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Volunteer Park: Shaping Seattle’s character

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Wanderings -- column illustration

“In the midst of galloping growth at the turn of the 20th century, Seattle's city leaders seized on the confluence of a roaring economy with the City Beautiful movement to hire the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm to design a park and parkway system,” writes Jennifer Ott in a 2019 book release titled “Olmsted in Seattle: Creating a Park System for a Modern City.” 

This system of parks and parkways is paralleled in very few cities in this country — New York and the District of Columbia being the two most notable. 

It’s easy to gloss over in day-to-day life, but I must emphasize the remarkable sacredness of the parks we are able to enjoy here in Seattle. 

“The park system shaped Seattle's character and continues to play a key role in the city's livability today,” Ott goes on to say in the book.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that there is perhaps no park in Seattle which more fully embodies these values of civic character and livability than Volunteer Park at the top of Capitol Hill, which was praised by the Olmsted brothers themselves as “the crown jewel” of the systemand which is home to an exhibit, lofted high in the water tower, honoring their legacy.

The landscaping, inclusive of a multitude of indigenous trees and flora, is immaculate and ever-changing with the seasons. The lawns are expansive and well-kept. The pathways allow for hours of wandering, with benches interspersed — some are very well hidden within tree groves, just asking for you to sit and pause a while. 

During this socially distanced time, the park is a welcome reprieve from isolation, a hub of safe extroversion. 

On a sunny afternoon, the park offers views of both the Cascades and the Olympics; Lake Washington and Puget Sound; the forests of Interlaken and Washington Parks; and the downtown cityscape, all from the same perch atop the eclectic and dynamic Capitol Hill.

Participate, as so many parkgoers here do, in viewing the Space Needle through the “Black Sun” by Isamu Noguchi, which was installed by Seattle Parks and Recreation in partnership with Seattle Art Museum (SAM) in 1969. 

Across from this installation is SAM’s recently “reimagined” Asian Art Museum. Although it remains closed until further notice, it is a marvel to enjoy even from the outside. The 1933 Art Deco building was SAM’s original home, and was designated a city landmark worthy of appreciation in and of itself in 1989. The building is gracefully flanked by two southern lily ponds, which are now characterized by paddlings of ducks and adorable ramps which help the ducklings in and out of the water.

Looming above the southerly pond is the water tower, with its observatory level and Olmsted exhibit.

Occupying the glass building beyond the northerly pond is my singular favorite attraction in the whole city: the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Completed in 1912, it has been cared for ever since by the staff of Seattle's Horticulture Program. 

The current inability to step inside the Conservatory due to COVID-19 restrictions is a source of sadness, but the knowledge that a vast and diverse repertoire of plants is still being cared for brings redemptive joy into the moment. 

Other park attractions include several tennis courts, rhododendron gardens, an amphitheatre, and acres of dogs running across the fields chasing squirrels. These are small pieces of happiness that only require being present in the moment, and trekking up to the top of Capitol Hill, to be fully enjoyed by all.

Volunteer Park is a beautiful place to tap into the evolving character of Seattle, and it remains a reminder of the City Beautiful Movement, which shaped and continues to shape the formation of this evergreen city of parks.

In light of this season of gratitude, as difficult as “gratitude” may be given the tumultuous state of national affairs, I emphatically acknowledge that all of this is located on the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people. 

I encourage you to go and honor the cultural, civic, and natural heritage of our shared city, and enjoy all the beauty to be found along the way.

Reach writer Austin Van Der Veen at Twitter: @avanderbean

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We couldn't agree more! Check out this self-guided tour of the park at

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