Olmsted and the Origin of Green Lake Park

August 14, 2014 5:55am

Courtesy Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, National Park Service, 02714-21. Used with permission.

The name “Olmsted” may sound familiar. The Olmsted dynasty is synonymous with park design such as New York’s Central Park and later Seattle’s park system, including designing Green Lake Park. Each day, rain or shine, Green Lake’s picturesque recreational spaces are enjoyed by all. But how often do we stop to consider how these visionary Victorian architects from a bygone era helped to create one of Seattle’s most popular parks?

The backstory is that, in 1903, while experiencing a population and economic boom, the city of Seattle hired the Olmsted Brothers to oversee park planning. The firm was well known for its progressive landscape architecture, and John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), was the architect placed in charge of the project. As part of the progressive City Beautiful movement and one of the nation’s earliest environmentalists, he was truly a man ahead of his time.

As John Olmsted’s well-documented design indicates, work on Green Lake began in 1908. Merging aesthetics with function, it was Olmsted’s vision to provide a sanctuary where residents, even 100 years into the future, could enjoy nature and partake in a restorative moment of peace away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Apparently the Victorians were also in need of some downtime!

Here are just a few examples of the Olmsted Green Lake master plan, in the architect’s own words! Consider this a quick and easy Green Lake guide to Olmsted.

  • The most radical change to Green Lake was to lower it by seven feet to create a “lake within a park.” While this adjustment freed up space along the lakeshore, it also caused subsequent environmental issues such as clouds of algae and “swimmer’s itch.”
  • The plan also included a parkway that encircled the entire park and linked to a streetcar. To preserve Green Lake’s role as a protective sanctuary, Olmsted included trees and shrubbery along the parkway’s outer edge, many of which survive.
  • Also part of Olmsted’s plan is the graceful parkland that meanders along the lakeshore. By covering this area with grass, Olmsted predicted that it would “be one of the most attractive places for crowds to ramble and sit under the trees.” Today, it is this very spot where we gather daily to both rest and play.
  • Olmsted was equally enchanted by Woodland Park and recommended the preservation of its “underbrush, natural ground-covering and big picturesque stump and mossy large logs.”
  • Olmsted even provided for the needs of children by including a playground in his plan. As Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks historian Nancy Becker notes in an article posted on SeattleOlmsted.org, this was partly due to an earlier movement that stressed the importance of outdoor recreation for children.
  • Likewise Olmsted also recommended “sufficient space be provided for field sports, and also for a formal garden.” Baseball anyone?

These are just a few highlights of a design that more than a century later have stood the test of time! So the next time you find yourself relaxing in Green Lake park, our own modern oasis, take a moment to marvel at its beauty and give a nod of appreciation to a gentleman who had his finger on the pulse of the future. Thanks, John Olmsted!

To learn more, take a look at these sources:

  • Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks website: http://www.seattle.gov/friendsofolmstedparks/
  • Hockaday, Joan. Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest. (Washington State University Press: Pullman, 2009.
  • Park playgrounds and boulevards of Seattle, Washington, Issued by Seattle (Wash.). Park Commissioners, 1909.