilinear paths, following the natural topography, linked the two properties and the various garden “rooms” developed on each.

“One of the goals of the summer place was to get the family away from the hustle and stress of city life,” says Tanya DeMarsh Dodson, a member of the board of the E. B. Dunn Historic Garden Trust, which now manages the garden. “It was about half an hour from the city, and then when you got to the edge of the property, you drove through a forest. It was like entering another world” (Dodson interview).

A centerpiece of the design was the Great Lawn, which began at the terrace. The lawn functioned both as a place for social gatherings and, when viewed from the surrounding woodland, as an open meadow. Selective thinning of trees helped tame the woodlands on the edge of the lawn and create room for smaller, more intimate spaces. Curving paths and angled view corridors around the lawn and through woodlands made the 10-acre site feel more like 100 acres.

Besides a garage and caretaker’s cottage, the only other amenities on the Dunn estate were a vegetable garden and a croquet lawn. A tennis court was part of the original plan, but it was never built (the family instead used the tennis court on the Agen property). The planting plan, delivered in the spring of 1916, included irregular groupings of shrubs, specimen flowering trees, and large drifts of bulbs. The plan preserved many of the property’s existing native evergreens, but it also added sugar maples, oaks, beeches, and other non-native deciduous trees. Dunn had specifically asked for them because they reminded him of his childhood home in upstate New York.

Dunn purchased the plants and supervised their installation himself. An expert gardener, he continually refined the plant list to suit his own style. He took great pride in his garden, and it remained a summer retreat for his family until his death in 1945.

Stage Two

A number of changes were made to the estate over time, although the outline (the “bones”) of the Olmsted plan remained intact. When his daughter, Dorothy, became engaged to Emery Bayley in 1940, Dunn built the young couple a house on the southwestern part of the property, sited unobtrusively near the croquet lawn. (Dorothy lived in the house until her death in 2003.) The original summer home was replaced with a sturdier house in 1949. Like the original, it was low-slung and gray-shingled.

After Dunn’s death, the property was divided among four of his five children and split into four parcels. One of these (1.8 acres) was sold to a developer in the 1950s. The rest, amounting to about eight acres total, remained in the family and constitute the Dunn Gardens today.

Dunn passed on his love of gardening to his children, particularly to his second son, Edward Bernard (1904-1991). The younger Dunn converted the former garage to a three-bedroom home and began living there full-time in 1947. He spent the next 45 years -- until his death in 1991 -- turning his 2.7-acre portion of the property into a woodland haven, with winding trails, hundreds of species and hybrid rhododendrons, and a carpet of trilliums, ferns, bleeding hearts, and native groundcovers.

E. B. “Ed” Dunn (a businessman when he wasn’t gardening) became a respected authority on regional native plants. He served as president of the Seattle Arboretum Foundation from 1957 to 1960, where, among other things, he guided the development of the Japanese Garden. A prolific garden writer, he was also known for his collection and propagation of erythroniums (native lily species) and rhododendrons. He served as president of the American Rhododendron Society from 1965 to 1969, and was awarded that organization's Gold Medal in 1971. The Rhododendron Society honored him by bestowing his name on the apricot-colored hybrid Rhododendron ‘Ed Dunn.’

Dorothy Dunn Bayley, too, put a personal stamp on her part of the estate. One of the first things she did, after her father died, was rip out the roses that once edged the small croquet lawn and replace them with heather. As a child, she had hated the time she had to spend pruning and otherwise caring for the prickly roses. The heather berm, pierced with tall lilies, is now a striking feature in the southwestern corner of the property.

Dorothy Bayley also commissioned a water feature designed (and installed in one day) by Fujitaro Kubota (1879-1973), founder of the Kubota Gardening Company and designer of the much-loved Kubota Garden in southeast Seattle. A Japanese immigrant, Kubota was known for his use of stone and mature plants, which gave a timeless look to new installations. His Dunn Gardens creation included a fountain, pond and sundial set into a rock, with an inscription reading: “It’s time to slow down and watch the garden grow.”

The Garden Today

When Ed Dunn died in 1991, he left an endowment to preserve and maintain his portion of the estate. The E. B. Dunn Historic Garden Trust, established in 1993, now owns and manages the property. Dunn family members granted conservation easements to the other two parcels. The entire tract has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Charles Price and Glenn Withey, prominent garden designers (best known for their work in developing the much acclaimed Bellevue Botanical Gardens Perennial Border), live in Ed Dunn’s former house and serve as resident curators. Part of the house has been converted to a classroom and lecture hall, named in honor of Dorothy and Emery Bayley’s daughter-in-law, Barbara Leede Bayley. A number of special events were held there during July 2004 in honor of the centennial of Ed Dunn’s birth on July 31,1904.

In 1993, the Portico Group, a Seattle landscape architecture firm, developed a master plan to guide the renovation of the garden along lines faithful to the original Olmsted plan. The plan concentrates on restoring neglected areas, replacing aged plants, and removing invasive species such as English ivy, holly, and laurel, especially from the wooded ravine. "There's no easy or quick fix," says Withey. "The wheel turns slowly in gardens, and we have to think long term here. We have a small budget and a large property" (The Seattle Times, 2004).

The curators are also mindful of the legacies of two generations of Dunns, who added their own interpretations to the plan created some 90 years ago by the Olmsted firm. “We’re making only subtle changes,” says Withey. “We’re trying to do more of what Ed did. He had a pretty good idea of what grew well here” (Withey interview).

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated Dunn Gardens as one of 12 “Restore America” sites for 2004-2005, in a program co-sponsored by Home and Gardens Television (a cable network). A crew from HGTV filmed the gardens in early May 2004 for a program to be aired sometime in 2005.

The gardens are open to the public on guided tours on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from April through July and September through October (closed in August). Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and students. Since private residences are still located on the grounds, admittance is by reservation only, and directions to the site are mailed only after reservations have been made. Children under 12 and pets are not permitted in the gardens.


Sources: Valerie Easton, “A Mutable Feast: With Skilled Freshening, the Dunn Gardens Are Aging Gracefully,” The Seattle Times, April 30, 2004; Cathy McDonald, “Dunn Gardens Trail,” The Seattle Times, June 22, 2000; Jan Kowalczewski Whitner, “A Garden Legacy -- The Dunn Gardens Were Designed by the Olmsteds and Destined to be Saved,” The Seattle Times, January 8, 1995; Beth Dodrill, “Dunn Gardens: Preservation of an Evolving Landscape,” Historic Seattle Website accessed July 20, 2004 (http://www.cityofseattle.net/commnty/histsea/ preservationseattle/preservationenv/defaultmay2.htm); Dunn Gardens Website accessed July 20, 2004 (http://www.dunngardens.org/history.html); Cassandra Tate interview with Tanya DeMarsh Dodson, July 20, 2004; Cassandra Tate interview with Glenn Withey, July 21, 2004.

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