John Charles Olmsted, the primary visionary of the Seattle Park System, developed a master plan that connected existing and planned green spaces across the city.
THE HISTORY OF Seattle’s park system is surprisingly rich and complex, much like the history of the city itself.
The place we now call Seattle has been occupied by Native Americans since the last set of glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. However, the founding of the municipality is commonly dated to the arrival of the Denny Party (a bumbling group of Midwesterner yokels) in 1851. The city grew quickly throughout the late 1800s, and amazingly, only 30 years after its inception, Seattle organized a Board of Park Commissioners to oversee the development of a citywide park system.
Concurrently, on the other side of the country (also known as the Second-Best Coast), the American version of landscape architecture was in its nascent stages.
Ask any landscape architect about the history of the profession, and you’ll likely get a response that starts with something like this: “In the Beginning, Frederick Law Olmsted created landscape architecture, the Earth being untamed and shapeless … ” Indeed, Olmsted was an early pioneer of modern landscape design and the primary architect of New York’s Central Park. By 1902, when Seattle was ready to undertake a master plan for its own city parks, Olmsted was in poor health and no longer able to work. However, his two sons, Frederick Jr. and John Charles, inherited the family business (now rebranded as Olmsted Brothers) and signed on to help design the fledgling park system.
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It would be John Charles Olmsted, Frederick Law’s stepson, who became the primary visionary of the Seattle Park System. John Charles built upon ambitious park proposals by Edward Otto Schwagerl and George Cotterill to develop his master plan, “A Comprehensive System of Parks and Parkways.”
The Olmsted design philosophy, as applied in Seattle, was based on the idea of using naturalistic landscapes to frame dramatic mountain and water views. The key feature of the plan was a linked series of parks and boulevards connecting the existing and planned green spaces across the city. Starting in the south at Seward Park, the path continues up the western shore of Lake Washington through Interlaken and across the cut through the University of Washington’s campus, eventually passing by Green Lake and ending at Discovery Park in Magnolia.
Given the immense scope of the project, the Olmsted Brothers contributed only broad design concepts to many of the city’s parks. The plant selection, engineering and implementation for most parks were left to local designers and park staff. If you want to see a fully realized Olmsted design, it’s worth a visit to Volunteer Park. The brothers were more deeply involved in the development of this space, and their vision is still maintained and curated by the members of the Volunteer Park Trust.
Today, Seattle has more than 400 city parks. Needless to say, there is much more to explore, so keep an eye out for subsequent GROW articles on the history of the park system. In the meantime, check out the resources provided by Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks. One great way to get more insight into the wonders of our park system is to tag along on one of the group’s Walking Tours, which run monthly from May through September.