Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition landscaping crews put the finishing touches on a 20-acre nursery on October 1, 1907.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 4/09/2009
  • Essay 8980
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On October 1, 1907, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition landscaping crews put the finishing touches on a 20-acre nursery for plants and sod in preparation for the spring of 1909, when they will need millions of plants to landscape the exposition grounds. John C. Olmsted (1852-1920) of the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm designed the plan for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition, a world's fair to be held at the University of Washington campus from June 1 to October 16, 1909. Olmsted's plan for the fair will transform the forested campus into a park replete with formal gardens, expanses of lawns, paths, avenues, millions of plants around buildings and in beds, and remnant forest. By the time the exposition opens, gardeners will have planted more than two million trees, perennials, and annuals around the grounds, including 10,000 rhododendrons, 5,000 roses, and 80,000 dwarf phlox.

From Forest to Formal Garden

The landscape work of the A-Y-P's 250 acres varied from tidied-up forest to formal gardens, with extensive informal plantings around buildings and along avenues and paths. In order to have enough plants to fill all of the beds and enough sod to cover the lawns, John C. Olmsted designated 20 acres at the southern end of the campus for nursery grounds. Olmsted managed the early stages of the project, but after November 1907, his colleague James Frederick Dawson (1874-1941) supervised most of the on-site work.  

By October 1907 crews had planted 10 acres of sod and built a 30 by 100 foot greenhouse. The gardeners began by ordering live plants and seeds, though that only accounted for 194,000 plants. The rest came from cuttings propagated in the greenhouse, plants retained from the forest that had covered the grounds, and plants and bulbs lent to the exposition by companies and horticulturists.  

After grading crews carved the roads, paths, and vistas out of the hill in the spring of 1908, the gardeners began to plant the rhododendrons, evergreen trees, and hedges around the grounds. The Andorra Tree Farm in Pennsylvania lent several railroad carloads of plants for the grounds and Olmsted had chosen a number of large trees to save for replanting. 

The only major setback occurred when the gardeners realized at the end of the summer of 1908 that the nursery plants had not grown as expected because of, "the amount of resinous matter in the soil deposited by the fir trees whose roots had occupied the soil for a great many years." (Dawson, 34) They had to bring in railroad cars full of slake lime to add to the soil to make it less acid. By the fall of 1908 crews completed the plantings around the building foundations, supervised by Hans J. Koehler, a representative of the Olmsted firm and the Superintendent of Parking for the Fair. "Parking" was the term used at the time to mean landscaping.    

Scenes Simple and Harmonious

Over the winter of 1908 the gardeners worked to propagate more plants from the stock on hand. They needed hundreds of thousands of plants to fill in the border plantings and raised beds, but Olmsted did not want, "any gaudy displays of ornamental carpet-bedding, such as designs of emblems, mottoes, or names of buildings worked up in colored foliage plants," choosing instead beds of perennials mixed with annuals. He sought to create a scene, "simple and harmonious with the magnificent natural surroundings" (Dawson, 34).  

Extensive plantings went in next to buildings to "soften the hard architectural lines of the buildings as they merged into the ground." (Dawson, 34) These beds tended to be more informal. Closer to the sidewalks and avenues a more formal style prevailed.  

Daisies, Pansies, Peonies, Gladiolas, Geraniums...

The sheer number of plants required for the fair is astonishing. Most of the two million plants were grown in the nursery at the south end of the campus. For just one of the planting beds, 30,000 Alaska Daisies lined Alaska Avenue, which ran about six blocks along the western side of the grounds. Ten thousand rhododendrons surrounded the buildings of the main court. They bloomed early, but their foliage added texture and color to the plantings for the duration of the fair. Cactus Dahlias, the exposition's official flower, and foxgloves provided blooms for the main court after the rhododendrons finished.

Two hundred thousand yellow, blue, and white English tufted pansies (Viola cornuta) surrounded the Geyser Basin, along with peonies, Canterbury Bells, and Gladioli, 6,000 of which were lent to the A-Y-P by Arthur Cowee, "The Gladiolus Expert" from Berlin, New York. Twenty thousand geraniums covered the slopes at the upper end of the Pay Streak. Many of the starts for the geraniums came from Geranium Day on November 14, 1908, when anyone could gain free admission to the grounds (visitors could pay to enter and watch the work progress) if they brought a geranium start to donate. 

Below the Geyser Basin, formal gardens with a geometrical design fanned out onto the Rainier Vista. On the eastern and western sides, Japanese barberry hedges formed the borders around 5,000 roses. Eighty thousand English daisies and dwarf phlox carpeted the ground under the roses.  In the center, hardy perennials in a tessellated design filled with annuals formed a parterre garden (a flat formal garden consisting of symmetrical beds lined with stones or hedges, paths, etc.). The blooms of the annuals created a design that started with white flowers in the center and progressed outward in bands of light pink, creamy yellow, light blue, dark pink, red, and blue radiating out to the borders, Two thousand Sweet Williams divided the southern edge of the formal gardens from the grassy expanse of the Rainier Vista. 

Douglas firs transplanted from other parts of the grounds framed the Rainier, Lake Union, and Lake Washington vistas radiating out from the Cascades, a water feature in the Court of Honor. The upper portions of the lake vistas are mostly blocked by buildings today, but Rainier Vista remains a spectacular feature of the campus that is still framed by Doug firs. Walks bordered by benches and flowers filled the expanses between the trees. The flowers along the edge of the lake vistas included displays of Cactus Dahlia varieties.   

Northwest Native

A remnant of the forest that had covered the entire campus remained in "The Park," in the southeast corner of the grounds. Landscaping crews cleared the underbrush and dead trees, laid out about five miles of trails, placed rustic benches, and planted foxglove, irises, and purple loosestrife. The Park gave visitors a tranquil place to escape the hustle and bustle of the exposition.  

Olmsted's appreciation of native plants and trees influenced his choice of plants. In his first preliminary plan he had hoped to leave enough space between buildings to retain undergrowth and trees from the forest between buildings. To reduce costs, Olmsted tightened up the space between buildings, making it less feasible to preserve the vegetation. Instead, in the informal plantings near the buildings he included native plants. Groves of native trees framed the vistas and filled pockets around the grounds.  In The Park, the Olmsted plan highlighted native vegetation, even in the flowers planted among the trees.

The Olmsted Legacy

After the fair, when crews demolished buildings, they left the landscaping and the city parks department maintained the grounds until 1915. A century later, some of the plantings of the Exposition are still extant. Outside the Museum of History & Industry a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum) imported for the fair by nursery owner Julius Bonnell (1874-1939) still survives. Bonnell originally moved the tree back to his own nursery and then his son donated the tree to the museum.

On campus other trees have not yet been documented, but some may date to the A-Y-P. Some of the recently removed Lombardy poplars along Stevens Way in front of Architecture Hall (the Fine Arts Palace at the exposition) may have dated to the A-Y-P. Olmsted's design placed poplars in front of the building in 1909 and pictures since them have shown them in that space, although the individual trees may have been replaced.

The eastern shore of Lake Washington behind Husky Stadium, which is now farther east and lower due to the 1916 lowering of Lake Washington in conjunction with the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, continues to retain some of the character of the wetland edge that Olmsted wanted to preserve. Olmsted's design influence is most strongly seen in the Douglas firs that frame the Rainier Vista, providing the visual context of the native forest Olmsted wished to retain.

Sources: James Frederick Dawson, "Planting at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition," Landscape Architecture, October 1910, pp. 31-40; Frederick Dawson  to Henry E. Dosch, August 2, 1909, copy of letter, Folder 9, Box 1, Olmsted Brothers Papers, Accession No. 0170-001, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Norman J. Johnston, "The Olmsted Brothers and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, April 1984, pp. 50-61; John C. Olmsted to Sophie Olmsted, October 20, 1906, John C. Olmsted Papers, Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Design School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; "Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners," 1915, File 7, Box 1, Department of Parks and Recreation Annual Reports, 1802-H6, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "Japanese Maple," Heritage Tree Tour, Seattle Department of Transportation website accessed January 29, 2009 (; "Today Geranium Day at the Fair," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 14, 1908, Sec. 2, p. 1.

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