On December 24, 1934, the Seattle City Council approves an agreement between the Board of Park Commissioners and the University of Washington establishing the Washington Park Arboretum. The largely undeveloped park, located between Seattle's Madison Park and Montlake neighborhoods, will benefit from the expertise of university faculty and the new entity created by the agreement, the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee, will serve as the fiscal agent for receiving Works Progress Administration funding for labor to clear and grade the park and to build various structures. James Frederick Dawson (1874-1941) of the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects firm will create a preliminary plan for the arboretum in 1936. The committee created by the 1934 agreement will continue to guide the arboretum into the twenty-first century, and a 2001 master plan will provide a new vision for managing the collections and serving the public.
Washington Park is one of Seattle's oldest parks. The first 62 acres were donated to the city by the Puget Mill Company in 1900. The park grew to 267 acres through various acquisitions and donations over the next couple of decades. After John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) of Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects designed Washington Park Boulevard (later Lake Washington Boulevard) in 1904 and 1905, the park remained largely undeveloped in the 1910s and 1920s.
In 1924, University of Washington president Henry J. Suzzallo (1875-1933), struggling with finding a home for an arboretum on the ever-changing campus, saw an opportunity in Washington Park, located just across Union Bay from the campus. The park 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's scientific knowledge. The university would gain a teaching resource and a living laboratory for faculty research.
The university had attempted to establish an arboretum on its campus for almost 30 years before looking outside its boundaries to Washington Park. Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935), professor, university regent, and state legislator; and Hugo Winkenwerder (1878-1947), Dean of the School of Forestry, tried several places on campus, but always lost their space to other uses.
On March 2, 1924, the Board of Park Commissioners adopted a resolution reserving the northern portion of the park for the arboretum. According to the agreement signed between the university and the City, buildings in the park could be used for classes and studies and the university would help the Board of Park Commissioners develop the arboretum. In 1925 the city increased the land available for the proposed 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. However, at the time neither the university nor the park board had the funds to create an arboretum.
Members of the Seattle community also showed interest in the development of an arboretum. The Arboretum and Botanical Society was incorporated in 1930 with the goal of establishing botanical garden, arboretum, and related facilities, but 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. Loren Grinstead served on the state unemployment relief committee and the arboretum project qualified for funding through the Works Progress Administration. In order to take that funding, the project needed to have an administrative group that could receive the funding.
To that end, on December 24, 1935, Seattle City Council authorized the Board of Park Commissioners to enter an agreement with the university establishing the Washington Park Arboretum. The next month the city and university formed the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee, with members appointed by the governor, the university president, and the city mayor, to manage the arboretum. One of the committee's first orders of business was the creation of the Arboretum Foundation to raise money for the project. The foundation has played a major role in funding operation and programs in the arboretum that continues today.
Early in the discussion about the arboretum, James Frederick Dawson, of the Olmsted Brothers firm, was recommended by Sophie Krauss to prepare a design. The Seattle Garden Club donated $3,000 to pay for the design work. The Board of Park Commissioners signed a contract with the Olmsted Brothers in July 1935 and Dawson finished his plan by March 1936. He chose to organize the plant groups according to the taxonomic system developed by Adolph Engler and Karl Prantl in 1887, which organized plant families according to their ancestral relationships to other families. 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.
Dawson also made plans for the park's built environment. He added a second drive, now 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. A harness-racing speedway built in 1907 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. When the work 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).
In 1938, Winkenwerder retired and John H. Hanley (d. 1959) took his place. 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).
The Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee has continued to guide operations in and development of the arboretum with the support of the Arboretum Foundation. In 1974, the city and 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.
The 2001 master plan for the arboretum further emphasized the need to make the arboretum more visitor-friendly by increasing accessibility and providing more public education through programs and new ways to interpret the collections. To that end, a major redevelopment of the collections has begun. The Pacific Connections Gardens being developed along the eastern ridge of the park shifts 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.