Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saving Seward Park for the Olmsteds and for Us

There are many side effects caring for a new puppy such as sleep deprivation, that intimacy with poop and pee you'd thought you'd given up years ago and the small cuts on the hands and forearms from trying to get the dog to drop the ball it loves to chase.
But there are also beneficial side effects.  For me, they are the rediscovery of the Seattle Park system where we take the dog for his pleasure and ours. 
East Union and 34th
Google Earth
On this Saturday, we decide to head out for Seward Park where I’ve not been for many years.  First, however, we thought to grab some breakfast at 34th and East Union, just a block away from the first real house I ever lived in, a classic Madrona two story on 35th.  One day, in 1968, as we registered to vote at the tiny firehouse, just down the street from our new rental, an alarm came in and the firefighters burst through the tiny lobby and sped off in the lone pumper assigned to the building.  All alone in the little firehouse, we completed our voter forms, left them on a chair and walked home.  We thought the whole thing was pretty cool.  Today, the firehouse is a library.
When I lived there, the neighborhood was nothing like it is today.  It was racially polarized and many of the houses were in disrepair.  In the house we rented, someone had kicked a hole in the living room wall.  Since we didn’t even know what drywall was, we covered the hole with a book case, sort of oddly placed, but it did the trick.  One Sunday afternoon, my wife was leaving the grocery store and a kid poked a gun in her face and took her purse.  Two state legislators living in Madrona had their houses firebombed.  We heard the fire trucks one night and they stopped just a few houses away.  A house on Pine Street, a half a block away from ours, was on fire.  It had been vacant just like the one we were renting a few weeks before.  We thought it was intentional and it probably was.  We walked home shaken, angry and scared. 
There was a laundromat and a small store, Joe’s Market, run by a tough little Chinese guy who had an uncanny ability to spot a bag of skittles sliding into a school bag.  An IGA market, once thriving, was badly slipping and soon became a clinic.  I don’t remember much else on the street, except the going downward theme.  The year 1968 was a tough year for Seattle’s Central District.

The first thing you notice today as you cross the intersection of 34th and East Union is that there is no place to park.  The Hi Spot, our breakfast destination, is jammed.  There were several other restaurants on the street – Bistro Turkuaz, not open til dinner, Naam Thai on the corner, Pritty Boys Family Pizzeria with a big crowd of tiny soccer players, Soleil -- Ethiopian/Eritrean -- Madrona Eatery and Alehouse and several others.
The parking place we find is next to Al Larkins Park, what happened to the land that remained after the 1968 fire when we lived there.  The Seattle Parks Department finally bought the property and made it into a small park, lovely and simple, and named for a Madrona resident, Alvin Larkins.
Larkins was one of the many black people who came to Seattle to work at World War II.  His contribution to the military was as a musician.  A Navy band, The Jive Bombers, were stationed at Sand Point Naval Air Station and they played everywhere.  After the war, Larkins decided to stay here rather than return to Baltimore.
He was a guy who was picked up by visiting bands to Seattle and played for Sarah Vaughn, Maurice Chevalier and Duke Ellington.  The park was named for him at his death in 1979, thirty years after one of Seattle’s great musical events at the Trianon Ballroom when Ray Charles brought the house down, one of the first he brought down. 
The Jive Bombers
Alvin Larkins is holding the shorter of the two tubas
Sand Point Naval Air Station
Like so many people who came to Seattle at that time, he became as Seattle as Seattle could be.  He was an original in the Rainy City Jazz Band, a well-known post war Jazz group in Seattle and also played his jazzy tuba for the World’s Fair Marching Band.  When the Christmas ships stood off Madrona Beach and the kids on them sang their Christmas carols, he joined with his tuba and his friends to answer them while a huge bonfire roared.  He and his brother, Ellis, accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald and a fixture in the New York City jazz scene, played in the first Bumbershoot, in 1972.  A University of Washington graduate, he taught in Seattle schools and lived on 37th street, three blocks away from what is now his park.

Larkins is in the movie "It Happened at the World's Fair" starring Elvis Presley and made in 1962.  The movie ends in a big production scene with the Seattle World's Fair Band following Elvis and the girl he has just won parading through the grounds singing "Happy Endings," a highly forgettable part of the Elvis songbook.  Larkins is in the back in the tuba section that swings by the camera as "Happy Endings" hits the crescendo.  You can also find the great Seattle jazz pianist, Overton Berry, in that scene.  Berry told me once that Larkins was concerned that there weren't enough blacks in the band so he put a tuba around Berry's shoulders. 

"Don't even try to play anything, just keep in step," Larkins told Berry.

After breakfast, we walked the dog around the neighborhood and came upon the Glassybaby ‘hot store,’ just off the intersection of 34th and East Union, the place they manufacture the hand blown glass votive candleholders that have become such a business and cultural phenomenon here.  I know about them because my daughter and wife talked about nothing else during a dinner a few years ago and because they started showing up in my house soon after in groups of two and three. 

A Seattle housewife with three children, Lee Rhodes, got a bad break when she had a rare lung cancer and spent seven years in a brutal treatment regime.  Her husband once brought home a small votive candleholder he had made in a glassblowing class and Rhodes put a candle in it and thought that if one was really cool that many others emitting the healing light she experienced would be even better.  She designed and had several votive candleholders made and began giving them away to friends.  She slipped into a commercial operation and began hiring people who worked in Seattle’s large glassblowing scene.  The business model she created emphasized hand made products, unusual colors and distribution of ten percent of profits to certain charities and now here they are in my old Madrona neighborhood making Glassybabys for the world.  
Once Rhodes established the operation, someone gave a Glassybaby to Martha Stewart when Stewart needed healing post-prison.  Rhodes appeared on Stewart’s show, the first one after Stewart got out.  Then, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos showed up and loved the product and its branding and bought 20% of the company.  In 2011, Glassybaby sales were at nearly ten million annually and proceeds to the various charities is nearly a million dollars.  They make use of 70 glassblowers in my old neighborhood and are thinking of setting up a hot shop in San Francisco.
Glassybaby’s healing magic was certainly working the day we were there. After visiting, taking pictures and showing off the dog, we walked to the car, took the dog up into Al Larkins Park and put away the feelings from that terrible night in 1968.
On the way out to Seward Park, I stopped at Leschi Park to photograph a small memorial there to Jacob Umlauff, long the head gardener for the Parks Department and frequently its de facto Superintendent.  It sits below a stately Giant Redwood (Sequoia Gigantia) and reads:
“This tree has been dedicated in fitting tribute to JACOB UMLAUFF, head gardener, Seattle Park Department 1914-1941 who planted it with the skilled and loving hands that gave rare beauty to all Seattle Parks”
Leschi was Seattle’s second park, following Denny Park in South Lake Union.  It was created in the year before statehood, 1888.  Privately-owned, it was connected by a trolley car that followed Yesler Way, the skid road that brought lumber to the sawmill at the foot of Yesler in the pioneer days.  The loggers who fanned out along the skid road had by now logged off a great swath of the city, nearly all of it, and their successors were trying their skills at a gentler trade, real estate development.  The park and its connecting trolley were put in place to bring people to a beautiful place so they would buy lots and build houses on them, further expanding the new town.  The park contained gardens, a casino, a small zoo, a diving board.  Soon it became a ferry boat terminus as well. 
Seattle Municipal Archives
Umlauff’s monument is at Leschi probably because it was his first Seattle job in the parks business.  In fact, he no doubt planted the redwood before getting hired by they city of Seattle.  But I have another thesis.  The Leschi of old was his kind of park, one that was ordered, sentimental and thoroughly controlled by the people who used it.  And he worked hard making other parks his kind of park, particularly Seward Park.  His efforts helped undo what the great Olmsted brothers had in mind for Seward Park in their 1903 parks plan.  Umlauff was frequently successful and still drives today’s parks planners crazy. 
Before the Olmsted brothers came to Seattle and created a master plan for the parks in 1903, there was Edward Otto Schwagerl, the parks superintendent who had been hired away from Tacoma in 1892 and had worked on Wright Park and the great Point Defiance Park.  Schwagerl created a comprehensive plan for Seattle’s parks at a time when the city had but one park, Denny, now in South Lake Union, the site of an old cemetery whose fence was falling down. 
Schwagerl’s idea was to have great parks at the four corners of Seattle – at Alki Point in West Seattle, at West Point on the northwest corner of Elliott Bay, at Sandpoint on the northeast and Bailey Point (Seward) on the southeast.  These great parks would be connected by a series of parkways that would wind through the city, punctuated by many smaller parks in between and along the way.  Even though many people loved Schwagerl’s plan, it was so big no one quite knew where to start. 
A bad economy in the form of the Panic of 1893 took care of worrying about how to start Schwagerl’s ambitious plan and Schwagerl left the park system and Seattle in 1895.
Olmsted Parks Foundation
The Olmsted Brothers pulled together many of Schwagerl’s ideas when they came up with their park plan in 1903.  They also incorporated the work of George Cotterill, the assistant to the great city engineer R.H.  Thomson.  Cotterill, who later served as mayor, had developed a proposal for a series of bike pathways through the city that were used by the Olmsteds as the means of connecting the parks they proposed.  The new plan was adopted in 1903.
There was consensus about what to do with the Bailey Peninsula.  Buy it before the loggers got it and keep it that way for the generations who would like to see the mix of old trees that once covered the entire basin and now were gone.  All gone.

Google Maps
The Bailey Peninsula is a drumlin, the name used for land that is created by the movement of a retreating glacial mass.  The Vashon Glacier period covered Seattle with 4,000 feet of ice 15,000 years ago. When the ice retreated, around 13,000 years ago, it formed humpbacked collections of gravel and other rocky debris that point in the direction of the retreating glacier, which is why so many shoreline formations in Seattle point due north.  Over a thousand years, a thin layer of soil had formed and shards of the post glacial forest cover began to take root.

For some reason the odd-shaped piece of land attracted a lot of interest.  Some speculators wanted to build a toll bridge to Mercer Island and another proposal was to cut a channel at its west end so boats plying Lake Washington would save a few minutes of their busy day.  Its fate, however, was to be one of the anchors of the Seattle park system.  But the Bailey family’s perception of its value was considerably higher than the city’s.  They were asking $2,000 an acre and so it took until 1911 for the city to finally condemn the property and bought it for $322,000, or $1,500/acre.  The purchase came soon after the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in Seattle and of course the first name on the list of names was William Henry Seward, the guy who bought Alaska and, because he did, started modern Seattle.
Seattle Municipal Archives
Even at that time, events conspired to erode the Olmsted dream of Seward Park as a timeless image of the pre-European forest cover.  The city filled in the marshy area in front of the peninsula and the construction of the Hiram Chittenden Locks in 1916 lowered the level of Lake Washington by nine feet which created more land that made access by cars easier.  New shoreline plants appeared and some of the timber died to water stress.  Soon there was a large section of lawn fronting the peninsula. This planting and others that followed nearly wiped out the peninsula’s native grasses.
The Olmsteds did not hold a back-to-nature philosophy.  Their ideas for Seattle parks were based on a full mix of different park themes. They thought that some parks were meant to be highly managed and manicured – Volunteer Park, for example -- but they also thought other parks should be designed based upon what they presented initially.  Their firm, Olmsted Brothers, was involved in the development of more than 30 Seattle parks, the most complete Olmsted Park system in the world.  Only one park, one that would stretch along the top of the hill in Madrona, the top of the hill we had just left at 34th and Union, was not finished.  That was left for Al Larkins and Glassybaby.
Jacob Umlauff’s tenure within the Seattle Parks almost matched the 38 years from 1903 to 1941 the Olmsteds worked on the system.  Umlauff came from Austria where his uncle was a circus impresario but he resisted the call of the circus and moved to Chicago.  Longing for a less noisy and confusing place, he is said to have asked the ticket agent for a destination as far from Chicago as possible.  His ticket read Bellingham, Washington.  But soon he was in Seattle managing the private park system at Leschi, Madison Park and Madrona operated by the Seattle Electric Company.  That's when he likely planted that redwood his plaque is in front of.  In 1914, he hired on with the city park system and served until his retirement in 1941.
Lincoln Park
Seattle Parks
Umlauff was a gardener in the true sense.  Every landscape had to be a garden.  All of the parks where he had a true influence look that way.  Many different trees, many non-natives, all with lush mulch and mowed grass underneath, as if the ground were a vase and the trees a bouquet of mixed flowers.  He nurtured Denny Park that way.  One of the truly big parks he is responsible for is Lincoln Park in West Seattle.  Its big fir trees, once a great forest on the west slope of the city, are lovely for sure, but reduced at the same time by the perfect floor of concrete walks and mowed grass underneath.  Trees are a bit like wild animals.  It’s hard to see them in cages.
In an unusual interview in the March 9, 1930 Seattle Times, Umlauff mused on the nature of plants and his responsibility for their vulnerable position in the scheme of things.
“I wish more folks understood,“ he told a reporter.  “There are humane societies for dogs and kittens.  They can cry when they are hurt.  These flowers too are living things and have no way to protest or escape.  Helpless, they are also voiceless.”
With this Disney version view of his photosynthetic charges, it was difficult for Umlauff to adhere to the Olmsted’s vision of a natural forest at Seward Park.  Soon, there was a new parks plan in the mid-1920s that added more grass, tennis courts, a trout hatchery and rearing ponds.  Plantings around the ponds introduced English Ivy to the park.
Umlauff thought the understory in Seward Park inhibited people from enjoying the trees so he grubbed it out, taking with it a rich habitat for animals of all kinds. 
Umlauff also had a program that he hoped would involve young citizens in horticulture.  Kids would gather hollyberries from Christmas decorations and bring them out to Seward Park where they would plant them under his direction.  Umlauff called it a hollyberry kindergarten.  Today’s parks managers hate holly because it is one of the most aggressive invasive species.
A ten year parks plan in 1931 argued that dead timber and brush should be removed because it constituted a fire hazard.  He did not, nor did much of his generation appreciate the positive aspects of fires in managing forests.  All he knew for sure that that fire would hurt his voiceless friends.
Seward Park, 1936
University of Washington Collections
During the depression, the parks department hosted many hundreds of relief workers.  In March of 1936 there were 400 Works Progress Administration relief workers employed at Seward Park and another 600 in the Washington Park Arboretum.  The supposed purpose at Seward Park was to create room in the forest to relocate the trout ponds further up the hill. Residents and defenders of a more natural looking park were appalled when they saw stacks of firewood piling up along the park’s edges.  It appears from reading the clips that this army of workers had gotten out of control and were cutting all kinds of healthy trees.
Amazing Portrait of FDR
on a trimmed Seward Park tree
University of Washington Collections
Word got back to Mayor John Dore that 800-1,000 cords of wood had been assembled at Seward Park and he ordered that the tree-cutting stop unless it had his own personal approval.
“This system of cutting down trees to make artificial parks is all right for Boston or New York where they have no natural beauty,” the Mayor said.  “But out here, it’s just like getting false teeth when you have good ones.”
While Umlauff retired in 1941, the parks department vision of Seward Park remained far different from the Olmsted idea.  A 4,000 seat amphitheater was proposed and built at a grassy swale of blowdowns and cleared underbrush, but other facilities – parking for 2,500 cars, two and a half miles of new roads and 25 acres of new picnic areas came right out of the native forest.
Beginning in the 1970s, the idea of a natural forest regained it primacy. Ultimately, the amphitheater was closed, the perimeter road closed to automobile traffic and the trout rearing ponds abandoned.  What remains of the natural forest exists on the northern two thirds of the peninsula and it is still the largest pre-settlement forest remaining in Seattle.
After we finished our walk, we discovered that we hadn’t the slightest idea where we had parked the car.  After several false starts in all directions, the puppy weighed in.  He dropped to his stomach and refused to move, understanding, perhaps for the first time, that our relationship with him worked both ways.


  1. Love this piece ... a great story and very well told. I read through it twice.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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