The Olmsted Legacy -- The Fabled Massachusetts Landscape Firm Got To Seattle Early, And That Has Made All The Difference

The M Word Along with the rest of the planet, Pacific Northwest is dubiously eyeing the approach of a new millenium. We don't want to add to the general racket on this subject. But we have noticed that thinking about the future seems to tug at our feelings about the past. So we'll quietly honor the millennium we're about to leave with a few pieces about interesting, sometimes overlooked local history. Today's feature is the first of an occasional series. -------------------------------

CREATING AN ELABORATE park system was probably the furthest thought from their minds when members of the Denny party arrived at Alki Point on Nov. 13, 1851. All they could see through the rain were trees, more trees and water. Building a home was far more important than building a place to play. And yet, just 33 years later Seattle had its first park and 20 years after that, the city had a comprehensive plan for major parks and parkways that would rival any found in the United States.

Few cities in the world can claim such an achievement, either in breadth of vision or efficiency. Today's Seattle residents, famous for their ability to squabble for years over creating even a neighborhood traffic circle, might look for inspiration to the architects most responsible for crafting the master plan, the Olmsted family of Massachusetts.

The family is best known for designing Central Park in New York City and the Boston and Buffalo park systems, but the Olmsted Brothers firm also worked in Seattle for 38 years. The 37 parks and playgrounds the firm designed include Colman, Frink, Green Lake, Interlaken, Jefferson, Mount Baker, Seward, Volunteer and Woodland parks, Washington Park and Arboretum, as well as Lincoln Park (now known as the Bobby Morris Playfield), Hiawatha Playground and Lake Washington, Magnolia and Ravenna boulevards.

Park planners across the country recognize Seattle's Olmsted park system as one of the best-preserved and best-designed in the United States. Many eastern cities have only one or two Olmsted-designed parks; in Seattle the architects created a system of linked beaches, boulevards and natural spaces that is as distinctive as the city's setting.

ALTHOUGH THE OLMSTED Brothers are sometimes credited with starting Seattle's park system, five public parks existed when the firm's lead designer, John Charles Olmsted, arrived in 1903. The city's park movement had begun inauspiciously in 1884, when the city converted the town cemetery into a five-acre park and named it Seattle Park. Now known as Denny Park, for David and Louisa Denny, who donated the property, the land was located then on the outskirts of town. Visitors reached the park via a narrow track cut through the surrounding virgin forest.

The system grew tenfold in 1887. George Kinnear donated 14 acres at the base of Queen Anne Hill. The city also designated 40 acres on top of Capitol Hill as Lake View Park. A few years later the name was changed to City Park and in 1901 to Volunteer Park, to honor veterans of the Spanish-American War.

While the city created these parks, five privately owned parks also opened to the public. The owners of Seattle's trolley system created Madison, Madrona, and Leschi parks. Often described as "pleasure grounds," they included pavilions, horse tracks, amusement rides and dance halls. They served one purpose for the developers: promotion and sale of the surrounding land, which also happened to be owned by the trolley lines.

Another developer, William Beck, owned the fourth private park, Ravenna, which he had named for the Italian city. Beck cleared the surrounding land but left the deep ravine mostly intact. He built meandering paths through the forest of Brobdingnagian-sized Douglas fir and Western red cedar, installed benches and pavilions and developed the sulfur springs. Beck charged 25 cents to enter his park.

The biggest change to Seattle's nascent park system occurred in 1900 with the acquisition of the fifth private park, Woodland, and what would become Washington Park. The city bought Woodland Park for $100,000 from the Guy Phinney estate. With the purchase, Seattle gained more than 100 acres of mostly cleared land, along with Phinney's menagerie, which included herds of deer, elk and buffalo he had gathered to promote his own land sales around Green Lake. Seattle acquired most of Washington Park from the Puget Mill company, which later developed Broadmoor Country Club.

Public sentiment did not favor such extravagant purchases. The Argus newspaper wrote of the proposed acquisition of Woodland Park: "If this park was properly located there might be some excuse for paying the enormous price. But to pay more than it would bring to cut up into town lots for a piece of land much of which is barren wilderness, and none of which possesses the features that Seattle should demand in a park, is little short of criminal." No more large tracts of land would be acquired for another eight years.

DESPITE OPPOSITION to the purchase of Woodland Park, the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners decided in 1902 that it wanted a more elaborate park system. The board planned on hiring the best landscape architect in the country, Frederick Law Olmsted, believing his name would add an air of distinction to the growing city.

When the board contacted the landscape-architecture firm in Brookline, Mass., however, members discovered that Frederick Law Olmsted was in poor health. (He would die the following year.) His son, Frederick Jr., had joined the firm, now known as the Olmsted Brothers, but he was teaching and could not make it to Seattle. The firm wrote that its senior partner, John Charles Olmsted, was available.

The dubious board wanted to know more about this "other Olmsted." After the firm sent a letter listing his extensive park-planning work (something the firm did not normally consider necessary) the board finally hired John Charles Olmsted. What they got, apparently without realizing it, was the most experienced landscape architect in the country in 1903.

His career had begun in 1875, when he apprenticed with his stepfather, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. The younger Olmsted's credits included design work on the Boston, Louisville and Rochester park systems, as well as numerous private estates throughout the east.

Olmsted and his assistant, Percy Jones, arrived in Seattle on April 30, 1903. They could not have timed it better. Money from the Klondike Gold Rush had helped Seattle become a more wealthy city. Furthermore, the anti-park tide was ebbing. The year before, a full-page article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had urged the city to acquire more land and to develop an elaborate park system. The story, "Let Us Make a Beautiful City of Seattle," ended with sparkling endorsements for parks from many of the city's leading citizens.

Besides public support, Olmsted had two important documents that helped his evaluation of Seattle.

Eleven years earlier in 1892, Superintendent of Parks Edward Otto Schwagerl had produced a city-wide plan for a park system. Schwagerl proposed two parks on Puget Sound (Fort Lawton and Alki Point) and two on Lake Washington (Sand Point and Seward Park). Parkways would link these parks with the privately owned "pleasure grounds" and with the existing public parks. Schwagerl wrote that "establishment of a fine system of Parks and Drive-ways as such is manifestly the most effective means of rendering a city a beautiful and desirable place of residence."

Later, in 1900, assistant city engineer George Cotterill had produced a plan for a 25-mile system of bicycle paths around the city. Olmsted incorporated several miles of these trails into his plan, including the paths through what would become part of Interlaken and Washington parks.

With these plans, and accompanied by a host of park commisioners, Olmsted and Jones spent the month of May surveying Seattle by horse, trolley, foot and boat. They left for Massachusetts on June 6 and just under a month later, on July 2, 1903, sent their formal report back to Seattle.

The Seattle City Council approved the Olmsted Brothers' "A Comprehensive System of Parks and Parkways" in October 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." Recognizing the changing real-estate market, he urged the city to move swiftly to acquire as much land as possible, especially "all the borders of the different bodies of water."

Seattle's citizens actively supported the plan. In the eight years following the original proposal, city citizens approved bond issues totaling $3.5 million (about $57 million in 1999 dollars) for park enhancement.

One other event also made a significant impact on their plan. In March 1904, city residents voted to give the Board of Park Commissioners powers separate from the City Council. (The pre-1904 powers of the Park Board were later characterized by its successors: "After learning it was necessary to kneel to the council and play the political game to secure appropriations on the work, nearly all of these 35 commissioners resigned or retired in disgust.")

With the change, the new board would have the same independence as park boards in eastern cities. Taking advantage of this change in the power structure, Olmsted Brothers proposed to "furnish a competent and experienced park superintendent" and then pay him, too. Their man, John Thompson, remained the Seattle parks superintendent for 17 years. With new power, the board began to implement the Olmsted plan for Seattle.

The central feature of the Olmsted plan was a 20-mile-long parkway that ran from Bailey Peninsula (Seward Park) to Fort Lawton (Discovery Park). From Bailey, the pleasure drive would snake along the lake shore, climb up and wrap along the bluff that now encompasses Colman and Frink parks, dive back down to the water at Madrona Park, and eventually turn inland to Washington Park. From here, the roadway would cut north to the University of Washington campus, pass through it to Ravenna Park and the adjacent ravine (Cowen Park), and eventually parallel the brook that flowed from Green Lake. The parkway would continue through Woodland Park, turn south again to reach Queen Anne Hill, wrap around the hill's north end and through Interbay to Smith's Cove, then end with an extension along the Magnolia bluffs to Fort Lawton.

A spur road would connect Lake Washington Boulevard at Mount Baker Park to Beacon Hill Park (Jefferson). A second spur would go from Washington Park along Interlaken Boulevard of North Capitol Hill, with forks to Volunteer Park and Roanoke Park. Another boulevard would connect Kinnear Park on lower Queen Anne with Magnolia.

While the Olmsted report focused on park and boulevard development, it also promoted a new concept to Seattle - playgrounds.

According to David Streatfield, a University of Washington landscape-architecture professor, John Charles Olmsted was a pioneer in this concept.

"Olmsted believed that playgrounds were a necessity for a civilized society. Children would learn fairness and decency via sports in the playground," Streatfield says.

In the firm's 1908 report to the park commissioners, Olmsted recommended locating small parks and playgrounds, oriented toward young children and women with babies, within a half-mile of every home. He also supported additional playgrounds and outdoor gymnasiums for older boys.

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: Colman, Cowen, Frink, Green Lake, Leschi, Madrona, Ravenna, Seward and Schmitz parks. 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.

One of John Charles Olmsted's main concerns in Seattle was that parks should fit into their surroundings. In the 1903 report, he wrote: "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."

Today Streatfield points out Colman and Frink parks and says, "It is clear that Olmsted recognized the fragility of the environment in these ravines." He did not alter the rough terrain, wild growth and tall trees, except next to the roads. Winding roads follow the land's contours, while overpasses allow people to easily move through the parks. Many consider these parks to be the best examples of Olmsted park design in Seattle.

On the other hand, since Volunteer Park was located within a "highly finished style of city development," Olmsted proposed a formal design with large grassy areas and extensive flower beds, clearing of densely growing fir trees and construction of an observation tower. Another style emerged at Washington Park, which combined a shady brook and swampy areas surrounded by native trees with "marked open spaces, (not) of large extent, and . . . covered smoothly with grass so as to adapt it for use by large crowds."

Olmsted did not always leave the land alone, though. He recommended lowering Green Lake by 4 feet to create a "lake within a park." The city went further and eventually lowered the lake 7 feet, creating almost 100 acres of additional land

According to Jerry Arbes, board member of the National Association of Olmsted Parks and also of Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks, the key to appreciating what the Olmsteds did for Seattle is not to look at the separate parks but to look at the system as a whole.

"There is a sense of connection in the Olmsted plan," Arbes says. "The interlinked parks provide a diversity of experience, yet one senses a relationship between these separate elements."

ALL OF THIS was far in the future on that dreary November day in 1851. A virgin wilderness of unknown proportions spread out in all directions from the Dennys and their clan. Their vision, though, was so grand that they named the place "New York, Alki" - New York bye and bye.

Seattle's founders rightly saw no need for preserves or parks in their forested domain. Fifty years later, though, civic leaders, and most important, John Charles Olmsted, understood that the city's growth had changed the fabric of the landscape so that Seattle's citizens now needed places away from "the restraining and confining conditions of the town."

Almost 100 years later, parks have become even more central to the city's existence. Surveys by the Park Department over the past 30 years show that parks act upon us at a level we don't always understand.

When asked if they used parks, many of those surveyed initially said "No," but when probed further, the respondents realized that they walked, biked or drove through or by a park, and most often one designed by the Olmsted Brothers, almost every day. Part of the park system's appeal is that these green spaces do not feel like designed landscapes, but blend into their residential surroundings. People noticed the trees and water in the parks almost daily.

This is part of the Olmsted Brothers legacy to Seattle - that so much land was protected and that the designs were good enough to survive.

How many Seattleites had their first experience with the natural world in an Olmsted park? We are fortunate. We still have places like Schmitz Park, which has hints of the virgin forest that once covered this land; Interlaken Park, which remains the province of frogs and quiet streams or even a more formal park like Woodland, where anyone can sit quietly under an 80-foot-tall oak and forget the city for a while.

Equally important is that the Olmsteds also gave the city a philosophy that protecting natural scenery was important. John Charles Olmsted wrote in his initial report to the city that it should "secure and preserve . . . these advantages of water and mountain views." Don Harris, director of environmental programs for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, says the admonishment still guides planners. He cites as an example the 1989 King County Open Spaces and Trails Bond, which provided funding to preserve 531 additional acres of green space, as an example.

"Over the years, we have created a wonderful mix of larger parks such as Gasworks and Discovery and smaller jewels like Thornton Creek and Maple School Ravine, but the key element was the Olmsted legacy," Harris says. "It has helped provide the links that sustain the system."

David B. Williams, a Seattle writer, was once an interpretive specialist at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Massachusetts. Harley Soltes is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

Next week: A closer look at the quirky history of the Woodland Park Zoo, which celebrates its 100th year in 1999. ------------------------------- WANT TO KNOW MORE?

THE WATER TOWER in Volunteer Park is a good place to begin learning more about the Olmsted legacy. In 1997, the Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks created a multi-faceted, interpretive exhibit that details the city's association with the Olmsted Brothers. It includes photographs; maps; text; field notes; historic postcards that address the creation of Volunteer Park, Seattle's water system and its relationship to the parks; specifics on what the Olmsteds designed in Seattle and a history of the Olmsted family's design work.

The permanent exhibit is open daily from 10 a.m. to dusk. For those with disabilities, an accessible version of the Olmsted interpretive exhibit is located at the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. For more information contact Parks and Recreation at 206-684-4075.

On Saturday, May 22, Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks will its show its six-projector "Olmsted Revisited" slide show in the Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park. Showings will be at 11 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m.

The Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks was formed in 1983 to promote awareness, enjoyment and care of the the city's Olmsted parks and landscapes, both public and private. For more information contact the group at P.O Box 9884, Seattle, WA 98109.