Volunteer Park Reservoir, 2000. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives, 148588.
02695-22
02695-43_SMA Volunteer Park

Volunteer Park (Seattle)

Luxurious landscapes by John Charles Olmsted

by Jennifer Ott

Volunteer Park was designed by John Charles Olmsted, stepson and nephew of Frederick Law Olmsted who is famous for his work in Central Park, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the Biltmore Estate, among many other projects. John Charles, who carried on the Olmsted legacy after his stepfather retired, developed Seattle’s park and boulevard system in 1903. It includes neighborhood parks, playfields boulevards and parkways, and large parks, such as Woodland Park, Seward Park, and, of course, Volunteer Park.

Volunteer Park is the crown jewel of Seattle’s Olmsted park and boulevard system. Today, it is the most developed and intact Olmsted-designed park in Seattle, with sweeping drives, grand trees, a stunning vista, and acres of green lawns that provide a relief from the noise and crowds of the city streets. It is an excellent example of the naturalistic and pastoral style, with more formal design elements near the concourse that runs along the ridge of the hill. Olmsted completed a plan for the park in 1904 and made some revisions for a 1909 plan. Construction of the park according to that plan was completed between 1909 and 1912. Since then, it has been one of Seattle’s favorite outdoor destinations and it has evolved with the addition of new buildings, changes to structures and facilities, and the addition of sculptures and memorials.

The history of the city is woven into the landscape of the park in the same way that the park is woven into the life of the city.

Learn More about Volunteer Park at HistoryLink.org

Walking Distance: .85 mile
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Google Transit Directions: Bus Routes

The wheelchair accessible path can be found on the south side of the museum’s front lawn.

The wading pool is generally open on sunny days when the temperature is forecast to be 70 degrees or above. Check Seattle Parks and Recreation’s  website for more details.

The path from the Carriage Drive to the Amphitheater is steep. It may be easier to approach the stage from the uphill side, on the path to the Lily Pond..

The water tower is not ADA accessible. If you would like a printed version of the information panels about Seattle’s Olmsted legacy that are on the observatory level, please contact the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks.

Tour Stops

1

Black Sun

Volunteer Park Concourse

The land for Volunteer Park was purchased by the City of Seattle in 1876. It was known as City Park until 1901, when city officials changed the name to Volunteer Park to honor volunteer soldiers who fought in the Spanish...

2

Seattle Asian Art Museum

Volunteer Park Concourse

The Seattle Asian Art Museum was the original home of the Seattle Art Museum. The building, completed in 1932, was designed by Carl Gould, a prominent Seattle architect who also designed 18 buildings on the University of Washington campus and...

3

Playground

Volunteer Park

Neighborhood parks developed in Seattle in the early 20th century often featured playgrounds. Civic leaders and landscape architects had come to realize the importance of play spaces for children, and Olmsted usually incorporated two distinct areas for play. Little Folks...

4

Shelter House

Volunteer Park

The shelter house is one of just a handful of Olmsted-designed structures still standing in Seattle parks. The 1910 building has a restroom on each end, with a loggia connecting the two. It is designed in the Arts and Crafts...

5

Conservatory

Volunteer Park

Constructed in 1912 from a pre-fabricated kit from the Hitchings Company of New Jersey. It consists of five rooms. The domed section at the center is the Palm House. Not long after the conservatory was erected, Anna Clise donated her...

6

Keeper’s Lodge

Volunteer Park

The area behind and to the west of the conservatory was planned as the “working” part of the park. The Keeper’s Lodge, built in 1910, is a charming example of Craftsman architecture and is still used by Seattle Parks and...

7

Tennis Courts

Volunteer Park

John Charles Olmsted characterized Volunteer Park as a landscape park. This meant that it was primarily designed for people to enjoy the landscape — the lawns, the planting beds, the groves of trees. The programmed spaces — those parts of...

The performing arts have been part of Volunteer Park’s history since the first concert grove was constructed in 1910. The first stage was built where the Seattle Asian Art Museum is located today as part of a pergola structure. Not...

9

Great Lawn

Volunteer Park

When Olmsted designed Volunteer Park, he placed organized activities — things like playgrounds, a concert grove, and the conservatory — at the north end of the park and beside the main drive, or concourse, along the top of the ridge....

10

Lily Ponds

Volunteer Park

Two lily ponds flank the terrace along the west side of the Concourse. John Charles Olmsted suggested that fountains could be constructed at these locations to add an element of running water to the park. Instead, they were developed as...

11

Reservoir

Volunteer Park

The reservoir was already built when Olmsted was commissioned to design Volunteer Park. He immediately saw it as an asset. He laid out the park around two axes. One followed the ridgeline and aligned with 14th Avenue East. The other...

Judge Thomas Burke was an important civic leader in Seattle. He was a lawyer and judge, played an important role in the development of the Seattle, Lake Shore, & Eastern Railroad, helped bring the Great Northern Railroad’s terminus to Seattle...

13

Water Tower

14th Avenue East and East Prospect Street

The water tower is a part of the city water system. Because Seattle’s water system is gravity-fed, the reservoirs are located at the highest elevation possible. Water flows downhill from the Cedar River Watershed in the Cascade foothills and the...

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