Natural Desires: The Olmsted Brothers & the Greening of Seattle

In 1902, with a desire to create a world-class system of parks, Seattle’s leaders sought the best landscape architect in the nation to develop a plan for the young and growing city. They planned to hire Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, however due to his declining health they appointed his son and stepson, known as the Olmsted Brothers. Over the next three decades, the Olmsted Brothers firm had a profound impact on Seattle, influencing the design of 37 parks, playgrounds, and boulevards.

The Olmsted Brothers firm influenced the location and design of many of Seattle’s parks and boulevards, as shown by the elaborate network of existing and proposed parks and boulevards. (Olmsted Brothers (1928), Seattle Park System, Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No. 2332)

Prior to Seattle’s settlement the livelihoods of the first inhabitants, the Duwamish people, were sustained by the abundance offered by the areas forested hills and waterways. Settlers began arriving at the start of the 1850s, seeking to capitalize on and tame the wilderness. Surrounded by nature and focused on the economic benefits of logging, the settlers had limited desire, nor urgency, for preserving the region’s natural beauty.

This began to change in the late 1890s when Seattle became a base for people venturing north to the Klondike gold rush. As the city’s wealth and population grew, so did the need for places for people to connect with nature and seek refuge from urban life. Seattle’s leaders realised the importance of beautifying the frontier town to rival the east coast cities. Parklands were seen as essential for supporting the health and vitality of residents and ensuring Seattle would become a significant city of the west coast. In 1902 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article “Let Us Make a Beautiful City of Seattle”, urging the acquisition of land for a network of parks. Endorsed by leading local citizens, the article was impetus for the city’s leaders to focus on increasing the amount of green spaces within the city.

The same year Seattle’s Board of Park Commissioners sought the most renowned landscape architect in the United States, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), to develop a system of parks, believing his appointment would add distinction to the growing city. Olmsted was famous for designing many iconic landscapes, most notably Central Park with Calvert Vaux, his first landscape design project. He also designed the system of public parks for Buffalo, Boston and other North American cities, and is credited with establishing the profession of landscape architecture in America.

Drawing on human desires to connect with the natural world, Olmsted aspired to expose city-dwellers to wilderness, creating wild and rugged landscapes within urban contexts.

Due to his deteriorating health, Olmsted’s sons Fredrick Law Olmstead Jr. (1870-1957) and John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) were appointed to develop the plan for the cities parks in 1903. They had recently taken over his firm, renaming it Olmstead Brothers, and had learnt their trade and design philosophy from their renowned father. At the time of their appointment, Fredrick Law Jr. was teaching landscape architecture at Harvard University, and John Charles was inaugural president of the newly formed American Society of Landscape Architects. Due to Fredrick Law Jr.’s teaching commitments, John Charles became principal designer of the Seattle park projects.

Washington Park Arboretum features a systematic arrangement of plant specimens in evolutionary order
Hints of Seattle’s original forest remain at Schmitz Park.
A preliminary plan for a boulevard around Green Lake (Olmsted Brothers (1910), Green Lake Boulevard Preliminary Plan, Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No. 2312).
Green Lake today.

Arriving in Seattle on April 30th, 1903, John Charles was shown the city’s woodlands, hills, open landscapes, shorelines, bays, lakes and epic horizons by the Commissioners via horse, trolley, boat and foot. He conducted a month of fieldwork – hiking and surveying the hills and waterways. John Charles left Seattle on June 6 and just weeks later, produced his report for the City. The report served as a significant blueprint for decades to come, providing the foundation for the enhancement and expansion of public open space. The Board’s excitement for the vision was reflected in their 1909 report: “Seattle, though a young city, today stands foremost of the cities of the Pacific Coast in the matter of parks, playgrounds and boulevards, and with the development of its system as outlined by Olmsted Bros.: it will take rank with the leading cities of the United States.”

Central to the Olmsted report was an elaborate system of parklands extending from north to south and linked by miles of tree-lined boulevards, forming an emerald necklace which capitalised on shorelines and natural scenery.

Celebrating Seattle’s natural qualities, the report noted “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. It also possesses within its boundaries, or close to them, some valuable remains of the original evergreen forests which covered the whole country, and which, aside from the grand size of some of the trees composing them, have a very dense and beautiful undergrowth.”

The Olmsteds felt “the primary aim should be to secure and preserve for the use of the people as much as possible of these advantages of water and mountain views and of woodlands, well distributed and conveniently located.” The notion of locating parks to capitalise on scenic beauty was visionary, with the Olmsted Brothers reflecting in 1903 that Central Park and Prospect Park, both designed by their father, “were located without taking advantage of the magnificent natural landscapes of the rivers and bays”.

In the following decades, the City requested the Olmsted Brothers prepare detailed plans for many existing or newly acquired parks. John Charles would revisit Seattle several times, leaving an indelible mark of his philosophy on these greenscapes. He believed Seattle’s parks should be designed to relate to their unique surroundings and “every advantage should be taken of differing conditions to give each one a distinct individuality of its own.” His landscape artistry complemented the contours and character of each parkland, evoking a diversity of experiences within the network of the cities parklands – these spaces and experiences continue to serve residents desires immerse themselves in nature today.

Woodland Park: Olmsted Brothers (1911), Woodland Park - Planting Plan for Western Portion, Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No. 2339
The Olmsted Brothers were invited to design a portion of the University of Washington for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. An axial design, radiating from a central pond was a central element of the layout, creating the striking vista to Mount Rainier.

John Charles’ work reflected his father’s belief that providing public access to natural beauty was a duty of democratic society. This sentiment was supported by his work in Seattle, where open spaces preserve epic vistas of mountains and waterways for the public benefit, instead of the City carving the land into private residential allotments. Olmsted advised the Board to establish a Park Commission, independent of Council, as was common in the larger US cities. He believed this would ensure officials act in the best interests of the entire community rather than react to pressure of individuals.

Furthering Olmsted Senior’s philosophy that beautiful scenery influenced moral behaviour and participation in community life, John Charles also promoted the new concept of playgrounds to Seattle, of which he was unsurprisingly a pioneer.

He believed playgrounds were essential for a civilized society, offering a place where children could learn fair and decent behaviour. In his report to the Commissioners in 1908, he recommended small parks and playgrounds for young children and women with babies, located within a half mile of every home.

With an original aspiration to be as beautiful as other great American cities, the City’s appointment of the Olmsted Brothers to develop their grand scheme imparted a lasting philosophy of preserving and celebrating natural scenery for public enjoyment. For over 100 years, the Olmsted Brothers reports, plans and living landscapes have shaped the quality of life in Seattle, creating a legacy for the entire city which embodies their father’s sentiment that “the enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system”.

Woodland Park Plan: Olmsted Brothers, (1910), Woodland Park Preliminary Plan, Courtesy The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.
The 1903 Olmsted report had incredible foresight, guiding Seattle’s park planning for decades. As one example, their report identified land on the northern banks of Lake Union which was used as a gas coal plant from 1906 to 1956. The City of Seattle purchased the site in the 1960s, redeveloping it as a unique public park.