Volunteer Park (Seattle)

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 8/17/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20839
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Volunteer Park, located on Seattle's Capitol Hill, is an Olmsted-designed, landmark park that is home to the Volunteer Park Conservatory, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and a city water reservoir and standpipe. It is an oasis of open space in a dense residential neighborhood and attracts visitors from around the region. The city originally purchased the land that makes up the park in 1876 for municipal purposes. The park site would briefly provide a resting place for bodies exhumed from the City Cemetery before they were moved to Lake View Cemetery. First named Lake View Park, and then City Park, it was renamed Volunteer Park in 1901, in honor of the volunteer soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War. The park has been the site of a number of community events and celebrations, from Easter services to parades to Seattle's earliest Pride festivals. Because of its rich history and largely intact Olmsted landscape design, Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board designated the park a city landmark in 2010. Since shortly after that designation, the Volunteer Park Trust has worked with Seattle Parks and Recreation to restore and protect the park for future generations.

Lake View Park, City Park, Volunteeer Park

The City of Seattle purchased 40 acres of land that would later become Volunteer Park from James Colman in 1876. There are no surviving records that detail why that specific location was chosen, but it was likely because it was just north of the central city, in an area that would be developed in the near future. The land lay largely unused until 1884, when David and Louisa Denny platted a subdivision just north of today’s Denny Way surrounding the City Cemetery on three sides. The Dennys had donated the land for the cemetery in the 1860s and they re-donated the tract as a park (later named Denny Park) in 1884. The exhumed bodies were dispersed to cemeteries around town, including the new Washelli Cemetery on the municipal land and future Volunteer Park site.

In 1885, the city hired Noble E. Ryther to clear a plot 360 feet by 322 feet on the tract. He removed all the vegetation, including the stumps and roots up to 12 inches below the surface, for $285. Before long, the city decided to make Washelli Cemetery a park and moved the bodies interred there yet again, to the adjacent Lake View Cemetery. The park was briefly named Lake View Park, but the duplicated naming caused confusion that led the city to rename it City Park in 1887.

City Park was the third public park in the city's nascent park system. Besides Denny Park, there was also Kinnear Park on Queen Anne Hill, donated by George (1836-1912) and Angie (1846-1928) Kinnear in 1889. Knowing the importance of parks for the city's livability and attracting new residents, city leaders hoped to acquire more park land, but did not yet have funding or an effective Board of Park Commissioners to propel that effort forward.

High and Dry on Capitol Hill

In the meantime, as the city grew, the city council developed other infrastructure projects, including a municipal water system. When civil engineer Benezette Williams (1844-1914) began designing the system in 1889, he looked to the city's hilltops for reservoir sites because he was planning a gravity-fed system, meaning the water would be pushed through pipes up to the tops of the city's hills by the pressure created as the water flowed down from the intake in the Cedar River watershed in the Cascade Mountains. From the hilltop reservoirs, the water could again flow downhill to surrounding homes and businesses. This distribution method reduced maintenance and operation costs because it did not need pumps to move the water into the city or to most customers. Williams placed one of the reservoirs in City Park, just below the crest of the hill, and another nearby, in what would become Lincoln Park (later renamed Cal Anderson Park). This would be the start of a close relationship between water-system facilities and parks that continues today.

Although the park remained in a largely undeveloped state for a number of years, it was a highly valued public asset. The editors at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote about its potential in 1892: 

"Even in its present state of uncultured virginity it abounds in all beauties. Not only does it command fine views of the Sound and of Lake Union, but [also] the hardly less charming scenery to the east. At points it affords a view of Mount Rainier, whose grandeur can hardly be excelled ... The scene at early morning during the summer months is almost sublime, when the yet unseen sun sends forth its couriers who mantle the mountain monarch in the resplendent robes of dawn" ("Seattle’s Big Park").

The editors further explained that Park Superintendent Edward O. Schwagerl (1842-1910) planned to make the park "an exposition of the marvellous (sic) variety and beauty of the state flora and a proof of the capacity of the state to develop plants of a textile value. He thinks that tobacco, ramel and other plants having great commercial value can be grown, and that development of plant life can be promoted which has no equal anywhere" (Ibid.).

Schwagerl's vision would not be realized, but the park was partially developed. Five men worked on the grounds and in the nursery and greenhouse, where they propagated plants for use in all of the city parks. A keeper's house was soon built and 6.5 acres cleared for development.

Despite all this praise, the park struggled to become more than a work yard in the middle of a semi-feral landscape. The ridgetop location dried out quickly after rains, and no water supply for irrigation ran near the park before the water system facilities were completed in 1901. The Board of Park Commissioners passed a resolution in May 1893 calling for the sale of the 41 acres, with the proceeds to fund purchase of a larger and better tract elsewhere in the city. The city council, which had control of park acquisitions, rejected the suggestion.

The park board tried again, making its case more specifically and more thoroughly. Its resolution read, in part,

"The ground occupied by the City Park is exceedingly high and dry, and such a large area in the midst of the city would be very costly to maintain, while the money derived from the sale of the land would purchase a much larger tract surrounded by Lake Washington and still leave a balance for improvements. A tract of twenty or forty acres could never be converted into a driving park; consequently its treatment would require [it] to be that of a square; and on account of its isolated position and lack of water surroundings to add to its beauty and attractiveness, the City Park would never draw to itself much popular favor, and the value of the land, the cost of the improvements, as well as the amount of the revenue that would be required for its maintenance, would be more than could be justifiably expended on a tract of this character ("Some Facts Regarding Volunteer Park").

The Lake Washington site referenced in the resolution was likely the finger of land jutting into the lake south of the then-city limit, known as Bailey Peninsula (now Seward Park). The city council also rejected this proposal.      

City Park would remain largely unchanged throughout the 1890s as Seattle endured one of its worst economic depressions. At the turn of the century, tensions rose over the role of the park board and a general lack of progress in park development, and park commissioner C. D. C. Williams railed against the state of City Park. In a postscript to his scathing annual report in 1897 he scoffed, "You might as well expect to raise an Electric Plant in the City park by planting Electric Bulbs, as to grow Roses therein and have them a success" (C. D. C. Williams, 3). Photographs and early postcards from 1903 show the landscaping done during those years. Lawns, dotted with planting beds and individual shrubs and trees covered much of the eastern side of the park adjacent to 15th Avenue E, where the streetcar ran along the western border of the park beginning in 1901.

Development of the municipal water system began to move rapidly after 1899. In 1900 the reservoir and gate house were under construction. The rounded triangle shaped reservoir filled in an existing ravine running west from the crest of the hill. The pool of water was surrounded by a parapet topped with a short cast iron fence. Outside the parapet, a walkway encircled the entire structure. A gate house at the southwest corner housed mechanical equipment. Cedar River water filled the reservoir for the first time in January 1901.

To mitigate for the loss of park land, the city purchased three additional acres on the south side of the park and then bought 2.75 acres to the west. The first purchase extended the park to E Prospect Street and the second extended it halfway into the two blocks adjacent to the park's western border, leaving a half-block strip of privately owned land between the park and Federal Avenue.

Homes began to fill lots on the top of Capitol Hill as the city grew northward. The Moore Investment Company, owned by James Moore (1861-1929), filed plats for the four divisions of his Capitol Hill development along the southern and eastern sides of the park. The large lots attracted wealthy buyers and mansions soon sprouted up around the park. The stately homes along 14th Avenue E became known as "Millionaire's Row."

Olmsted Brothers Design the Park

The development was part of the massive influx of people to Seattle following the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897. The city’s population nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910. Seattle finally had enough residents and wealth to truly proclaim itself a city. Strongly influenced by the City Beautiful movement, city leaders knew that a modern city needed a park system for the health and wellbeing of its residents, and so the park board brought John Olmsted of the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm to Seattle in 1903 to design a park and boulevard system. When Olmsted arrived in Seattle on April 30, 1903, the park commissioners brought him to Volunteer Park on his first day in town.

Olmsted's park and boulevard system plan, adopted by the city council in November 1903, incorporated the existing parks in the city and connected them with a parkway system. One spur of the planned parkway would climb Capitol Hill from Washington Park, wrapping around the north end of the hill and running along its western edge until it reached E Highland Drive, where it would turn east and end at Volunteer Park.

Olmsted's recommendations for Volunteer Park in the park system plan made the most of its unique characteristics: location in a wealthy neighborhood, and views to Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, Lake Washington, and the Cascade Mountains. Its location in what he predicted would become a dense urban neighborhood and its proximity to downtown made it an ideal landscape park with few programmed spaces (areas designed for specific uses) but plenty of room for immersion in nature, in contrast with the forest in Washington Park and the rustic character of the parks he proposed for the hillside above Lake Washington.

In June 1904 the park board hired the Olmsted Brothers firm to develop a design for Volunteer Park. The contract called for a full complement of plans, including preliminary, grading, and planting plans, for $20 per acre. Olmsted’s preliminary plan, delivered in September 1904, provided space for activities such as music programs in the concert grove, promenading carriages on the concourse and carriage drive, and playing in an area set aside for "little folks." It also provided bountiful space for contemplating nature, with interior views through the tree groves and exterior views across the reservoir to Puget Sound and the distant mountains. Paths meandered across large lawns and through the trees, allowing strollers to take in the scenery and enjoy the quiet.

In addition to the paths and drives, plantings helped organize the space and framed views. Plant beds with multi-layered vegetation ringed the exterior of the park, blocking views of the streets and surrounding houses. They featured trees and shrubs, along with smaller flowering plants and ground covers. Like the meandering, curving paths, the landscape and plantings in areas away from the more formal concourse area appeared natural even though extensive grading had shaped the landscape visitors experienced.

Olmsted incorporated several structures and buildings into his plan for the park. At the north end, along the border with Lake View Cemetery, he blocked views outside of the park with greenhouses, a work yard, a shelterhouse (restrooms), and the play area with a wading pool. He located a wooden pergola and the concert grove across the concourse from the reservoir.

Paths linked pedestrian entrances at each intersecting street with the center of the park. Vehicle entrances at E Highland Drive on the west side of the park, 12th and 14th avenues on the south side, and at E Galer Street on the east side, provided access to the carriage drive and the concourse. Traffic circles anchored the concourse at each end, where it intersected with the carriage drive.

The preliminary plan was accepted by the park board, although commissioner Charles Saunders informed Olmsted that the board would likely not be able to acquire the remaining half blocks between the park and Federal Avenue, as his plan indicated. The commissioners had just managed to get a city charter amendment passed that gave the park board greater autonomy and authority, but it did not yet have sufficient budget for acquiring land. Olmsted felt strongly that it would be inappropriate to have the backyards of residential lots facing a more formal park such as Volunteer Park, and that time was short for acquiring the land before it was developed with homes.

As park development progressed, so did efforts to connect the park with Washington Park via a parkway (later named Interlaken Boulevard). The park board wanted to complete the parkway, which was a relatively short piece of the larger parkway system, to build community support for further funding. Their efforts would be stymied by rapidly rising property values. As soon as the first plat in the area was filed, the land values rose so quickly that the engineer hired to lay out the parkway, George Cotterill (1865-1958), had to zig zag up the hill via less desirable land to the intersection of 19th Avenue E and E Galer Street. From there, the parkway followed 19th Avenue E and E Highland Drive (on the east side of the park instead of the west side, as Olmsted had envisioned).

In late 1905, while Olmsted continued working on plans for the park, the water department sought advice from the park board about siting a new standpipe in the park to provide sufficient water pressure to homes and business built at a higher elevation than the reservoir. The park board turned to Olmsted, who decided upon a spot in alignment with the concourse at a point about 300 feet into the park from the intersection of 14th Avenue E and E Prospect Street, at the location of one of the traffic circles in the 1904 plan. This siting allowed the concourse to encircle the water tower before straightening out to continue on to the park's southern border. It also provided an excellent vantage point for views across the city. With his addition of an observatory level in the top of the tower, Olmsted ensured the expansive views of the city and surrounding landscape then available from the top of the cleared and largely undeveloped hilltop would still be available once the neighborhood filled in with homes and trees grew up around the park.

The standpipe was completed in 1908 at about the time discussions around adding a playground for older children began. The 1904 plan had included the area for small children at the northwest corner of the park, but playground advocates wanted to add room for gymnastic apparatus, other equipment, and space for older children's games. Olmsted revised grading plans and added a terrace of level land in the southwest corner of the park. He revised the landscape plan to include swings, climbing equipment, a giant slide, and teeter-totters in 1909. The playground was never installed at that location, however, because neighbors complained to the park board about the noise the children would make. Instead, it was shifted up to the northwest corner, where it would be farther from homes. The revised plan also incorporated vehicular access at 11th and 12th avenues from E Prospect Street. The park department carried out the plans and the park was largely complete by 1912, including the installation of the conservatory at the north end of the concourse and the addition of a set of tennis courts in the northwest corner (a second double court was added in 1915).

Structural Changes Over the Years

During the park's development, Olmsted weighed in on suggested additions to the park. First, in April 1910, the Washington State Art Association asked the park board to place a 200-by-220-foot Museum of Arts and Sciences in Volunteer Park, either in the lawn north of the reservoir or at the north end of the concourse, between the Seward statue and the cemetery, where Olmsted had left space for a conservatory. The park commissioners referred the question to the Municipal Plans Commission, which was planning a civic center in the Denny Regrade area as part of the effort to develop the Plan of Seattle (commonly referred to as the Bogue Plan). In October, the commission and Olmsted determined it would be better to put such a building with similar facilities in the civic center near Lake Union. Olmsted wrote to board president John T. Heffernan that, while his sympathies lay with the museum's intentions, he could not approve the placement of a museum, particularly one so large, in a landscape park because of the negative impact it would have on the park's character and visitors' experiences. 

Soon after the pergola and concert grove were constructed, local musicians began to ask for a new, larger, more traditional bandshell. Olmsted explained why such a structure would not be appropriate for the pergola and suggested, if the park board deemed it necessary, that they build it in the former playground space in the southwest corner of the park. The musicians rejected that space, and after further discussion, chose the lawn north of the reservoir for a Carl Gould-designed wooden bandshell. It was built in 1915 and served as the park's primary performance space until it was torn down due to deterioration in 1947.

The next structural changes to the park came in the 1930s. In 1930, a memorial to Judge Thomas Burke, who died in 1925, was built on the southeast side of the reservoir. Artist Hermon A. MacNeil designed the bas-relief monument and Carl Gould designed the surrounding stepped plazas with bench walls. The park is home to a number of other memorials. On the north side of the museum there is the "Schwagerl Rock," placed in honor of early Seattle park superintendent Edward O. Schwagerl. On the water tower, a plaque has been placed in memory of L. B. Youngs, a significant water department superintendent. A copper beech was planted near a monument to the volunteer soldiers of the Spanish-American War near the park entrance at 14th and Prospect to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington's birth. Other trees were planted to honor Anna Clise, who donated her orchid collection to the conservatory and served the community in myriad ways, and the Grand Army of the Republic and its Women's Auxiliary Corps.

A third structure designed by Gould, the Seattle Art Museum, was constructed in the park in 1932. John Olmsted had died in 1920 and the Olmsted Brothers firm was not active in Seattle in the early 1930s, so when Richard Fuller, head of the Seattle Art Institute, and his mother, Margaret Fuller, offered funds for construction of an art museum in the park, the city accepted. The Art Moderne-style building built in place of the pergola and concert grove along the concourse was home to the Seattle Art Museum for 60 years, before the majority of its collections moved to a new downtown museum. Landscape Architect Noble Hoggson (1865-1939) designed the landscape surrounding the museum, including the stone plaza extending from the museum to the concourse.

A Place to Gather

From its earliest years, Volunteer Park has served as a gathering place for Seattle residents. The bandshell draws crowds for a wide variety of musical performances. When Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis into Seattle in 1927, the Seattle Times reported that 30,000 schoolchildren greeted him in Volunteer Park. From the 1920s to the 1960s thousands attended annual Easter sunrise services in the park. A temporary stage structure replaced the Gould bandshell after it was demolished in 1947. It hosted a "Be-In" in April 1967 that featured bands, dancing, and impromptu drum circles, along with some entrepreneurial Girl Scouts selling cookies. In 1974, Seattle's first Pride celebration included an event in Volunteer Park, which would soon become home to the annual festival. For many years, Seattle's Eritrean community has celebrated Eritrean Independence Day with music, dancing, and other festivities at a new bandshell, designed by landscape architect Richard Haag (1923-2018).

In the early 1970s, Seattle Parks and Recreation hired Haag to create a renovation plan for the park. He extended the museum plaza across the concourse to the area that had been regraded to make room for the installation of Isamu Noguchi's Black Sun sculpture and its plinth in 1969. He also designed the new bandstand and a plan for regrading the adjacent lawn to create an amphitheater-like bowl. He removed one path in that area and another near the Little Folks lawn, around which he planted katsura trees (this area has since been revised again, with a new path added in 2013 as part of a playground renovation project). He redesigned the playground and moved the wading pool a short distance to the east. Haag also reconfigured circulation routes in the western portion of the park. He closed the vehicular entrances at E Highland Drive and 11th Avenue E in 1972 and the spur drive from the Carriage Drive to E Prospect Street was removed entirely.

Treasured Landmark, Still Going Strong

Just as this work was being completed, the first of several landmark designations was bestowed upon the park. In 1976, the park and its city water system infrastructure were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, the Seattle Art Museum building and its forecourt were designated a city landmark. The museum moved to its new downtown location in 1991 and, two years later, reopened the park building as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In 2002, the conservatory was designated a city landmark and in 2010, the park itself also became a city landmark.

Just after the landmark designation, members of the Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks joined with park neighbors and other park supporters to form the Volunteer Park Trust under the auspices of the Seattle Parks Foundation. Among its many contributions, the trust works to restore the historic Olmsted landscape, which faces dual challenges as its vegetation ages, and as changes to the park, such as the eventual removal of the reservoir from the city water system or its placement underground, alter the careful balance of elements intended by Olmsted, or disrupt views within and beyond the park. The trust also raises awareness of the park's significance and role in the overall park system, organizes and promotes events in the park to draw people in and build the community's sense of connection, and also works to discourage illicit acitivities, all to ensure that Olmsted's quiet hilltop oasis continues to serve the city for generations to come.


J. C. Olmsted, Field Note, June 3, 1903, and John C. Olmsted to Charles W. Saunders, October 31, 1904, Volunteer Park, Job# 02695, Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates Records, 1863-1971, MSS52571. Available online at Washington State Digital Archives (www.digitalarchives.wa.gov); A. L. Walters(?), Annual Report, February 25, 1904, Folder 3, Box 1,1802-H6, Parks Department Annual Reports, Seattle Municipal Archives; C. D. C. Williams, Report, April 14, 1901, Folder 3, Box 1,1802-H6, Parks Department Annual Reports, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Agreement between N. E. Ryther and the City to clear land known as the City Park (formerly the Seattle Cemetery) for $274," September 16, 1885, General File 993831, Box 28, Folder 2, Records Series 1802-04, Seattle Municipal Archives; Board of Park Commissioners Minutes, Volume 1, Record Series 9365-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; First Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners, 1884-1904 (Seattle: Board of Park Commissioners, 1904), 8; "Original Report of the Olmsted Brothers," in Park Playgrounds and Boulevards of Seattle, Washington (Seattle: The Pacific Press, 1909), 113-116; Seattle City Ordinance No. 12515, "An ordinance relating to historic preservation; imposing controls upon Volunteer Park, a landmark designated by the Landmarks Preservation Board ... Seattle Municipal Code," passed November 28, 2016 (http://seattle.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=4891378&GUID=B8124FCB-045C-4DB0-A749-FDEEB2D523DD); "Seattle Municipal Park System Contour Improvement Plan of Volunteer Park," August 1904, 02695-05, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, NPS. Available online at OlmstedOnline.org; "Seattle’s Big Park," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 23, 1892, p. 8; "Some Facts Regarding Volunteer Park," Box 45, Folder 22, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Records Series 5801-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Volunteer Park, Box 45, Folders 21 and 22, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Records Series 5801-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Volunteer Park Landmark Nomination, February 2011, Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks website (https://s3.amazonaws.com/seattleolmsted/links/8/Volunteer_Park_Landmark_Nomination.pdf?1379912612) accessed February 15, 2018; Volunteer Park plans, Job #02695, National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, available online at OlmstedOnline.org (http://olmstedonline.org/Plan/Details/1522); "Volunteer Park Vegetation Management Plan," Draft, March 2005, available from Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, 3-7.

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