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Trolley Parks
E. O. Schwagerl
Seattle's First Park Plan
Seattle's Park Nursery
Olmsted in Northwest
Olmsted Plan 1903
Edward Otto Schwagerl
and the
Golden Age of Seattle Park Planning

In 1884, Seattle had just one municipal park. Twenty years later, the city had a comprehensive parks plan that made the most of Seattle's spectacular natural setting. In the intervening years, Seattle's parks drew the attention of people from all walks of life. Seattle's founding mothers and fathers, entrepreneurs, city officials, neighborhood activists, and landscape architects of international renown all had a hand in creating local parks. In the end, what the young city got exceeded the dreams of all but the most visionary. Experts now recognize this city-wide system of parks and boulevards planned during this golden age of park planning as a national treasure.

Seattle's earliest parks were informal spaces, often built on traditional Native American gathering places. Later, in 1884, David and Louisa Denny gave the city its first park--Denny Park. The five-acre tract had originally been a cemetery. After moving the graves to other cemeteries, city officials began thinking about the park. In a report to the City Council dated November 21, 1884, they laid out their ideas: "the present growth of trees and shrubs upon the premises can be thinned and topped, which would materially improve the property …also that the fencing around the old cemetery be repaired in such a manner as to protect the shrubbery…against damage by (live-) stock that may be running at large." In other words, this park was to be a plot of mixed trees and shrubs scattered on open ground and surrounded by a fence. However humble this plan might have been, it was a beginning. How much, if any, work the city did on the park at this early date is unclear.


Vintage postcard showing Madison Park

"Madison Park on Lake Washington, Seattle, Wash."

Although Denny was Seattle's first park, the city would soon have more. Three of them were private enterprises built by real estate developers: Leschi (circa 1888), Madison (circa 1890), and Ravenna (circa 1890). What these would-be moguls wanted was to sell building lots, but there was a problem. It was hard to find prospects willing to trek out through the clear-cuts to visit the wilds of Lake Washington east of the city or the forest primeval north of town. It was harder still to sell them some land there. How could these developers get buyers to see the land they had for sale? They must have spent considerable time on this question, since the answer they came up with was no small undertaking. They decided to build destination parks, two of them elaborate amusement parks, connected to the city by trolley lines. Park goers, or so they hoped, would spend an enjoyable day in the park, want to have a home nearby, and buy a lot.

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check Trolley Parks

Vintage postcard showing Leschi Park

"A Scene in Leschi Park, Seattle"

These "Trolley Parks," as Seattle parks' historian Don Sherwood called them, were immensely popular. At Leschi, park visitors could go roller skating, take in a concert at the bandstand, gamble at the casino, attend a vaudeville show, or rent a boat. Madison Park offered many of the same activities, but visitors could also watch a professional baseball game at the Seattle Baseball Grounds or camp out in a tent city. They could also quaff what The Argus called "liquid refreshments" that drew "a different class than that that visits Leschi." In other words, Madison Park had a bar frequented by rowdy people. In contrast to both Leschi and Madison, Ravenna Park was quieter, but it had something the other parks did not – huge, old-growth trees. These trees were so big that visitors came from all around to see "trees that swept the stars."


Vintage postcard showing Roosevelt Tree in Ravenna Park

"Big Tree, Ravenna Park"

In addition to all the other attractions, Leschi and Madison Parks also had gardens. At both parks, developers had cleared the original forest, and added inviting new landscapes. At Leschi, visitors strolled on gravel paths or gathered on ample lawns. A mix of deciduous shade trees and exotic conifers, probably planted in 1895, dotted the lawns. Between the trees, island beds featured a mix of shrubs and seasonal flowers. Some included tropicals like bananas, valued then as they are now for their bold foliage. A medium-sized, reflecting pool was a quiet retreat away from the crowds. At Madison Park, the scene was much the same. It, too, had a mix of landscape trees, generous lawns, and flower beds in summer. The water feature, this time a circular lily pond with a small fountain, was a focal point. Generous boardwalks led to it from four directions. Long benches offered visitors a spot to pause and take in the scene.

During the trolley park era, the city was growing. The 1890 census counted nearly 43,000 Seattleites, a more than eight-fold increase in a decade. A busy port, the new railroad terminus, growing businesses, and expectations for better things to come gave the city an air of prosperity. Civic leaders began to see that parks might be important for the health and well-being of their citizenry. Seattleites began to lobby real estate developer George Kinnear, who owned 14 acres on the southwest slope of Queen Anne. The site offered panoramic views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, plus coveted beach access. In 1889, he sold it to the city for $1. By May, 1892, the park was starting to come together. It had a mile of walks, a lily pond, two foot-bridges, and 53 "rustic seats of dissimilar design". It also had a "rustic parachute trellis seat," which later observers would fondly compare to a giant mushroom. It also had lush plantings. Workers installed nearly 6,000 trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. The flower displays, for example, included some 28 different flowers, including some tropicals not often seen today.

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check Park Superintendent E. O. Schwagerl

Although the parks department was making progress, change was in the air. In May, 1892, the city hired a new park superintendent--Edward Otto Schwagerl-- late of Tacoma where he designed Wright Park and had a hand in designing Point Defiance Park. In the next two years, he would put the finishing touches on Kinnear Park, completing plantings, walks, and adding pavilions and other amenities. He redesigned and supervised construction of Denny Park. Several early Seattle maps show this park as a formal space, with symmetrical walks and plantings. The Park Commissioner's Report for 1884-1904 describes Denny Park in this way: "The west side of the park has been completely developed along formal lines with prettily conceived walks, mounds and sloping lawns, ornamented with clusters of trees, shrubbery and flowering plant which thrive…"

As much as Seattle enjoyed these new parks, Schwagerl had bigger things in mind. Like many influential park planners of his generation, Schwagerl's vision of city parks was influenced by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, who is often described as the father of American landscape architecture. Olmsted, whose seminal design for New York's Central Park changed park design forever, believed parks should offer weary urbanites a place to renew themselves, uplifted by the healing effects of nature. By the time Schwagerl came to Seattle, Olmsted's ideas were already popular back east, in the big cities where many workers put in a six-day work week, and lived in cramped tenements. Poverty, bad nutrition, poor medical care, and a host of other woes were the daily lot of many workers. There, parks emerged as a refuge from urban misery. Schwagerl brought these ideas with him to Seattle, including them in his 1892 Report of the Board of Park Commissioners:

Vintage postcard showing Wright Park

"Five Paths, Wright Park, Tacoma, Wash."

"Thousands who throng the great parks of the cities and towns the world over on every Sunday and holiday are no longer compelled to seek demoralizing sports and pastimes. Parks are full of Nature's innocent and holy inspirations, and in them are whispers of peace and joy. Parks are the breathing lungs and beating hearts of great cities; the multitudes, their circulating blood rushing hither and thither, performing the functions of life and usefulness, and when the lungs are freshened and purified, they reinvigorate the whole system through the pulsating beats of these life-centers, where rich and poor mingle to inhale the unalloyed, God-given perfumes to body, mind and soul."

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check Seattle's First Comprehensive Park Plan

To accomplish his goals, Schwagerl began preparing a comprehensive plan for Seattle parks. He visited the beaches of Elliott Bay, Salmon Bay, Union Bay, Smith's Cove, and Puget Sound. He tramped the shores of Lake Washington and explored the city's creeks and rivers. He visited the uplands, too, looking for views. He spent days at the city's private parks, noting their amenities and observing how Seattleites made use of them. He looked, too, for remnants of the original forest, noting where old growth survived the logger's ax. Once he had studied the city, he put together a plan that called for four major parks connected by scenic boulevards.

Vintage postcard showing Kinnear Park

"Scene in Kinnear Park, Seattle"

Each of the parks was to be built around a natural feature with exceptional scenic value. On the southwest, Schwagerl's plan set aside "a peninsula jutting out into Lake Washington." Seattleites would later know this property as Seward Park. Up the lakeshore to the north, Schwagerl suggested setting aside Sand Point as open space. Across town, on the northwest corner of the young city, Schwagerl's plan set aside West Point. The property was the site of Fort Lawton for years, and is now Discovery Park. The fourth park Schwagerl proposed was located in southwest Seattle, at Alki Point.

And there was more. Seattle's parks should include what Schwagerl called "attenuated parks"—strips of land "…skirting possibly a shore with its driveway, fringed by a forest, a wood or a cliff." To connect the parks, Schwagerl proposed a system of boulevards, which were to be entirely different than typical city arterials. He saw them as "…avenues so built and planted with trees and grass plats as to convey to those walking on them the impression of being in a park." Just where these boulevards might be located was not clear. Still, he did make some suggestions, threading boulevards near lakes and creeks and to scenic viewpoints throughout the city.

Not content with just parks and boulevards, Schwagerl also thought Seattle should have a Japanese garden and a botanical garden. What he proposed was a garden so grand it would surpass Shaw's Garden, a 70-acre showplace resplendent with formal gardens, greenhouses, gazebos, statuary, and other ornaments. It is now the prestigious Missouri Botanical Garden. To advance his cause, he brought to Seattle M. de Vilmorin, minister of horticulture and agriculture of France, and an internationally recognized expert. Vilmorin declared the Sand Point "an ideal spot to establish a horticultural park." Clearly, Seattle had potential. What remained to be seen is if the city also had the will to build a world-class garden.

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check Seattle's Park Nursery

At the same time Schwagerl was planning Seattle's parks, he was also thinking about the plant material that would transform these open spaces into lovely gardens. Since he would need a place to grow the plants until they were used in the parks, he built a nursery on land that is now part of Volunteer Park. By 1893, he had stocked the nursery with more than 117,000 plants, according to the Report of Park Commissioners for 1893.

The plant material Schwagerl assembled was exceptional. He sought out the best that horticulture had to offer, ordering plants from the great hybridizers of the day. He added plants valued for their foliage, form, flowers, and fragrance. He sent for marginally hardy plants, testing them to see if any would survive Seattle's winters. He even ordered exotics, including cacti and tropicals, for summer flower displays. At a time when native plants had yet to be accepted, Schwagerl recognized their merit and acquired many of different species. In just a short time, Schwagerl assembled nearly 200 different kinds of trees, 375 asssorted shrubs, four dozen different perennials, three dozen tender tropicals, plus assorted ornamental grasses and vines. For some of these plants, Seattle parks may have been the point of introduction to the region.

Schwagerl's plan for parks, boulevards, and gardens was well received. Seattle's mayor, J. T. Roland, praised it, but there was a hitch. Nobody thought that the voters would pay for it. Still, civic leaders promised to see what they could do. They had their work cut out for them. In a city rushing to grow up, leisurely strolls along park-like avenues were not a priority. Nor was saving old-growth, preserving scenery, or maintaining the amenities later Seattleites would call "quality of life." None of them were priorities. At least, not yet.

The timing for Schwagerl's plan could not have been worse. It had been just three years since Seattle's devastating fire. In just a few months, the depression of 1893 would throw a monkey-wrench in the works. Within months, Schwagerl's plan was dead, but not forgotten. He left Seattle parks in 1895.

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check Olmsted in the Northwest

What nobody knew in those grim economic times was just how quickly it would all turn around. Just seven years later, Seattle was booming. Not only had residents developed a taste for the finer things, they had the means to pay for them, thanks to prosperity fueled by Klondike gold. In Seattle, one of the finer things was public parks. There were several reasons Seattle was interested in parks. The City Beautiful movement, an initiative for well-designed, elegant and liveable cities, was capturing the national imagination. Big, influential East Coast cities like New York had already made and proved the case for urban parks. Seattle's neighbors, Tacoma and Victoria, were already building fine parks. Not to be outdone, Seattle would have to do something big, and so it did. Seattle hired the Olmsted Bros., who were well on their way to becoming the nation's most prestigious landscape designers. It was not the first time the Olmsteds came to the Northwest. Several years earlier, Tacoma had rejected Frederick Law Olmsted's design for Tacoma. This time, it would be different.

The Olmsted Bros. were Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John C. Olmsted, sons of FLO. They had come up in his practice, and took it over when their father retired. Their style was like their father's –naturalistic landscapes with curvilinear walks and paths, attractive water features, awe-inspiring views, and elegant plantings. Many also had a formal garden, as well as areas for active play. The Olmsted Bros. were in demand nationally, designing parks, estates, residential developments, campuses, exposition grounds, and other landscapes around the country. In the Pacific Northwest, they would eventually design more than 70 public projects. They designed neighborhoods for Portland, Seattle, and Spokane. They also designed parks or park systems for Bellingham, Portland, Spokane, Seattle, and Walla Walla, though not all were built. They also designed dozens of estates.

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check 1903 Olmsted Plan for Seattle Parks

The Olmsteds completed their comprehensive plan for Seattle in 1903. Its introduction included the following assessment, "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" and also praised the beauty of the original forest. What they wanted their proposal to do was "…secure and preserve for the use of the people as much as possible of these advantages…well distributed and conveniently located." Even as they prepared their plan, the Olmsteds knew that the city would be able to afford much less than the ideal, but they hoped the city would continue to add parks over time.

Vintage postcard showing Volunteer Park

"Volunteer Park, Seattle, Wash."

The Olmsted plan was a concept piece that addressed the city on a macro level. While it identified potential park sites and made general recommendations about those parks, it left many details for later. Their plan proposed more than 30 potential parks and playgrounds scattered throughout the city to serve each neighborhood. They included Mt. Baker, Colman, Frink, Leschi, and Madrona Parks on Lake Washington. Volunteer and Interlaken Parks on Capitol Hill. Ravenna, Cowen, Woodland, Green Lake, and Discovery Parks in north Seattle, and Kinnear on Queen Anne. In the south end, Schmitz, Hiawatha, and Jefferson were included in the original Olmsted plan. There were also others.

Although each was unmistakably Olmstedian, the parks were not cooky-cutter treatments. In fact, the brothers thought each park should have a distinct character, one that matched its surroundings. For Volunteer Park, for example, they suggested a formal park with sweeping lawns, scattered groves and borders, ponds, and arbors. It was well-suited for a residential neighborhood. In contrast, their recommendation for Ravenna preserved that park's old-growth. They also thought each park should have a unifying design. They criticized Kinnear, for example, because its plantings were too miscellaneous and that they were just like those in Denny Park, which they probably were. The plan also addressed problems caused by noise, blocked views and visual clutter, unstable slopes, and other problems. Although many of these parks were designed for passive use, they also suggested fields for active sports.

To connect these parks, the Olmsteds proposed a 23-mile system of parkways. Some were to be tree-lined boulevards. Others were generous swaths on easy grades threaded along the shore, rising to overlooks, rambling through forests, and meandering along streams. These parkways were, ideally, 200 or 300 feet wide, divided into roads, bike paths, and pedestrian walkways with benches. The Olmsteds predicted thousands of users, a figure not unreasonable considering attendance at other city parks.

Vintage postcard showing Mt. Rainier from Lake Washington Boulevard

"The Lake Washington Boulevard
and Mt. Rainier, Seattle, U.S.A."

The parkways offered access to the most scenic parts of Seattle. From Seward Park, a drive hugged the shoreline north to Madrona Park. It then jogged west away from the lake, into the heart of the Washington Park Arboretum, another Olmsted design. From there, one parkway was to head west through the wild and wooded Interlaken Park to the most formal of Seattle's Olmsted parks - Volunteer Park. Back on the main line, the proposed parkway ran north to Ravenna Park, then turned west on the tree-lined Ravenna Boulevard up the creek to Green Lake. It went on to Woodland Park. Proposed boulevards would have continued west and southwest from Woodland Park to Puget Sound. The original Olmsted plan would have linked other parts of the city. The grand parkway that was supposed to run across town and around much of West Seattle was not built.

The plan was well-received. Over the next three decades, much of it was built. Today, Seattle's Olmsted parks have aged gracefully. Although the plantings are not as lush as they once were, due to budget cuts and security problems, the trees have grown majestic. The walkways and drives still wind along gentle grades through landscapes that inspire. The views and spaces that the Olmsteds saw nearly 100 years ago are, as they hoped, secured and preserved "for the use of the people." It is this, their extraordinary ability to look into the future and see what a city might be, that was one of their greatest gifts. Today, Seattle's Olmsted parks are recognized nationally. Taken together, they are the third-largest Olmsted design in the country, and experts rank them among the best preserved. They have changed forever the way both locals and visitors experience this city.

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