Olmsted Parks in Seattle

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 5/10/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1124
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The Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm designed the majority of Seattle's parks. 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. His 1903 master plan laid out a 20-mile-long greensward of parks and boulevards that ran from Seward Park along Lake Washington and across the city via Woodland Park to Discovery Park. Olmsted also designed the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the Highlands subdivision. (The Highlands is a "gated community" on Puget Sound immediately north of the Seattle City Limits.) He is credited with introducing the playground concept to the city.

Seattle's Commitment to Parks

In 1903, the Seattle City Council forever changed the face of the city when it hired the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm of Brookline, Massachusetts, to develop a comprehensive plan for Seattle parks. Within 10 years Seattle had a park system that few cities could or can match. By 1937, the firm had designed 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 Broadway Playfield, Hiawatha Playground, and Lake Washington, Magnolia, and Ravenna boulevards.

The person most responsible for the plans for Seattle's parks was John Charles Olmsted, the firm's senior partner. He was the stepson and nephew of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. who is considered the father of landscape architecture in the United States. Olmsted Sr. is best known as the co-designer, with Calvert Vaux, of New York's Central and Prospect Parks. He also designed the Stanford University campus, the Biltmore Estate, and park systems in Louisville and Buffalo, among others. The younger Olmsted designed the Portland, Oregon, park system, as well as numerous estates along the eastern seaboard and in Spokane, and Vancouver, B.C.

Although the city owned only five "major" parks in 1903 -- Denny, Kinnear, Volunteer, Washington, and Woodland -- John Olmsted's arrival in Seattle came at a promising time. Money from the Klondike Gold Rush had helped to make Seattle a wealthy city, and public sentiment had been aroused by a full-page article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The story, "Let Us Make a Beautiful City of Seattle," urged the city to acquire more land and to develop an elaborate park system.

An Important Report

Olmsted and his assistant Percy Jones arrived on April 30 and immediately began to survey the city. Accompanied by a host of park commissioners, 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 John Charles Olmsted's "A Comprehensive System of Parks and Parkways" on November 16, 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." Olmsted 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."

Olmsted incorporated the big parks, Volunteer, Washington, and Woodland, into a 20 mile-long linked park and boulevard system that skirted the shoreline and bluffs of Lake Washington, climbed inland through the University of Washington campus to the privately owned Ravenna Park, continued west to Green Lake and Woodland Park, swung southwest to Queen Anne hill, around it and through Interbay to the Magnolia bluffs and finally ended at Fort Lawton.

In addition, spur roads would connect Beacon Hill Park (Jefferson) to Lake Washington Boulevard at Mt. Baker Park. A second link went from Washington Park along Interlaken Boulevard with forks to Volunteer Park and Roanoke Park.

Although the Olmsted firm focused on park development, they also promoted a new concept to Seattle -- playgrounds. In their 1908 report, which addressed the recently annexed lands of Ballard, Columbia, West Seattle, and South Seattle, they recommended locating small parks and playgrounds, oriented toward young children and women with babies, within a half a mile of every home. They also supported additional playgrounds and outdoor gymnasiums for older boys.

The central tenets of Olmsted's planning were two-fold. In keeping with the naturalistic tradition, he tried to work with the topography and the native vegetation. He also believed that "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."

Olmsted incorporated this philosophy in his planning. At Green Lake, he recommended lowering the lake by four feet to create more land. The city eventually lowered the lake seven feet, thereby adding 100 acres of land. He proposed a formal style for Volunteer Park with large grassy acres, the clearing of dense stands of Doug-fir trees, the construction of an observation tower, and the elimination of the greenhouse, which is "ugly and much too prominent." Washington Park would combine a shady brook and swampy areas surrounded by native trees with wide expanses of grass.

Seattle's citizens actively supported the plan. In the eight years following the original proposal, citizens passed bonds totaling $3.5 million (about $57 million in 1999 dollars) for park enhancement. With this money, the city purchased, condemned or received as a gift Cowen, Frink, Schmitz, Leschi, Madrona, Colman, Ravenna, Green Lake, and Seward Parks, doubling the park lands to more than 1,000 acres.

A Long Relationship

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. 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.

Like his father, John Charles Olmsted did not like the imposition of architecture into a park design. For instance, his 1903 report called the greenhouse in Volunteer "ugly and much too prominent." In 1910, he strongly objected to plans to build the State Museum in Volunteer Park. The present Asian Art Museum was not built until 1931, 12 years after his death.

The Olmsted Brothers designed the grounds for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in 1909 on the University of Washington campus. The general plan for the UW campus also comes from their plans. Other projects included the Highlands subdivision, as well as numerous private estates across the city.


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. Note: The date of the Seattle City Council's acceptance of the Olmsted Plan was corrected on November 13, 2012.

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