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Between Two Pines

The first park

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Editor’s note: “Between Two Pines” is a weekly column chronicling the history and ecological restoration of various green spaces around the UW and Seattle area.

Passing through the junction between Dexter Avenue North and Denny Way, there is a small, unassuming plot of land that likely goes unnoticed at first glance. The land is dotted with oak trees, benches, and even a washed-out, plastic play structure, making it look like a park from anywhere in Seattle. But, this park is a piece of the city’s history that deserves a closer look. After all, Denny Park is the first park to have been established in the city and is part of the legacy of parks within the greater Seattle area. 

The Denny family was a long-standing tour de force of Seattle, whose members helped found both the UW and Seattle itself. The family owned an unimaginable swathe of modern Seattle land, including what is now the U-District and South Lake Union. All of the holdings were farmland and logging grounds when Seattle was founded, but as the city expanded, the diversity of land use increased. Denny Park began as a cemetery in 1864, with members of the Denny family buried in plots overlooking Lake Union.

By 1883, the land was donated to the city of Seattle to be designated as a public space. That same year, Denny Park was officially opened as the first city park,  ushering in Seattle’s enduring love for parks.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Seattle City Council had hired the Olmsted Brothers to spearhead the design and building of parks throughout Seattle. The Olmsted Brothers are legends in their own right, nationally-renowned for their development of parks — so much so that the term “Olmsted Parks” resonates with parks departments and parkgoers to this day.

Denny Park

Denny Park on August 17, 1928 - Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Identifier # 2999.

Early on, the park was known for long-winding roads, oaks, rhododendrons, and azaleas and soon became a popular spot within the city. In 1903, urbanization led to the development of sandlots, a playground, tool shed, and other necessities of modern park maintenance, but the goal of creating a place for respite was never lost in this shuffle.

As cars became mainstream, roads were paved on all four sides of the park, creating the existing square shape. Further development occurred when city officials designated the area an administrative and historical site in 1948, leading to the flattening of the land. This development has continued into the modern era, though Denny Park remains a park where Seattlelites from all walks of life can flock to for an enjoyable day out. 

Unsurprisingly, the modern iteration of Denny Park is not what the Denny family imagined the park would become. Even the original design the Olmsted Brothers created in 1903 was a skewed vision of the bucolic escape that the Denny family had hoped would remain central to Seattle’s parks.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Seattle was a growing gold rush town, which brought wealth and people. By the mid-20th century, Seattle was a burgeoning metropolis, hosting the World’s Fair in 1962 that put Seattle at the forefront of emerging industries like aerospace engineering and technology. 

Though Seattle now has around 12% of its land designated as park land, the variable kinds of parks we can visit are numerous. From urban escapes to restored temperate rainforests, the definition of a “park” is constantly in flux.

Modern Denny Park

Denny Park on March 28, 2016 - Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Identifier # 180089.

Personally, I see parks as a catch-all term that ought to encompass what best serves the people, nature, and community at large. There is no set definition of what a park was, is, or will become. They are simply spaces that we can enjoy.

The next time you find yourself on Denny Way, I hope that you can take a jaunt through Denny Park. Enjoy the winding roads that have stretched in front of park goers for generations and savor the small slice of history that you occupy now — if just for a moment. 

Reach columnist Andy Chia at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @GreatBaconBaron

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