Lake Washington Boulevard (Seattle)

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 2/08/2013
  • Essay 10244
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Lake Washington Boulevard is a Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation property that extends from the Montlake neighborhood to Seward Park, on or near the shore of Lake Washington. John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) located it in his 1903 plan for Seattle's park and boulevard system to take advantage of Seattle's landscape, including the lake, forested parks, and views across the lake and of distant mountains. The boulevard was constructed in parts, starting with an initial section in Washington Park. More than five miles were completed in time for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held on the University of Washington campus in 1909, and the final segment was opened in 1917. Where possible, the roadway follows the lakeshore, but some subdivision plats preceded the boulevard and it climbs the adjacent hillsides to skirt them, and to gain views and link to parks. As the city has grown up around the boulevard, most of the forest and the clear-cuts have been replaced by neighborhoods, filling in between the numerous parks dotting its 9.2-mile length. It is an on-going challenge to maintain the integrity of the boulevard in the face of increased traffic and development, but its importance in showcasing the beauty of Seattle's natural setting is unparalleled.

Planning Parks

While Seattle had undergone explosive growth in its short history, in the 1890s there remained large tracts of second-growth forests within the city limits. City leaders foresaw (and hoped for) a day when homes and businesses would fill every nook and cranny of the city. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement, they wanted to have a plan for a park system. Edward O. Schwagerl (1842-1910), the city's park superintendent, created a plan consisting of four large parks connected by boulevards in 1892. An ensuing recession triggered by the Panic of 1893 put that plan on hold.

After the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, the city resumed its galloping growth. Civic leaders again turned their attention to developing a park system. The privately owned Seattle Electric Company made the first contact with Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects in Brookline, Massachusetts, since parks were an important draw as destinations for its streetcar lines. This contact was followed by an invitation from the city park commissioners. John Charles Olmsted arranged a combined trip to the West Coast in 1903 to advise Portland on parks and on designing grounds for Portland's 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, and then to visit Seattle to develop a park system plan for that city. Olmsted had joined his step-father, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (1822-1903), who designed Central Park with Calvert Vaux and is considered the father of landscape architecture, in his practice in 1878. After his step-father's retirement, he and his half-brother, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., continued the family firm as Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects, which was recognized as the pre-eminent landscape architecture firm of the time.

Olmsted arrived in the spring of 1903 to tour Seattle and meet with park commissioners. He traveled by streetcar, on foot, and in boats to all parts of the city, including to several large tracts of land already acquired for park use. He worked closely with the park commissioners to develop and then promote the proposed plan during his month-long visit.

Olmsted Boulevards

Olmsted finalized the plan after he returned east in June and submitted it to the park commissioners in July. They approved it in the fall and sent it along to the city council, which adopted it on November 16, 1903. The park system plan included recommendations for new park land acquisition and the development of existing park lands, such as Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill, and small neighborhood parks tucked into undeveloped lots. The plan also included five sections of boulevards that would ring the city. Land prices in the central business district had already risen enough that it was too expensive to buy enough land for a boulevard through the downtown.

The boulevards ran between large city parks, such as Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill, Washington Park in the valley east of Capitol Hill, and Green Lake Park in the city's north end. In 1907, the park commissioners hired Olmsted to expand the system plan to include newly annexed lands to the north and south. Olmsted added additional boulevards in West Seattle, South Seattle, and Ballard. The siting of boulevards took advantage of ridges and shorelines, to incorporate views of water and mountains, and of the many ravines along the sides of the hills, to be immersed in the native woods. This use of what landscape architects call "borrowed landscapes" can be found in a number of Olmsted-designed features in Seattle.

A key element of the boulevard system Olmsted designed is Lake Washington Boulevard, which was originally made up of individually named boulevard segments until they were renamed as one in the early 1920s. It connected a number of parks, including Washington, Frink, and Colman, and showcased the region's beauty with views across the water and out to the distant mountains. In 1906 voters approved a $500,000 bond issue for parks and Olmsted wrote to Commissioner J. Edward Shrewsbury (d. 1931), "In short, I distinctly advocate the expenditure of practically all of the half million dollar loan in parks having landscape advantages, mainly upon areas along the shore of Lake Washington, including also an area on Magnolia Bluffs overlooking the Sound" (Olmsted to Shrewsbury).

Olmsted encouraged the city to extend Lake Washington Boulevard south to the Bailey Peninsula even before that land (now Seward Park) was purchased for park purposes in 1911. The peninsula jutted into Lake Washington and, unlike most land near the city, retained its old-growth forest. Olmsted saw potential for a large park with native plants and undisturbed forest land. Olmsted's plan included a boulevard starting at the peninsula and following the lake shore to Colman Park (north of the Mount Baker neighborhood), where he proposed the road would climb inland to run along the ridge northward before dropping down again to the shore north of Leschi Park. Farther north, much of the land on the point at Madison Park had already been subdivided and so from the Denny Blaine neighborhood south of Madison Park the route turned inland and angled northwest over the hill to Washington Park.

Providing Guidance

In his 1903 report, Olmsted gave the city guidance as to what property should be acquired for Lake Washington Boulevard. Looking beyond the actual roadway, he included recommendations for which parts of the landscape should be preserved. For the section running north from Seward Park to Holgate Street (then the southern city limit, before annexations extended Seattle southward), he recommended for purchase, "[a] comparatively narrow fringe of land sufficient for the needed drives and walks and for the preservation of the foreground of woods" ("Report of the Olmsted Brothers," 74). From there to Madrona Park, he recommended acquisition of the entire hillside and the lake shore, with room for the parkway at the top of the hill. Between Madrona Park and the Denny Blaine neighborhood, the road would drop back down to the lakeshore using a strip of land 150 to 200 feet wide. Over the hill to Washington Park, Olmsted envisioned a wide parkway area that would include the forested land along the roadside.

Olmsted prepared designs for some of the parks and boulevards in the plan, whenever budgets allowed. He laid out the route of much of what became Lake Washington Boulevard in the 1903 report, but he did not design its actual alignment or make specific planting plans for its borders in the lakeshore sections. In Washington Park, however, he prepared detailed plans for the parkway. In Frink and Colman Parks he provided suggestions for improving the parkway alignment to make it curve more gracefully or to provide enough room for walks alongside the roadway.

Olmsted advised the commissioners on how to respond to a private developer, Charles P. Dose, who requested that the commissioners build a boulevard segment with specific improvements along his section of property between Colman and Mt. Baker parks:

"Moreover, much of the attractiveness of the shore depends upon its trees and undergrowth and while it might be necessary to thin these more or less, and in places to clear them away entirely on level areas, in order to open views and to gain driving access to the lake shore itself we cannot agree in advance of a careful study of a plan that the best interests of the City as a whole and the visitors to this proposed park in particular would be best served by replacing the present trees fringing the shore with a drive, walk and cement wall even if further beautified with vases of flowers. In other words, we are not prepared to agree that the beauties proposed to be created would be adequate to warrant the complete destruction of the trees and growths now fringing the shore or even their relegation to the rear by building the drive, walk and cement wall wholly outside these shore trees and by filling out into the lake, supposing, which seems unlikely, that the Board could afford this expense of construction.

"Returning to the general question we regret very much that we cannot advise your Board to accept the proposition of the Messrs C. P. Dose and Company in its present shape but our interest in the general project of a liberal and picturesque and natural parkway along the shore of Lake Washington leads us to hope most earnestly that these gentlemen will try to take a more generous view of the matter and that they will reconsider their proposition and submit a revised one leaving out of it such considerations as we have advised your Board against" (Olmsted to Saunders).

Building the Boulevard

Beginning with the segment in Washington Park in 1904, city built the boulevard in sections as different areas along the lake developed. In 1908, city leaders working on preparations for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the University of Washington campus began a push to construct streetcar lines and roads to carry fairgoers from downtown, where most of them would arrive via trains and ships, to the fairgrounds north of Lake Union. A key component of this effort was Lake Washington Boulevard, which would showcase the region's beauty to impress visitors with one of Seattle's greatest aesthetic assets.

The city's crews could not complete the entire boulevard from Bailey Peninsula to the university, but they were able to piece together a route from where Stan S. Sayres Memorial Park is today, near 43rd Avenue S, by the summer of 1909. The southern section known as Lake Washington Boulevard extended from 43rd Avenue S to Colman Park. At Colman Park, a few blocks south of where the I-90 freeway now reaches shore and tunnels through the ridge, Frink Boulevard, which was graded but not ready to be macadamized (paved) until 1910, left the shoreline and zigzagged up the hill through the park and then traveled north along the ridge to Frink Park, some eight blocks north of today's I-90. At the north end of Frink Park, near Yesler Way, the boulevard angled down the hill to the lake again just north of Leschi Park. (Many current users of the boulevard use Lakeside Avenue S, which travels along the shore below the ridge between Leschi and Colman parks, rather than following the official boulevard up to and back down from the ridge.)

From where the road rejoined the shore, Blaine Boulevard followed the lakeshore to just north of Madrona Park, where it turned slightly inland toward Lakeview Park. It then crossed over a low point in the ridge and continued on to Washington Park at Madison Street and 31st Street. From there it became Washington Park Boulevard, which followed the valley between the park's two ridges to Union Bay. At the northwest corner of the park, the University Extension began, traveling along the south end of the isthmus separating Lake Washington and Lake Union. At the middle of the isthmus, which was not yet bisected by the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the road turned north and continued to the south entrance of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a plaza where Pacific Street meets Montlake Boulevard today.

The section in the Mount Baker neighborhood south of Colman Park might have been blocked from the lake shore by a planned subdivision as it had been between Colman and Frink parks except for a law passed by the state legislature in 1907 to finance the state's participation in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The law stipulated that the shore lands between the line of ordinary high water and the line of navigability belonged to the state, not the adjacent landowners. Anticipating the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which would lower the lake by about 9 feet and expose the shore lands, the state planned to sell the lands.

Waterfront for Parks

In 1906 Olmsted had advised the city to "use its best endeavors to have a law passed by the State Legislature giving the city for park purposes almost the whole frontage of the city upon Lake Washington which has not already been sold to individuals" (Olmsted to Shrewsbury). The state legislation passed in 1907 provided that any shore land adjacent to city-owned land would go to the city without cost. The park commissioners, despite objections from the exposition officials, decided to accept any donations of "lake frontage where it was possible to lay out boulevards under the Olmsted plan" ("City Park Board ..."). E. F. Blaine defended the action, saying, "The boulevard system to be constructed under the Olmsted plans [is] to remain for the benefit of the people for all time" ("City Park Board ... ").

The owners of the Hunter Tract in the Mount Baker neighborhood wanted to plat their land for residential development in 1907. They and the engineer laying out the subdivision, George Cotterill (1865-1958), feared that the shore land in front of the shoreline lots would be sold to the highest bidders, not necessarily the adjacent landowners. To pre-empt that possibility, they dedicated a 75-foot strip of land along the lake to park and boulevard purposes and donated it to the city.

Olmsted agreed wholeheartedly with this plan. He wrote to Daniel Jones, an owner of the Hunter Tract Improvement Company in 1906 that "it will certainly be to your credit in respect to liberal treatment of the public in park matters, as well as in providing for future residents lands to be used in common, and in which the remarkably beautiful views of and across Lake Washington ... can be enjoyed. The topography of the land is such that even after houses are built on all the lots there will be more or less opportunity for glimpses of the mountains, from each of them, yet anyone will enjoy still more an occasional stroll through the lands that are to be dedicated to park purposes, so as to obtain other and different views amid natural surrounds. Undoubtedly setting aside some of the land for park purposes will enhance the market value of all the lots" (Olmsted to Jones). In 1907, the city accepted the donation of 75 feet along 5,000 feet of shoreline.

Ready for the Fair

To the north, owners of the land at the Montlake Portage, as the isthmus between lakes Union and Washington was known, likewise incorporated a 150-foot-wide boulevard into their Montlake Park subdivision in preparation for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Olmsted had originally recommended the boulevard extension be carried along the eastern shore of the isthmus, but as plans for the fair developed, a more formal entrance, which incorporated a streetcar line from Capitol Hill, was built to access the south gate of the fair and link to the pleasure drive of Lake Washington Boulevard and its extensions south.

The Board of Park Commissioners managed to complete a good portion of the boulevard prior to the opening of the fair. In their annual report for 1909 the commissioners reported:

"Special efforts were made and heavy expenditures were required in carrying out our plan to have our north and south chain of boulevards along or overlooking Lake Washington from the Mount Baker district, north to the Exposition grounds, open for traffic, so that our Eastern visitors might enjoy the beauties of our lake and mountain scenery" ("Sixth Annual Report," 67).

Critical Review

In 1909, after the exposition opened, the parks commissioners invited Olmsted to review the work done on the boulevard sections that had been built, including Interlaken Boulevard, an extension along Capitol Hill to the Roanoke neighborhood. Olmsted's expectations for what the boulevard and adjacent landscape should look like can be gleaned from his response.

Olmsted was concerned about how the roadway moved through the landscape. Interlaken Boulevard was narrow in places, 20 feet wide instead of the minimum of 24 feet he recommended. He was also disappointed in the alignment of the roadways:

"I regretted to see that the lines of the drives were in many cases conspicuously stiff and formal, consisting of a succession of simple radial curves and straight lines, as is customary in railroads, instead of gracefully varying curves as is customary in the best parks" (Olmsted to Cheasty).

In places where steep terrain necessitated sharp curves to cross ravines, Olmsted suggested the angles could be softened by the use of bridges in place of following along the sides of ravines. He also suggested that instead of cutting the roadway into the hillside, a retaining wall could hold up soil added to the hillside to form a roadbed. A wall built as "a rustic arrangement of logs with planting between would often be better and more in keeping with the wild growths" (Olmsted, "Notes ... ").

Olmsted also expressed disappointment in plantings along the parkways, writing to park commissioner Edward Cheasty:

"While the drives are successful in opening up the parks to the public and affording them the benefit of enjoying the wonderful views, the detailed landscape treatment has been very much neglected or has been done in a stiff and formal manner distressingly out of character with the wild beauty of the natural woods and ground covering growths" (Olmsted to Cheasty).

The plantings Olmsted preferred depended upon the location of the boulevard. In the wooded parks, he recommended that:

"[T]here should be trees and shrubs planted irregularly in these strips and they should be of wild sorts except in cases where the surroundings are more completely formal than is usually the case. The avoidance of formality should even extend to the drain inlets, which should usually be formed by a flat stone resting on a smaller stone at each end set into the bank over the drain and covered with earth and creepers. Thus the eye would merely recognize the dark hole of rustic character instead of the tile and iron grating. Where the land outside of the walk along the drive is of prevailing wild character the guard rail, where necessary, would in general look best if made of substantial natural poles with the bark on" (Olmsted to Cheasty).

In residential areas, Olmsted suggested more formal plantings and designs, with street trees, shrubs, and lawns. For the Montlake Boulevard connection to the University, he called for two feet of turf closest to the private property lines, 8 feet of cement sidewalks, and 14 feet of turf and trees between the sidewalk and street. Between the two 24-foot roadways, he laid out a 54-foot center strip with four rows of tulip trees and small shrubs, with vines running up the trolley and utility poles. The tracks for the trolley line that would run down the center strip were laid flush with the ground level so they would not intrude upon the visual effect of the design.

There are a number of bridges along the boulevard. Construction of a street car bridge in Leschi Park was authorized in early 1909. In 1912 Olmsted recommended removing the wooden foot trestle in Frink Park, which had been in an earlier plan, once a concrete boulevard bridge was built. In Colman Park there are three bridges crossed by the boulevard as it descends through the ravine to the lake. The upper one was designed specifically to accommodate pedestrians crossing under the roadway.

The Boulevard Reaches the End

In 1917, the last section of the boulevard, extending it final two miles to Seward Park, opened. Efforts to extend the boulevard a mile and a half beyond Seward Park had met with resistance in 1909, but Olmsted urged the park commissioners to pursue the project:

"The scenic advantages of having a pleasure drive on the shore are probably greater at this portion of the parkway than at any other, because owing to the general trend of the shore being somewhat to the west of south, Mt. Rainier will be more continuously in view than will be the case from most of the Lake Washington Parkway north of Bailey Peninsula. Another great advantage of keeping the parkway on the shore is that it will afford continuous frontage upon the lake where residents of the city, especially those within convenient walking distance, may promenade or rest, or picnic, or take boats with the fullest enjoyment of the lake and mountain scenery" (Olmsted to Frink).

It appears the park commissioners did not pursue the project. The lakeside boulevard ends today at Seward Park.

Seattle's population continued to grow at prodigious rates as the boulevard was constructed. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Seattle grew from 80,671 to 237,194 people. What had been forested or recently logged land surrounding much of the boulevard route in 1903 began to fill with residential development. A number of trolley lines connected the lakeside neighborhoods with downtown Seattle and promoted development. The 1916 opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered Lake Washington by about 9 feet as it dropped to the same level as Lake Union. This exposed new shoreline alongside the boulevard, which was developed into park land.

Changes and Challenges

Other changes came to the boulevard over time. At the south end, when the Olmsted Brothers were hired to develop plans for the Uplands subdivision adjacent to Seward Park in the 1920s, the terminus of the boulevard was reconfigured to provide a formal entry to the park at South Juneau Street, which connected uphill to Seward Park Avenue South. At the north end, Montlake Boulevard, which was known variously as the University Extension or University Boulevard, was officially designated separately from Lake Washington Boulevard in the early 1920s. The section of the University Extension east of Montlake Boulevard became part of Lake Washington Boulevard at that point. At about the same time, the entire length of the boulevard was united under one name, Lake Washington Boulevard, extending from Seward Park to Montlake Boulevard.

When State Route 520 was built in 1962, the segment of Lake Washington Boulevard along the highway's route across the Montlake peninsula and the north end of Washington Park was closed for a time during construction. The Seattle Times reported that, "When the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge is opened to traffic, 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"). Plans were then underway to build an expressway, to be known as the R. H. Thomson Expressway, along the east side of Capitol Hill to the Rainier Valley that would carry traffic from the new highway to South Seattle. The expressway was not built as a result of great community opposition, but the "temporary" use of Lake Washington Boulevard through Washington Park continues today. The SR 520 ramps, which have fed traffic directly into the park for the past 40 years, will be removed when the planned new SR 520 bridge is built, but traffic coming off the highway in Montlake will, according to proposed plans as of 2013, still have access to Lake Washington Boulevard for traveling both south and west.

The boulevard has had other challenges to its integrity and viability. Private property encroachments on parts of park property along the boulevard disrupt the continuity of the landscape design of the entire boulevard and have required concerted efforts by the parks department to reclaim. A Seattle bond measure in 1984 provided funds to address some of the issues along the boulevard, including curbing the upper boulevard between Colman and Frink Parks. As Olmsted wrote in 1909, "It should be borne in mind that Lake Washington Parkway was designed and undertaken with the full understanding that it was primarily for the benefit of the city as a whole and only incidentally to benefit the neighboring private property" (Olmsted to Frink).

The boulevard is popular as a way for bicyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles to enjoy the undulating landscape and spectacular lake and mountain views, but special efforts at times have been needed to preserve the pleasurable experience of driving, riding, or walking along the boulevard. In 1968, the parks department began a program of closing part of Lake Washington Boulevard for Bicycle Sundays, with the parkway south of Colman Park closed to motor vehicles and opened to non-motorized traffic. The popular program continues in 2012.

Despite challenges, the boulevard remains a highlight of the Seattle park system. Visitors and residents continue to enjoy winding through the landscape parks and along the lakeshore, whether by vehicle, bicycle, or foot, to marvel at the views just as Olmsted intended.


John Charles Olmsted, "Notes from June 11, 1909, visit with John W. Thompson and Samuel C. Lancaster," Reel 97, 2713 Interlaken Boulevard, Olmsted Associates Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; John Charles Olmsted to Daniel Jones, November 28, 1906, Reel 177, 3209 Hunter Tract Improvement Co. Mount Baker Park Addition, Olmsted Associates Papers; John Charles Olmsted to C. W. Saunders, June 17, 1904, Folder 2, Reel 95, 2690 Seattle Park System, Olmsted Associates Papers; John Charles Olmsted to J. E. Shrewsbury, November 28, 1906, Reel 97, 2702 Madrona Park, Olmsted Associates Papers; John C. Olmsted to Edward C. Cheasty, June 14, 1909, Folder 8, Box 53, 5801-01, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; John C. Olmsted to J. M. Frink, January 8, 1909, Folder 8, Box 53, 5801-01, Sherwood Parks History Collection; Meeting minutes, April 18 and July 18, 1907, Department of Parks and Recreation Board of Park Commissioners Minutes, Volume 3, Record Series 5800-01, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "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; 1907 Wash. Laws, Ch. 3; Kerry Webster, "Bicycle Riders to Have Day All Their Own," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1968, p. 41; "Lake Washington Boulevard Will Be Reopened," Ibid., August 19, 1963, p. 5; Roland Cotterill, "Seattle Leader in Open Spaces for the Public," The Seattle Times, December 23, 1917, p. B-9; "Boulevard Now Open to Fair Grounds," Ibid., May 30, 1909, p. 11; "City Park Board After Shore Lands," Ibid., April 1, 1907, p. 1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seward Park (Seattle)" (by Cassandra Tate) (accessed October 30, 2012); "Sixth Annual Report, Board of Public Commissioners, Seattle, Washington, 1909," in Annual Reports: 1893, 1884-1904, 1909-1910 compiled by Roland W. Cotterill (Seattle: Board of Park Commissioners, ca. 1910), 67; "Long Range Guidelines and Design Improvement Program for the Restoration of the Lake Washington Boulevard: Working Papers," May 1986, prepared for the City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation by EDAW, Inc. and Walmsley & Co. Inc.

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