< Browse to Previous Essay | Browse to Next Essay >
Washington Park (Seattle)
HistoryLink.org Essay 10243
: Printer-Friendly Format
Washington Park, home to the Washington Park Arboretum, is located between Seattle's Madison Park and Montlake neighborhoods with its north end fronting Union Bay and State Route 520. In addition to the arboretum, its 230 acres are home to the Seattle Japanese Garden, a segment of Lake Washington Boulevard, a playfield, and playgrounds. The boulevard and arboretum were originally designed by the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects firm between 1904 and 1939. Operation of the arboretum is a joint effort of Seattle Parks and Recreation, the University of Washington, and the Arboretum Foundation under the direction of the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee, which consists of members appointed by the mayor of Seattle, the president of the University of Washington, and the governor of Washington. The park's location in city has subjected it to intrusions, most notably from traffic and transportation infrastructure. In 2012 the park is in the midst of major changes to its collections as it implements the 2001 Washington Park Arboretum Master Plan and prepares for changes to its landscape as the SR 520 bridge replacement project moves forward.
A number of influences have shaped the Washington Park we know today. The land was home to Coast Salish people who had several villages in the Union Bay area. It was opened to American settlement by the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed in 1855. It began its transformation into a city park in the same way much of Seattle's formerly forested landscape became part of the city. Fred Drew bought the land from the federal government using military scrip he had purchased from a veteran of the War of 1812 and from a veteran's widow. He does not appear to have developed the land. Later, the Puget Mill Company, a division of the Pope and Talbot Company, bought the land and in the 1880s logged it. By the early 1890s the company was ready to sell the land for residential development.
At that time Madison Park, the neighborhood east of the park location, had a streetcar line, the Madison Street Cable Railway. Development had begun on a plat laid out by John J. McGilvra (1827-1903) near the dock at the foot of Madison Street on Lake Washington. The land on the eastern flank of Capitol Hill above the park site to the west was largely undeveloped. To the north, a small log canal had been dug in 1885 across the Montlake Portage, a narrow isthmus of land between Lake Washington and Lake Union. The future home of the University of Washington, on the north side of the portage, would remain undeveloped until 1895. The Panic of 1893 stopped much of the development in Seattle until the economy was resuscitated by the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897.
The Puget Mill Company moved forward with its plan for the area in 1900. Realizing it would need utilities such as water service to develop the land for residential use, the company offered to transfer the western portion of its holdings, 62 acres, to the city in exchange for the city extending services to its remaining land, now known as Broadmoor. The city accepted the donation on January 5, 1900, and established a park. Several land transactions that year and over the next several years added about 100 more acres. By 1938 additional donations had increased the park to 267 acres. (Highway construction in the 1960s reduced the park to its current size.)
The land forms within park borders included two ridges running north and south with a valley between that narrowed toward the north. A creek, fed by drainage off the hills and from the valley to the south and by at least one spring, ran the length of the park, opening into a marshland on the shore of Lake Washington's Union Bay on the park's northern border.
The Puget Mill Company had not clear-cut the tract. Instead it had removed the large trees while leaving a significant amount of the native flora. A mix of evergreen and deciduous trees dominated the hillsides. The lower, wetter land between the ridges featured meadows and, closer to the lake, wetlands.
In the early 1890s, before the Panic of 1893, Seattle park commissioners had tried to develop a park system. Several large tracts were reserved for park use, including parks later known as Jefferson Park and Volunteer Park, to provide a place for recreation and respite from the noise and activity of city life. The City Beautiful movement, which grew in popularity in the 1890s, influenced the commissioners' thinking about how the city should develop. Instead of focusing on utilitarian development, these city leaders wanted to ensure that the city included amenities that increased its livability.
By 1900, the city had very little park development beyond the lands that had been reserved. George F. Cotterill (1865-1958), then an assistant city engineer, laid out a system of bicycle trails in the city to serve the riders of the estimated 10,000 bicycles in Seattle (with a population of slightly more than 55,000 in 1898). One of the bike paths started at the top of Capitol Hill near Volunteer Park and traveled down the hill through the Interlaken area and into Washington Park.
In 1903, with its population exploding following the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, the city hired John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) of the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, to develop a citywide park system plan. The Olmsted Brothers firm was the most prominent landscape architecture firm in the country. John C. Olmsted, stepson, nephew, and former business partner of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (1822-1903), formed the firm with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. after his stepfather retired. The elder Olmsted was recognized as the father of landscape architecture in the United States and was known for a number of important projects, including New York's Central Park (with Calvert Vaux) and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
John C. Olmsted created a plan for Seattle parks over the spring and summer of 1903 and submitted it to the commissioners in July. The commissioners approved the plan and sent it on to the city council, which adopted it on November 16, 1903. Olmsted's plan laid out a system of large parks, smaller neighborhood parks, and a network of boulevards running through the city's outlying neighborhoods. The plan capitalized on the existing natural beauty, using what landscape architects call "borrowed landscapes" to draw distant water and mountain views into the parks and boulevards. To that end Olmsted planned for large parks with vistas on top of Seattle's hills and placed boulevards along bluffs and shorelines. The system encompassed the entire city, as it existed then, except for the downtown business district where existing development and high land values precluded the development of park lands.
Olmsted proposed a continuous system of boulevards that connected parks throughout the city. The boulevards linked Washington Park northward across the Montlake Portage to the University of Washington campus and on to Green Lake and Elliott Bay and Puget Sound beyond, westward to Capitol Hill, and southeastward across to Lake Washington at the Denny Blaine neighborhood and, continuing south, largely following the lake shore, to the Bailey Peninsula (where Seward Park was subsequently established).
The Olmsted Brothers firm would be involved in refining this plan and designing some of the parks and boulevards until the late 1930s. One of the first designs that the firm developed showed the route, grades, and landscaping for Washington Park Boulevard, running through the park from Union Bay in the north to Madison Street in the south. It was the first section of the future Lake Washington Boulevard to be built.
While working on the project in 1904, Olmsted tried to convince park commissioners to hire his firm to develop a plan for the entire park, not just the drive. In a letter to Charles W. Saunders (1858-1935), one of the firm's biggest supporters on the newly formed Board of Park Commissioners, Olmsted wrote:
"[I]t is very unreasonable that we should be limited in our employment in the one case to the designing of a single drive in a large park and in the other to a tract of 20 acres, which is only a small fraction of the area of a large park [Woodland Park]. The design for a park must necessarily be in its main features considered as a unit. ...
"The drive is not the primary purpose of the park. The park is a piece of landscape or series of landscapes and the drive is merely the means of making these landscapes conveniently accessible and enjoyable by people in carriages and on foot" (Olmsted to Saunders, September 22, 1904).
The board was not persuaded to expand the commission.
The boulevard plan featured several hallmarks of an Olmsted design. It curved gently and gracefully along the valley, avoiding the creek for the most part. A walk ran parallel to the roadway, though it was separated by distance and a different grade in some places. In keeping with its parkway role, the plantings proposed along the drive were informal and included many native species. When Olmsted sent the boulevard plans to the Board of Park Commissioners, he wrote:
"In our list of plants you will note that we have not used a great many of the plants listed in your nursery. We found that you have many plants of a formal or exotic nature well adapted to use in city squares and small parks, but not so well suited for larger and less artificial work" (Olmsted to Thompson).
In residential areas, Olmsted's boulevard designs had more formal elements such as rows of trees, landscaped center strips, and more uniform sidewalks. At the southern end of the park, near Madison Street, Olmsted aligned the boulevard to take advantage of the relatively flat area on either side of the creek to accommodate the development of "a better field for field sports" (Olmsted Brothers to Saunders July 22, 1904).
Though it was not part of their commission, Olmsted and his associate, Percy Jones, looked at the park's topography and existing forest and made notes about the vistas that could be experienced as visitors moved along the boulevard, where views could be opened up, and how the future park might be laid out. In a letter written in April 1904, Olmsted made suggestions for two other roads in the park, one along the eastern border of the park (where Arboretum Drive was subsequently constructed) that should be curvilinear, not "a street consisting of a series of straight lines alternating with angles, which in our opinion would be ugly and undesirable," and one along the lake that "will become part of the main drive to and through the University grounds" (Olmsted to Board of Park Commissioners).
The Planting Plan
The Board of Park Commissioners accepted the parkway plan on March 24, 1904. The board commissioned a planting plan, just for the boulevard, in August 1905. Based on his initial studies of desired sightlines, Olmsted developed a plan for the shrubs, trees, and lawns that would flank the drive. Alongside the 24-foot driveway there was provision for an 8-foot sidewalk that followed as near the roadway as the contours allowed, crossing from time to time as needed.
Olmsted encouraged parks staff to adjust the location and grade of the walk to meet actual conditions on the ground. Alongside the boulevard, the plantings included individual species of trees in informal groupings and large beds with native and non-native shrubs, with small trees behind them.
For the south entry from Madison Street, Olmsted planned a more formal planting of oak and sycamore trees along the drive. This was the initial section of the boulevard constructed in 1904 and the formal border of trees was photographed 30 years later by James Frederick Dawson (1874-1941), representing the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects, when he returned to begin designing the arboretum in 1934. The oaks and sycamores continue to border the entry in 2012, more than a century after their planting.
Olmsted returned to Seattle in 1906 and wrote to his wife Sophie:
"I had an interesting walk, part along the drive built in Washington park by our plan, but lacking in nice finish. What is left of the original woods would be considered very fine anywhere near us. It is very beautiful. The undergrowth is very attractive, much of it being evergreen. After we left the drive we pushed our way through undergrowth and over or under big logs mostly moss grown and with ferns etc. It was cloudy and very moist underfoot and the bushes more or less dripping wet. We crossed one clearing near the old logging canal. It seemed to be a pasture only and was pretty bush with burned spots as if a caretaker had tried to burn old logs, etc., and burned out patches of bushes. But that was the only interruption -- north of the canal the woods were particularly wild and uniformly dense. Of course all the trees worth cutting at the time had been taken but now lumber has risen so in price no doubt smaller trees would be taken. I was glad so many fairly large trees were still there. I hope some moderate areas can be added to the park but I fear it will cost too much. The prices to which land has risen here are astonishing" (Olmsted to Olmsted).
An area for Interlaken Boulevard's future route was also included in the original survey map provided to Olmsted for Washington Park. Under construction in 1905, Interlaken Boulevard made a connection between Washington Park and Capitol Hill. Originally planned to follow the route of the bicycle path around the side of the hill, it had to be shifted south and connected to 19th Avenue because land values on the north side of Capitol Hill had risen too much since the park system plan was published in 1903. Later construction would carry the boulevard to the Roanoke neighborhood at the northern end of Capitol Hill.
Speedway and Sanitary Fill
After the 1905 planting plan and 1906 proposals for its extension north toward the University, Olmsted Brothers would not be directly involved in Washington Park's development until the 1930s. In the meantime, some uncoordinated development occurred. The Speedway, a 40-foot-wide, dirt-covered roadway in the middle of the park, was built in 1907 for horse racing. Before cars became ubiquitous in the 1910s, the Speedway and stables that a racing club built were regularly filled with horses, drivers, and spectators for harness races. When interest in racing shifted to cars, the Speedway lay fallow, but horseback riding and riding lessons persisted in the park for some time.
In 1915 the city approved the use of sanitary fill -- garbage -- to fill the ravine at the south end of the park to provide level ground for a ballfield. The city also filled the space under the trestle that then carried Madison Street past the park, cutting off a direct link into Madison Valley to the south and creating a high earthen wall along the south edge of the park. As part of that project, the creek was placed underground to run through culverts into the city sewer system. The remaining downstream portion of the creek continued flowing, though some sections were straightened. The city also approved a dump at the north end of the park, on Union Bay near the intersection of Miller Street and the park boulevard, which would remain in operation until 1935.
In 1916 the park grew abruptly in size when the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened. That August, when the wooden wall was removed from the east end of the canal dug across the Montlake Portage, the lake began slowly dropping. Over the next four months it fell 8.8 feet, exposing new land. Along the marshy area in the north end of the park, the water receded and drained the marshes. Foster Island grew significantly. While the newly available land made the park larger, the shoreline receded far enough that water views over Union Bay noted by Olmsted in 1904 could not be incorporated into the park's future designs.
The park remained largely undeveloped in the 1910s and 1920s. University of Washington president Henry J. Suzzallo (1875-1933), struggling to find a home for an arboretum on the ever-changing campus, saw an opportunity in Washington Park. It offered about 200 acres of open space in which to develop the arboretum and a joint operations agreement with the city would save the university money while providing the city with the benefit of faculty members' scientific knowledge.
Searching for an Arboretum Site
The idea for an arboretum at the University of Washington has been dated to 1891, when Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935) worked to move the university campus from its original downtown location to a more spacious setting. Meany, who was both a professor at the university and a state legislator, campaigned to convince his fellow legislators to authorize the purchase of a large tract of land on the shores of Lake Washington and Lake Union just north of the Montlake Portage. He argued that the prospective campus's 587 acres would allow room to develop an arboretum that would benefit students' studies and provide opportunities to conduct research on marketable trees. Many legislators either had a personal interest in the timber industry or represented districts with economies that relied on it, and Meany succeeded in his campaign.
The university opened at its current location in 1895. Second-growth forest covered the new campus. For years, Meany organized annual Campus Days during which students cleared ground and planted trees. The sequoia standing in 2012 near Smith Hall survives from these early days. Following the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world's fair held on the campus in 1909, a number of the trees planted by Meany and the students were removed to make way for additional campus development.
Department of Forestry Dean Hugo Winkenwerder (1878-1947), in his role as the acting director of the planned campus arboretum, beginning in 1912, worked closely with Meany. Their efforts after the fair to find a place for the arboretum on campus led to the reservation of a small space in the lower campus for a tree nursery and tree planting. The Medicinal Herb Garden still located on the north side of Stevens Way was also part of this work. After several years of developing tree collections, however, the arboretum lost its space to a naval training camp established after the outbreak of World War I.
At the end of the war, Winkenwerder attempted to reestablish the arboretum, but new enthusiasm for golfing led to an effort to build a golf course in the same area. The golf enthusiasts won out over the arboretum and an 18-hole course was built along the shore of Lake Union (where the University of Washington Medical Center and the Magnuson Health Sciences Center are today).
In the early 1920s, with the campus filling with ever more development, Winkenwerder despaired of ever finding a place for an arboretum. University of Washington President Henry J. Suzzallo was also convinced of the value of an arboretum and he conceived of the idea to use nearby Washington Park. Suzzallo gained public support for the project by drawing parallels between the zoological garden in Woodland Park and a floral garden in Volunteer Park.
When the idea went before the Board of Park Commissioners in March 1924, Suzzallo wrote to them arguing that the University of Washington could provide scientific knowledge to the parks staff to guide the park's development. On March 2, 1924, the Board of Park Commissioners adopted a resolution reserving the northern portion of the park for an arboretum. In 1925, the city increased the land available for the planned arboretum by leasing land from the federal government in the unused canal reserve just north of Lake Washington Boulevard on the Montlake Portage. It extended the park to the eastern margin of Montlake Boulevard.
Plans and Studies
However, there was very little funding for park development in the budget of either the park board or the university to actually create an arboretum. Preparation of the park required clearing some of the existing trees and shrubs and regrading to match the needs of whatever plan would be developed. Taking advantage of unemployment relief funds in 1927 (predating Depression-era relief programs), the parks department hired crews to clear an area along the eastern border of the park for a nursery. Crews also cleared land along the lake shore.
Several plans and studies were done in various parts of the park over the next several years. Park Engineer Eugene R. Hoffman (1887-1976), Park Landscape Architect Frederick Leissler, and Head Gardener Jacob Umlauff (1871-1950) worked on developing the park into the 1930s. Leissler first drew plans that included a large, formal botanical garden and buildings oriented on an east-west axis across the north end marshes. He modified the plan in 1934 and removed the botanical garden. Leissler also designed the Barn, located at the south end of the Speedway, a maintenance and storage building and home to the parks department headquarters. It was built by Works Progress Administration workers in 1935 and used as a headquarters until 1950.
Members of the Seattle community also showed interest in the development of arboretum. The Arboretum and Botanical Society was incorporated on April 11, 1930, with lofty goals:
"To establish and maintain a botanical garden, arboretum and museum and herbarium to be located at Seattle, Washington, and other places as may be advisable, for the collection and culture of plants, flowers, shrubs and trees; the advancement of botanical science and knowledge; the prosecution of original research therein and in kindred subjects and affording instruction in the same; the development and exhibition of ornamental and decorative horticulture and gardening; and for the entertainment, recreation and instruction of the people" (Arboretum and Botanical Garden Society).
However, the financial difficulties of the Depression appear to have undermined the organization.Not long after, the Seattle Garden Club, a well-established organization led by Lillian Gustin McEwan (1863-1960), offered its support. In 1933, club member Edna Grinstead (1884-1959) approached Winkenwerder to develop a plan to move the arboretum project forward. A group of people including Winkenwerder; Grinstead and her husband Loren (1880-1948); Herbert Ihrig (1885-1973), a local horticulture enthusiast; Lee Paul Sieg (1879-1963), who would soon become university president; and Sophie Krauss (1891-1970), a prominent local resident who had recently hired the Olmsted Brothers firm to design the landscape for her home on Lake Washington, met to discuss it.
Creating the Arboretum
Loren Grinstead served on the state unemployment relief committee and the arboretum project qualified for funding through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In order to obtain that funding, the project needed to have an administrative group that could receive the money. To that end, the city and university signed an agreement in 1934 officially establishing the Washington Park Arboretum. The next year they formed the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee, with members appointed by the governor, the university president, and the city mayor. According to Donald Graham, a longtime Arboretum Foundation volunteer, arboretum supporters had convinced the city to share control of the arboretum with the university by arguing that doing so would provide "continuity of management, freedom from politics, [and] more favorable reception insofar as obtaining private contributions is concerned" ("Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review," 53). One of the new committee's first orders of business was the creation of the Arboretum Foundation to raise money for the project.
Early in the discussion about the arboretum, James Frederick Dawson, of the Olmsted Brothers firm, was recommended by Sophie Krauss to prepare a design for the arboretum. (John C. Olmsted had died in 1920.) The Seattle Garden Club donated $3,000 to pay for the design work, which could not be paid for with relief funds because the Leissler plan had already been prepared. In addition to its previous work in Washington Park, the Olmsted Brothers firm had two assets that made it particularly attractive for the arboretum job. The firm, and its predecessors, had designed a number of arboretums, including Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.'s work on Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, and Dawson had grown up in the Arnold Arboretum because his father, Jackson Thornton Dawson (1841-1916), had been the head plantsman and superintendent there for 43 years. The Board of Park Commissioners signed a contract with Olmsted Brothers in July 1935.
WPA funding for the project moved it forward, but in a less-than-ideal manner. The WPA money could only be used for labor expenses, so any needed machinery or supplies had to have separate funding. In that era of shortfalls in the city and university budgets, those expenses were not easily covered and sometimes more labor intensive, less efficient methods were used. The inefficiencies were amplified by the city having to move forward with clearing and grading projects before Dawson completed his plan. Funding for topographical maps of the park did not arrive until nearly six months after Dawson signed his contract with the city, significantly impeding his progress.
Dawson finished his plan by March 1936, just four months after he received the topographical maps. In a departure from the system used by the Arnold Arboretum, but in keeping with the practice of other arboretums developed at the time, Dawson chose to organize the plant groups according to a taxonomic system developed by Adolph Engler and Karl Prantl in 1887, which organized plants according to their ancestral relationships to other plants.
In his plan, Dawson adjusted the system somewhat for conditions on the ground. Beginning with the Coniferae family in the northwest corner of the park, his organization of plantings proceeded in order of plant families' development. In the wetlands along the lake, he placed willows, walnuts, and beeches. Dawson situated the Rosacae (rose) family in the area occupied by the ballfield. He envisioned plantings in terraces on the hillsides and across the level ground of the field. The Alpine collection would occupy the Woodland Garden planned for just west of the nursery and could expand north onto Foster Island.
At the north end of the park, Dawson laid out a series of lagoons that would be created by dredging. The lagoons would bring water views into the park, as John C. Olmsted had recommended in his 1904 plan. The dredging would also create spoils that could be piled on adjacent land at the margin of the park, building up land for the lakeshore boulevard that had long been planned for that area.
Dawson placed a rock garden on the hillside along the eastern ridge around an existing creek. Dawson wanted the creek reconstructed into a series of ponds and falls as it traveled downhill. Dawson also planned to reconfigure Arboretum Creek into a series of pools. The open meadows along the creek were kept open, with plantings of different species from the Olaceae (lilac) family.
Dawson also made plans for the park's built environment. He added a second drive, known as Arboretum Drive, along the east side to increase access to that area of the park, though he recommended that it be closed to traffic on busy days. The plan placed administrative buildings at the northern entrance to the park. He put the service buildings along an existing access road to the gated Broadmoor community.
The Speedway became Azalea Way, one of the highlights of the park. Dawson laid out a narrower turf path, just 16 feet wide, bordered by Japanese cherry trees and eastern dogwoods and an undergrowth of azaleas. The renovation of the Speedway into Azalea Way required more than 10,000 hours of hand labor and 500 railroad cars of compost. When it was completed in 1940, crews had planted 500 trees and 2,100 azaleas. In 1937, Dawson predicted "When this planting is carried out it cannot help but be the most magnificent display of this sort in the world" (Dawson to Stimson). The many visitors who have walked the path since would likely agree.
Azalea Way was completely designed and implemented by Dawson, unlike the rest of the arboretum, for which the city hired local landscape architects. Partly this was due to the continued economic depression. The city wanted to hire local companies as much as possible to give them work. It may have also been more politic to let locals do the work. Leissler and Umlauff both seem to have opposed the Olmsted plan, perhaps wanting to continue the plans they had started earlier in the decade. Umlauff was also known for preferring more garden-like designs to the more naturalistic plans of the Olmsted Brothers firm.
The implementation of Dawson's plan moved forward as funding allowed. The lagoons needed machinery to be done effectively, but WPA limitations led the city to rely largely on hand labor instead. Some waterways were completed, but not all those originally designed in the Dawson plan.
Some controversy erupted over plans to fence the arboretum, limit the traffic allowed on the boulevard in the park, and remove the ballfield for the rose garden. At a contentious public meeting people expressed their fears that the fence would be ugly and unnecessary. They also worried that restricting traffic on the boulevard would lead to new road development in the Montlake neighborhood and they objected to the loss of the only ballfield in the neighborhood. None of the objectionable changes went forward.
In 1938, Winkenwerder retired and John H. Hanley (d. 1959) took his place as head of the arboretum. Hanley presided over a quiet era in the park's history, with most projects on hold during World War II. In 1946 Brian Mulligan (1907-1996) took over as director of the arboretum. He would have a lasting effect on the park. According to a history of the arboretum, "Under Mulligan's leadership, the Arboretum was truly realized, as the establishment and growth of the plant collections transformed the cleared lands with a skeleton layout of roads, trails and features into the diverse landscape that we are familiar with today" ("Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review," 87). Mulligan made adjustments to the plant family locations in the Olmsted Brothers plan to match plants with more appropriate conditions.
Mulligan also presided over two challenges to the arboretum. A long-simmering idea for an expressway extension of Empire Way (later Martin Luther King Jr. Way) north from its terminus just south of the park began to progress in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, construction of the Seattle Freeway (Interstate 5) began in Seattle. The federal government funded a portion of that project and it required the state to construct a second bridge across Lake Washington. The state wanted to locate that bridge between the Montlake neighborhood and Evergreen Point on the east side of the lake. The city repeatedly opposed this plan, but the Montlake neighborhood provided the best access between the lake and the freeway in the city.
These two projects had tremendous implications for Washington Park. First, to avoid building the expressway through the residential blocks of the Montlake neighborhood, the city planned to build it along the western border of the park, although two blocks of houses also had to be condemned. Second, the cloverleaf interchange planned for the connection between the expressway and the highway bridge would need to be built on about 47 acres of land at the north end of the park.
In 1963, the state acquired that land, later known informally as the WSDOT peninsula, and paid $501,999 in damages to the city. The money was put into the Arboretum Capitol Improvement Trust Fund. The next year, Hideo Sasaki (1919-2000), chair of Harvard's Landscape Architecture Department, was hired to reconfigure the north end of the park, relying on the Olmsted Brothers plan to inform the new design. Sasaki's plan restricted parking to the north and south ends of the park, added a visitor center at the north entry, and recommended developing a waterfront trail. Only the trail, which connects the Arboretum to McCurdy Park and then travels north along Union Bay to Laurelhurst, was implemented because the expressway was ultimately cancelled.
As construction of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge moved forward, ramps to and from the highway were built. The land on either side of the Miller Street Landfill was dredged out to create channels for floating in construction equipment that the marshy ground could not support.
The ramps onto and exiting the highway were connected to Lake Washington Boulevard as a temporary measure until the expressway, named the R. H. Thomson Expressway in honor of a longtime, influential city engineer, could be constructed. The Seattle Times reported in 1963, as the new highway and bridge across the lake opened, that "the portion of Lake Washington Boulevard East through the Arboretum will be used as a temporary access route. It will serve primarily as a route for traffic destined south of the downtown area or to the downtown area by way of East Madison Street"("Lake Washington Boulevard Will Be Reopened").
By the time the city began to prepare in earnest to build the R. H. Thomson Expressway in the mid-1960s, public sentiment about highway construction and the neighborhood destruction it caused had changed significantly. In the face of growing opposition, the city cancelled the project in 1971. This left "ramps to nowhere," partially constructed, over the peninsula. It also changed the temporary detour through the park into a permanent arrangement. The existing westbound off-ramp at Montlake Boulevard was not designed to carry traffic to the southbound arterials, 24th and 23rd avenues. By 2007 the boulevard through Washington Park would carry 18,000 cars per day. This effectively cleaved the park in two, with designated pedestrian crossings only at the Wilcox Aqueduct at the north end of the park and a crosswalk at the playfield parking lot in the south end.
Controversy and New Agreements
In 1966 architect Ibsen Nelson (1919-2001), landscape architect Richard Haag (b. 1923), and the architecture firm Sabin, Bain, and Overturn were hired to design a building for an ornamental horticulture program. The plans to build the Floral Hall led to a controversy in 1967 over the construction of new buildings within the arboretum. Some members of the Arboretum Foundation supported the building because it would provide exhibit space in addition to administrative space. Other members disagreed with the expansive plan and broke off to form the Friends of the Arboretum.
University of Washington President Charles E. Odegaard (1911-1999) stepped into the fray and sorted out a solution. He dissolved the existing Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee and reformed it with three community members, three city representatives, Brian Mulligan, and four university representatives. He then wrote the new committee a letter in March 1967 outlining how decisions regarding the arboretum would be made. Re-establishing the leadership role of the university, he wrote that the chair of the arboretum unit, Forestry Dean James Bethel (1915-1999), and Brian Mulligan would prepare proposals and the committee could review those and provide feedback, but final decisions rested with the university administration and the Board of Regents.
The controversy scuttled the Floral Hall plans and set off a discussion about the future of the arboretum. The university wanted to develop scientific research and related facilities in the park and the community wanted to ensure that the grounds would be open and available to the public. In 1974 the city and the university signed a new agreement delineating how the 1934 agreement would be implemented. It stated that the arboretum would be primarily a public display space, and that no new buildings would be built except to replace existing structures unless the new buildings were intended to serve the public, and renewed the city's commitment to maintaining the park. An ordinance passed by the city council addressing a citizen initiative filed by the Arboretum Park Coalition prohibited any further restrictions on public use or access to the park. The need for scientific facilities remained, however, and community groups worked with the university to develop the Center for Urban Horticulture in the university's east campus, which opened in 1984.
At the same time as the expressway and highway changes occurred in the park, the city, with funding from the government of Japan, developed the Japanese Garden and Tea House in the park. At the south end of the remaining Arboretum Creek a pool built in accordance with the Olmsted Brothers plan formed the nucleus of the garden. Garden Master Kiyoshi Inoshita created a preliminary design and then collaborated with a group of gardeners that included Tatsuo Moriwaki, Nobumasa Kitamura, Iwao Ishikawa, Naotomo Ueno, Riki Ito, and Juki Iida. When the Japanese Garden opened in 1959, it featured a cascading stream and the pond, hand-carved stone lanterns, wooden bridges, Japanese trees and plants, and a tea house, which was donated to Seattle by the City of Tokyo. The Japanese Carp Association donated 3,000 carp for the pond. The teahouse fell victim to an arson fire in 1978 and was rebuilt in 1985.
With the WPA structures beginning to show the effects of time, the Arboretum Foundation began fundraising to build a new visitor center in the northeast corner of the park. Named for longtime volunteer Donald Graham, the center opened to the public in 1986. The Arboretum Foundation had raised more than $700,000 dollars to construct the building designed by Richard Youel of MacAdoo, Malcolm and Youel. After its construction, the Arboretum Foundation donated the building to the city.
New Master Plan
A new master plan was completed in 2001 after seven years of collaboration between Seattle Parks and Recreation, the University of Washington, and the Arboretum Foundation, with extensive input from the public. The plan emphasized the need to make the arboretum more visitor-friendly through increasing accessibility and providing more public education through programs and new ways to interpret the collections, while acknowledging the role of the park as a whole within the neighborhood and the city. Fencing again was proposed but firmly rejected. The plan identified projects for the park, including construction of a new gatehouse for the Japanese Garden, which was completed in 2009, an irrigation system update, completed in 2007, and renewal of the Holmdahl Rock Garden at the south entrance.
At the south entry of the park, the plan envisioned a complete replacement of existing displays with a new emphasis on temperate-region plants. The Pacific Connections Garden was conceived to highlight plant communities in five temperate regions around the Pacific Rim: China, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Cascadia. The regional gardens will radiate out from a central meadow with small preview gardens (completed in 2008) as the inner spoke that will give onto wider one- to two-acre woods. This represents a major shift toward organizing the collection according to eco-geographic relationships, rather than taxonomic classifications, and showcasing the collections, rather than blending them into the native setting of the park and boulevard landscape.
The master plan also anticipated changes to the north entry to the park. Traffic congestion and conflict among users, particularly between bicycles and motorized vehicles, needed to be resolved. Since the master plan was approved in 2001, plans for the replacement of the State Route 520 bridge have progressed. The new bridge design will not include ramps to Lake Washington Boulevard within the arboretum and studies for how to redevelop the land that will be affected by the new construction have begun. The incomplete ramps and the functional ramps will be removed from the WSDOT Peninsula area and the land may return to Parks ownership. A major redesign of the north entry to integrate the new freeway lid that will be constructed and to mitigate for other effects of the freeway is underway and will likely include a new multi-purpose trail and new intersections on Lake Washington Boulevard at 24th Avenue and at E Foster Island Road, with a goal to reference the Olmsted Brothers' plan for the park but adapt it to meet the current needs.
Although Washington Park's urban setting has presented challenges, the parks department, the university, and the public continue to strive, from each of their perspectives, to preserve its integrity. The Olmsted Brothers plans provided a framework that has been developed and adjusted over time to create a unique park, encompassing a boulevard and an arboretum, that celebrates the city's landscape heritage and that showcases plants from the region and from around the world. Washington Park remains a regional treasure for all to enjoy.
"Renewing the Washington Park Arboretum: A Proposal by the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee," Appendix A to Washington Park Arboretum Master Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement (Seattle: Seattle Parks and Recreation, 2001), available at (http://www.seattle.gov/parks/arboretum/Docs/apx-a1.pdf); "Bulletin No. 1," Arboretum and Botanical Garden Society, 1930; Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), 439; H. N. Belanger, "The Arboretum's Tiny Portion of Old Japan Attains 'Maturity,'" The Seattle Times Sunday Pictorial Magazine, October 6, 1963, p. 12; Julie Emery, "City, U.W. 'Agree Mentally' on Arboretum," The Seattle Times, January 18, 1974, p. E-5; "Arboretum Coalition Opens Drive to Save Park," Ibid., January 11, 1974, p. 3; Walt Woodward, "Everything's Not Coming Up Roses for Troubled Arboretum," Ibid., March 19, 1967, p. 12; "Lake Washington Boulevard Will Be Reopened," Ibid., August 19, 1963, p. 5; John Charles Olmsted to Sophie Olmsted, November 24, 1906, John C. Olmsted Papers, Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Design School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; "Report of the Olmsted Brothers" and "Supplemental Report on Annexed Territory and General Development," in Park Playgrounds and Boulevards of Seattle, Washington (Seattle: The Pacific Press, 1909), 73-139; John C. Olmsted to J. E. Shrewsbury, November 28, 1906, Folder 6, Box 53, 5801-01, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; John C. Olmsted to Board of Park Commissioners, April 12, 1904, Folder 3, Box 53, 5801-01, Sherwood Parks History Collection; John C. Olmsted to Charles W. Saunders, September 22, 1904, Folder 4, Box 53, 5801-01, Sherwood Parks History Collection; John C. Olmsted to Charles W. Saunders, July 22, 1904, Folder 4, Box 53, 5801-01, Sherwood Parks History; Meeting minutes, August 10, 1905, Department of Parks and Recreation Board of Park Commissioners Minutes, Vol. 3, Record Series 5800-01, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "Petition of CARHT for removal of the R. H. Thomson Parkway from the Comprehensive Plan for the City of Seattle," granted January 11, 1971; City of Seattle Comptroller File No. 266357, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; J. Fred Dawson to Mrs. Charles Willard Stimson, December 10, 1937, Folder 4, Reel 97, 2699 Washington Park & Arboretum, Olmsted Associates Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (copies available at Seattle Public Library, Seattle, WA); Dawson to Hugo Winkenwerder, April 2, 1936, Folder 3, Reel 96, 2699 Washington Park & Arboretum, Olmsted Associates Papers; John C. Olmsted to J. W. Thompson, August 26, 1904, Folder 1, Reel 96, 2699 Washington Park & Arboretum, Olmsted Associates Papers; John C. Olmsted to John W. Thompson, March 27, 1906, Folder 1, Reel 96, 2699 Washington Park & Arboretum, Olmsted Associates Papers; Henry Schmitz, The Long Road Travelled: An Account of Forestry of the University of Washington (Seattle: Arboretum Foundation and University of Washington, 1973); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Neighborhoods: Madison Park -- Thumbnail History" (by Junius Rochester) http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 31, 2012); "Looking Back: A History of the Washington Park Arboretum," University of Washington Botanic Gardens website accessed October 16, 2012 (www.depts.washington.edu/hortlib/wpa_history/intro.shtml); "Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review, September 2003," University of Washington Botanic Gardens website accessed October 3, 2012 (http://depts.washington.edu/uwbg/docs/arbhistory.pdf); "Pacific Connections Garden," University of Washington Botanic Gardens website accessed October 30, 2012 (www.depts.washington.edu/wpa/pacific_connections.shtml); Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 5740, " An ordinance authorizing and directing the Mayor and City Comptroller to accept a conveyance from the Puget Mill Company for the purposes of a public park, conditioned upon certain extensions of the city water system as a consideration therefor," January 4, 1900; Seattle City Ordinance No. 65130, "An ordinance relating to and authorizing the Board of Park Commissioners to enter into an agreement with the Board of Regents of the University of Washington for the establishment and maintenance of an arboretum and botanical garden in Washington Park," December 24, 1934; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 92511, "An ordinance relating to the University of Washington Arboretum (Washington Park), authorizing an agreement with the Board of Regents of the University of Washington creating an Arboretum Capital Improvement Trust Fund," December 2, 1963; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 99662, "An ordinance authorizing an agreement with the State of Washington relating to the construction of the Bay Freeway and the Connecticut Street Extension, and terminating Agreement GC 541-B, as modified, relating to the R. H. Thomson Expressway," February 8, 1971; Seattle City Council Resolution No. 868, " A Resolution declaring that it is the intention of the City Council to adopt the plan of parks, parkways and playgrounds, as outlined in the report and map prepared by Olmsted Brothers of Boston and known as their primary plan for the beautification of the City of Seattle, be and the same is hereby in the main adopted by the City of Seattle as a guide in the acquirement of land for parks, parkways and play grounds" adopted November 16, 1903.
< Browse to Previous Essay
Browse to Next Essay >
Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that
encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both
HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any
reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this
Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For
more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact
the source noted in the image credit.
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided
By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins
| Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry
| 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle
| City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach
Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private
Sponsors and Visitors Like You
Washington Park, Seattle, 1904
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 30541)
Harness racing, Washington Park, Seattle, 1908
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 30553)
Intersection, Washington Park Boulevard and Interlaken Boulevard, Seattle, 1911
Photo by Webster and Stevens, Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 29378)
Foster Island, Washington Park, Seattle, June 1913
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 30551)
Horses and riders, Washington Park, Seattle, ca. 1922
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 30555)
Olmsted plan, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, 1936
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 30552)
SR 520 interchanges at the Arboretum, Seattle, 1960s
Washington Park Arboretum, restored shoreline, Union Bay, Lake Washington, Seattle, 2005
Courtesy Washington Park Arboretum
Cherry Lane, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, ca. 2005
Courtesy Washington Park Arboretum