City of Seattle buys site of future Volunteer Park in 1876.

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 5/01/2001
  • Essay 3252
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In 1876, the City of Seattle buys the site of the future Volunteer Park. Volunteer Park is located on Capitol Hill between E Prospect and E Galer streets and Federal Avenue E and 15th Avenue E. The land is first used as a cemetery, then as a city park. In 1901, the reservoir is built to hold water piped to Seattle from the Cedar River. In 1903, the park is redesigned by the Olmsted Bros. and in 1907 the Volunteer Park water tower is built. In 1933, the Seattle Art Museum opens in Volunteer Park. It is rededicated as the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1994.

From a Cemetery to the Enjoyment of the Living

In 1876, the city bought 40 acres contiguous to the south of the Masonic Cemetery (later renamed Lake View Cemetery). In 1885, they called it Washelli and started moving bodies over from an old burial ground the city was converting into the first civic park: Denny Park.

Two years later, while Leigh Hunt, editor and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was trailblazing along the ridge of what would be called Capitol Hill, he, by his own description, "fell into a deep communion with nature and under the enchanted spell of her visible forms." Under the influence of this reverie, Hunt next came across the few marked graves at Washelli. Perhaps dreaming of good copy, the editor claimed that a voice came to him demanding "Dispose of the dead elsewhere; this ground is reserved for the enjoyment of the living."

Promptly the city obeyed the influential publisher. The graves were moved next door to the Lake View Cemetery and the fresh and free acres were held as a reserve for more "deep communion with nature." The site was eventually named City Park and in 1901, Volunteer Park, to commemorate the patriotic gang of locals who volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898-99.

Design and Redesign

A little pruning and planting occurred in the early 1890s under the direction of Edward Otto Schwagerl, the well-thought-of landscape architect hired in 1892. However, the economic panic of 1893 put an end to this work. City Park nested for 10 years more until the Olmsted firm was hired in 1903 to devise a city-wide plan for parks and boulevards.

A reservoir was built in 1901 to hold water piped into Seattle from the Cedar River. The water tower was built in 1907, and a botanical conservatory was added on the park's north end in 1912. John C. Olmsted (1852-1920) opposed the latter and also plans to build a state history museum in the park, which were abandoned.

In the 1930s, the city decided to allow Richard E. Fuller (1897-1976), president of the Art Institute of Seattle, and his mother Margaret (MacTavish) Fuller (1860-1953) locate their Art Institute of Seattle in the park. The Olmsted Brothers firm reiterated John Olmsted's opposition to such institutional uses, and ended its relationship with Seattle soon after.

The museum opened in 1933. It became the Seattle Art Museum, and was rededicated as the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1994.


Walt Crowley with Paul Dorpat (Photography Editor), National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Son, Inc., 1998), 151; Jacqueline Block Williams, The Hill With A Future: Seattle's Capitol Hill, 1900-1946, (Seattle: CPK INK, 2001); Paul Dorpat, "Volunteer Park Voices," Story 86 Seattle Now and Then, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1984).
Note: This essay was corrected on April 17, 2003.

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