While attending the dedication and opening of Seattle's spectacular new Olympic Sculpture Park, I heard numerous people ask, "Who was Myrtle...
While attending the dedication and opening of Seattle’s spectacular new Olympic Sculpture Park, I heard numerous people ask, “Who was Myrtle Edwards?” — the namesake of the public waterfront park adjacent to the sculpture garden.
Beside the fact she was my grandmother, she was a pioneering civic leader whose life and works helped lay the foundation for much of what we still see, experience and enjoy today.
Myrtle Edwards was born in the 1890s, growing up before women had the right to vote. Her first love, and career, was in music. With a degree from the University of Illinois, she became a voice teacher at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. There, she met and married Harlan H. Edwards, a civil engineer and the son of the founding family of the American Conservatory of Music.
My grandmother and grandfather moved to the Seattle area in the early 1940s, where Myrtle quickly became involved in organizations like the League of Women Voters and the Seattle Council of Churches. She and Harlan were also members of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.
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When their youngest child went to college, Myrtle went back to school at the University of Washington to get her degree in political science, and officially got into politics.
She was president of both the Seattle and Washington state League of Women Voters. In 1955, she was appointed to the Seattle City Council and elected a year later. She later served as president of the City Council.
In each of her elections when the council was still elected at large, she was the top vote-getter, and during the 1964 election she received more votes than any other council candidate had ever received. In May of 1964, she was named Seattle Beautiful, Inc.’s Citizen of the Year. She died at the height of her political career in a tragic car accident in 1969.
As a councilwoman, she channeled her passion for parks by chairing the City Council Parks and Public Grounds Committee, later called the Seattle Parks Department. During her tenure, the Parks Department presided over the replacement of the old Civic Auditorium with a new Opera House, adding a new Exhibition Hall, Playhouse and Arena. This was the grounds for the Century 21 World’s Fair of 1962, which included the building of nearly all that we now know as the Seattle Center. As a supporter of the arts in all its various forms, she was most proud of the remodeled Opera House and the various theaters on its campus.
Myrtle Edwards was a true visionary. She recognized the value of green space over high-rises and fought to make it an integral part of the city.
This value of green space was evident in the projects she became involved with. She negotiated the purchase of the land for Gas Works Park at below market value, in hopes the gasworks plant would be torn down to create a beachfront park on Lake Union. She helped in the planning of Freeway Park, which was built after she died. She supported the preservation of the Pike Place Market, the naturalization of Woodland Park Zoo, and hopes for a Seattle waterfront aquarium. She always was in support of the beautification and naturalization of public lands for people to enjoy.
Growing up, I remember her comments whenever she saw a dumping ground or wrecking yard: “They ought to clean that up and turn it into a park.”
The Elliott Bay Park, later named in her honor, was just such a park. A former dumping ground for construction and industrial projects, its transformation into a waterfront park overlooking Puget Sound was exactly the kind of project she pushed for.
To now have her park be neighbor to the Seattle Art Museum’s new Olympic Sculpture Park is an even greater honor to her values and passion.
What once was wasted and contaminated industrial land has been innovatively reclaimed, with the lots joined together to create a beautiful platform of modern art and nature. This new expanse along Elliott Bay is exactly the kind of park Myrtle Edwards would have loved.
Lindalee Edwards Purdy is a chaplain resident at Swedish Medical Center and in the process of ordination with the United Church of Christ. She is one of Myrtle Edwards’ two grandchildren.