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Cover Story
WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
ILLUSTRATED BY PAUL SCHMID
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Masters of Green | From street to shore, a living legacy of distinctive public places
 
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COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
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WE'RE NOT HALFWAY through the year, but already the centennial celebration of Seattle's Olmsted park system is well under way — and plenty more hoopla is yet to come. Those of us who've been around awhile may have vague recollections of dusty old stories about the Olmsted brothers who long ago designed the web of parks and boulevards that make up our city's green spaces. But who were the Olmsted brothers, really, and how did they change Seattle — not just how it looks but how we live in, and travel between, our neighborhoods? How did the vision of these men from Massachusetts distinguish our city from others in the Northwest? More to the point, is the much-touted Olmsted legacy a ragged remnant of the 20th century, or a living, growing heritage that Seattle can build on to influence the future of our public spaces?

To foray into Olmstediana is to be deluged with dates, quotes, plans, rumor and reverence. And no wonder — the Olmsted firm designed or recommended 68 parks and 18 boulevards for Seattle, of which 17 parks and 14 boulevards were built. And not just any parks or boulevards, but such city-defining spaces as Volunteer, Ravenna, Green Lake and Woodland parks, as well as the elegant boulevard system that runs 22 miles (with a couple of gaps) between Seward Park at the south end of Lake Washington and Discovery Park on the shores of Puget Sound. One or another partner from the Olmsted Brothers firm worked on projects in the Northwest for more than six decades, from 1873 up until World War II.
 
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Denny Park remains one of the most wooded of the Olmsted-designed parks.
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Four different men, with remarkably similar talents and instincts, left their fingerprints on our city's neighborhoods, streets and green spaces. First was Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., if only by influence and tradition, for he died in 1903, the year his stepson came to Seattle. This first Olmsted was guided by his admiration for England's pastoral landscapes, and motivated by his conviction that parks should serve as places of refuge for weary citizens. Credited with creating the profession of landscape architecture, he designed Central Park in New York and Boston's Arnold Arboretum. He traveled west to Tacoma in 1873, commissioned by the Northern Pacific Railway to create a master plan. His scheme called for roads nestled into the curves of Tacoma's topography. Railroad magnates soundly rejected his plan in favor of a more rigid grid system.

John Charles Olmsted was Frederick's stepson and nephew (Frederick had married his brother's widow), and it is the anniversary of John's coming to Seattle that we're celebrating. Hired by the Seattle Parks Commission to create a master plan, John remains dear to Seattleites because he so appreciated our city's beauty. Shortly after arriving here in the spring of 1903 he wrote, "Seattle possesses extraordinary landscape advantages in having a great abundance and variety of water views and views of wooded hills and distant mountains and snow-capped peaks. I do not know of any place where the natural advantages for parks are better than here. They can be made very attractive and will be, in time, one of the things that will make Seattle known all over the world." John set out to take advantage of all that natural beauty, with the help of his stepbrother Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and James Frederick Dawson (lead designer, in the 1930s, for the Washington Park Arboretum).

When John arrived in Seattle a century ago, he found scattered parks, some privately owned but open to the public. Others, like Denny and Kinnear, had been donated to the city, while most were clustered at the end of trolley lines in the hopes of attracting buyers to new real-estate developments. Most were formal, grassy parks with flourishes of Victorian-style flower beds. While a number of these became part of the Olmsted master plan, John had quite a different kind of park in mind, as well as a plan in hand for a boulevard system conceived by an earlier Seattle park superintendent, Edward Schwagerl. John's first weeks in a mercifully dry and sunny Seattle springtime were spent breaking trail through the brush along the edges of Lake Washington and Puget Sound, studying vistas, learning the topography and surveying the shores from a steam launch. John was quick to expound on the breadth of his plans: "The general scheme is to start the driveway on the shores of Lake Washington, carrying it around to Lake Union, through the university grounds, thence through the valley to Green Lake and around the shore to Woodland Park, and from there to the military reservation at Fort Lawton," today's Discovery Park.
 
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The city of Seattle commissioned John Charles Olmsted, above, to design the master plan for a park system. It is the centennial anniversary of John Charles' arrival that the city is now celebrating. Frink Park, left, has trademark Olmsted features: a curving parkway and landscaping following the natural topography above the Leschi neighborhood.
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The Olmsted firm presented a master plan of neighborhood parks, some with playgrounds and ball fields, others simply scenic, linked together by wide boulevards and parkways. (There is a distinction; boulevards are lined with houses, such as along Ravenna Boulevard, while parkways are edged with shrubbery, trees and expanses of grass.) It was this plan, sent out to Seattle from Brookline, Mass., in the autumn of 1903 and expanded in 1908, that guided our park commissioners for decades, and still influences park planners today.

The master plan treats all the parks as individual entities, shaping each to reflect neighborhood needs and character. Layered plantings, woodland paths, the preservation of large trees, and amenities for recreation and children created parks both pleasant and useful. Each created a slice of nature, more or less formal depending on the surrounding neighborhood, with the purpose of providing a green space for people to relax in, play, walk through, enjoy as they chose. The wide boulevards swoop and curve along with the topography of the land, cleverly connecting neighborhoods while capturing the views to water and mountains whenever possible.
 
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The little stone lookout in the Washington Park Arboretum is a fine vantage point for taking in the length of Azalea Way.

 
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Originally an aqueduct and a bridge, the Wilcox footbridge was built in 1911 — two decades before an Olmsted Brothers team led by James Frederick Dawson designed the Washington Park Arboretum that surrounds it.
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The longevity of these designs may rest in the fact that the Olmsteds weren't out to build monuments to their own talent but rather to showcase the genius of the specific place in which they were working. "The different parks of the city should not be made to look as much like each other as possible, but on the contrary every advantage should be taken of differing conditions to give each one a distinct individuality all its own," declared John. Colman and Frink parks remain wild, with winding roads along the edges, while Volunteer Park, as part of a well-established neighborhood, has spreading lawns, a formal pool and gracious flower beds.

The Olmsteds admired our native plants, leaving trees in place wherever possible. They planted in layers, mimicking a natural woodland using signature plants such as evergreen huckleberry, mahonia, viburnum, dogwood and rhododendrons. The result is a rich mix of textural bark and leaf, as well as multiseason bloom. The effect is so subtle that park users think they're walking through a natural woodland when, in fact, they're in the midst of a constructed landscape formed from logged-over land intensively maintained over many decades. This naturalistic feel has allowed the Seattle Parks Department to harmoniously integrate native plants into waterside parks, creating salmon-friendly shorelines and cutting down on maintenance. Perhaps we're returning to the tangle of native brush through which John C. Olmsted fought his way along the shore of Lake Washington his first weeks in Seattle.

While Tacoma rejected Olmstedian naturalism early on, by the time Portland tried to implement its Olmsted master plan, property values had jumped precipitously. "Portland is not awake to her opportunities," lamented John in 1909. In contrast, Seattle citizens, flush with Gold Rush money, showed great purpose by passing substantial park bonds. Between 1906 and 1912, Seattle voters approved $4.5 million for parks, the equivalent of at least $80 million today, in hopes of realizing the 1908 Olmsted plan, which called for a boulevard system of 50 miles belting the city, and a park system of more than 2,000 acres. Olmsted was determined to reach his ideal of a park or playground within a half-mile of every home.
 

Paths cross among the evergreens in West Seattle's Hiawatha Park.
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It is hard to believe that our forebears would be anything short of delighted if they could see what their money provided for generations of Seattleites. While each neighborhood park is a well-used gem, it's difficult to imagine how we'd navigate around our city, let alone keep an eye on Mount Rainier, without Lake Washington, Magnolia and Ravenna boulevards. None of them existed before John Olmsted beat his way through the brush to discover natural contours and vistas. The Olmsted designs for our city remain remarkably intact, for the firm had an extraordinary ability to anticipate how cities, and plants, would grow. They insisted that the Volunteer Park water tower be built at the park's highest point to ensure that views remained as trees grew large. It is worth the 106-step climb up "the poor man's Space Needle" to see the full sweep of Olmsted-envisioned green spaces, from fresh-water lake to salt water.

What is it about the work of these New Englanders that remains so influential? Seattle Park superintendent Ken Bounds says the Olmstedian idea of parks as nonprogrammed places — not dedicated to specific, active purposes — greatly aided his work in preserving our city's green spaces. The Olmsteds' expanded 1908 master plan, as well as their priority for naturalistic parkland, continues to influence park planning for today and tomorrow. The Olmsteds recommended four parks along Lake Union, and although none was realized at the time, in the past couple of decades Seattle has acquired Gas Works Park, Fairview Park and South Lake Union Park, at or close to the sites identified in the original plan. A particularly urban example of Olmsted work, the Bobby Morris Playfield and adjacent park on Capitol Hill, are being refurbished to better suit their changing neighborhood while keeping the original Olmsted vision clearly in mind.
 
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Olmsted designs typically created naturalistic settings that made room for large trees such as these in Capitol Hill's Volunteer Park.
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The Olmstedian way was not to create a landscape to look at, but one to pass through, whether on foot or by car. Their skill in orchestrating passage is still on display in Colman Park where cars rumble over rustic bridges while people pass beneath on footpaths, making their way from the upper park down to the lake without crossing a road. One hundred years later, when we enter an Olmsted-designed park, despite more traffic and development than even those visionaries could probably imagine, we feel submerged in solitude, shelter and a dose of peace sufficient to refresh even the 21st-century human spirit. Nature in its slightly tousled glory exists in the heart of our city, accessible to all.

Such artistry is implicit in our experience of an Olmsted landscape but hard to put into words. For an explanation, we must again look back to the 19th century and Frederick Law Olmsted, who said, "Landscapes move us in a manner more nearly analogous to music than anything else — gradually and silently the charm overcomes us; we know not exactly where or how."

In this centennial year, there are more than enough maps, photos, plans and words to explain the Olmsted legacy, but to understand its true value, you might want to spend some time in our parks, giving their woodsy charm a chance to silently overcome you.

What to Read and What to Do

• The National Association of Olmsted Parks' annual conference, "Our Olmsted Legacy: Learning From the Past, Inspiring the Future," will be held in Seattle Wednesday to next Sunday. For information and updates, see www.seattle.gov/FriendsofOlmstedParks, or contact Kari at 206-332-9915.

• On the third Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. join a free, two-hour public walking tour of Olmsted parks (a different one each month) sponsored by the Seattle Parks Foundation. For a complete schedule, see www.seattleparksfoundation.org

• The Volunteer Park water tower, open daily, houses a permanent interpretive exhibit on Seattle's Olmsted legacy, spaced between windows that look out over acres of parks and miles of boulevards. The 14th Avenue entrance to Volunteer Park has been renovated with original Olmsted plantings.

• The spring 2003 issue of the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin is devoted to Seattle's Olmsted legacy, $5 at newsstands and at the Graham Visitors' Center gift shop at the Arboretum. The signature bed outside the center is composed of authentic Olmsted plants. A complete list of them is available at the information desk inside.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com. Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times staff artist.


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