VOLUNTEER PARK has often been called Seattle’s Central Park. Founded in 1887, it’s 30 years younger than New York’s legendary park. And at 48 acres it’s a fraction of the size. Both parks are distinguished by the classic elegance of their design by the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm, and both are the beating green hearts of the cities surrounding them.
From the top of the park’s castle-like water tower, built in 1906, you get a sense of how truly central Volunteer Park is to our city. There aren’t many places in the bustling, techy Seattle of Amazon.com and the Gates Foundation that give a deep sense of our city’s history. The park, with its stately trees and Victorian conservatory, is one of them. In November 2011, the Landmarks Preservation Board designated Volunteer Park as a Seattle Landmark.
The park’s Olmsted heritage is central to the mission of the year-old Volunteer Park Trust (www.volunteerparktrust.org), a group dedicated to restoring the park’s features and plantings. “We have a menu of projects, of which the reservoir and the area around it is the biggest,” says trust chairman Doug Bayley. With the help of the Seattle Parks Department and the Seattle Parks Foundation, the trust is busy raising money and planning events to bring people into the park. At a recent planting party, more than a hundred neighbors and enthusiasts volunteered to clear out blackberries and broom to create room for new plantings.
Landscape architects and Olmsted experts are working together to replant the park in a style true to the original vision. Plantings will be massed in sweeping shapes, with a careful eye to maintaining sight lines and security.
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“We’re not duplicating plants exactly; we have better choices now than a hundred years ago when the Olmsteds were designing,” says Bayley. The emphasis is on drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants with seasonal interest. We won’t see the hybrid tea roses or Scotch broom called for in the Olmsted plans; hardy landscape roses and shrubby hypericum create a similar effect. “All of the park’s trees are over a hundred years old,” says Bayley. It’s time to establish a new multilevel canopy with newer varieties of traditional trees such as dogwoods and magnolias.
The vast reservoir is perfectly positioned on the lip of the hillside above the city and Puget Sound. It pre-dates the Olmsteds’ involvement, and they arranged the park’s features to take advantage of views over the reservoir.
Bayley believes it likely that the reservoir will be decommissioned in a year or two. The Volunteer Park Trust has a vision for its preservation and enhancement. The restoration of the “Sunset Promenade” as the central landscape feature of the park would mean filling in the reservoir to a depth of a few inches to create a grand reflecting pool ringed with a broad path.
“We want to create a promenade where people could stroll and watch the sun go down over the city and the water,” says Bayley. That sweeping westward view now includes the Space Needle, a sight never imagined when the Olmsted Brothers designed the venerable park.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.