Researching City of Seattle Parks and Playfields at the Seattle Municipal Archives

Seattle Parks are an integral part of the City's social fabric. The first public park was created in 1884 when David Denny donated five acres of land for park purposes. A Board of Park Commissioners was established in 1887. As early as 1903, the City had a detailed plan for development of a comprehensive system of parks, playgrounds, and boulevards. Records related to City parks illustrate many topics in the City's history, including neighborhood development, attitudes towards use of open spaces, land use changes, recreation programs, landscape architecture, public art, and the history of the Parks Department itself.

This guide reviews sources useful for researching Seattle parks at the Seattle Municipal Archives, using Volunteer Park as an example. Issues relating to parks can be very complex; this guide serves only as an introduction. Researchers should contact the Archives staff with questions and to make appointments to use the sources listed here.

Parks history sources include the records created by the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as records of other City agencies. The following discussion reviews the most important source materials.

Don Sherwood Parks History Collection

Volunteer Park
Volunteer Park, 1908
Image 30454, Don Sherwood Parks History
Collection (Record Series 5801-01)

The most heavily used record group for researching parks is the Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, a compilation of records, published documents, and photographs accumulated in the 1970s to ensure the preservation of the source materials on the Department's history. An essay written by Sherwood on the history of the Parks Department is reproduced as part of the Guide to the collection. The Guide to the Don Sherwood Parks History Collection describes the records and is useful for obtaining historical background on parks in Seattle.

Sherwood, a graphic designer, created park history sheets, which are a quick and easy place to begin research on parks. The park history sheet for Volunteer Park has a drawing of the park, key dates in the park's development, legislation, and other historical information. (All the Sherwood park history sheets are available on our website.) Researchers should always double check information acquired from the profile sheets by looking at other sources. The park history sheets are also often accompanied by one- or two-page narratives about whom the park was named after, its history, and additional information about the site, structures, and public art.

The Parks History Subseries within Sherwood contains more detailed information on individual Parks. Files can include information on public art and contain correspondence and newspaper clippings related to a specific park. The Chronological Correspondence subseries has more information on broader City-wide parks issues.

Photographs are an important resource in the Sherwood collection. All of the images in Sherwood were scanned and are part of our digital collections. Additional images in the database come from the Engineering Department and other agencies, and together provide good visual documentation of the parks and playgrounds in Seattle. Images of Volunteer Park currently total 323, and more images are added to the database every year.

Annual Reports of the Parks Department

Park Commissioners report
Board of Parks Commissioners
Annual Report, 1922
Record Series 1802-H6

Parks Department Annual Reports are a good source of information, both textual and visual, on parks. The annual reports date from 1894 to the 1990s. The early reports are helpful for researching individual parks because work done during the past year as well as plans for the next year are listed by park. Acquisitions of property made by the Parks Department are listed in early annual reports.

Predating the annual reports are monthly reports, dating from 1891 to 1894. Authored by the first two superintendents of the Parks Department, James Taylor and E. O. Schwagerl, the reports detail progress in parks, including Kinnear, Denny, City Parks and Pioneer Place. The August 1893 report also covers the Pacific Coast Park Preserve around Mt. Rainier.

The 1909 Annual Report describes Volunteer Park:

"Prior to this year about one-half of Volunteer Park had been improved with lawns, flowers, driveways and by-paths, which with the growth of native fir, pine, hemlock, alder, madrona, give a very attractive blending of the artificial with the natural. Early this year, however, the Board decided that as Volunteer Park was practically the down town park, that it should be completely developed and improved along formal lines and with this in view a large amount of work has been done this year and is now in progress to completely improve this park, as per detailed plans by Olmsted Brothers. These plans provide for...all of the features of a modern metropolitan park."

A complete copy of the Olmsted Brothers Report, adopted by City Council in 1903, is in the 1905 Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners (part of the Parks Department Annual Report series). The Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts were hired by City Council to survey Seattle's parks and submit a plan for future work. The Olmsted brothers' father was Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of many famous parks and campuses across the nation, including Central Park in New York City. The Olmsted report discusses Seattle's park system, including boulevards, and provides a framework for development. Recommendations for Volunteer Park in the Report included a discussion of flowers:

"As it seems to be the intention to make a feature of flowers in this park, it should be constantly borne in mind that this purpose ought to be accomplished in a thoroughly formal manner, or in as informal a manner as possible. At present formal beds are scattered promiscuously in portions of the ground, treated in other respects informally. There should be an association of formal flower beds with some strong architectural features of formal design, or there should be a definite area set aside and designed an improved as a strictly formal flower garden. It should for the most part be separated from the informal portions of the park by shrubbery plantations. Almost all tender and annual plants should be confined to such a formal garden."

Important to note within Sherwood is the subseries of correspondence between the Olmsted Brothers, located in Box 53. The correspondence, dating from 1902 to 1929, concerns issues surrounding the planning and development of parks and boulevards in Seattle, both before and after the report. Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks has gathered information on and copies of Olmsted documents related to Seattle public projects, and donated a set of these materials to the Seattle Municipal Archives. More information is available on the Olmsted legacy at the Olmsted Archives.

Board of Parks Commissioners Minutes

Supplementing the Annual Reports are the Board of Parks Commissioners Minutes, 1890-1991 (Record Series 5800-01). The minutes document decisions made by the Board in its advisory capacity to the Parks Department, Mayor, and City Council. The years 1894 to 1902 are missing. There is a card index to the minutes. An example from the entry for November 9, 1905, relating to Volunteer Park reads:

"By Mr. Blaine seconded by Mr. Clarke That the Park Board recommend that the stand pipe to be erected immediately north of the aquatic pool and west of the concourse as shown in the plan of Volunteer Park of Olmsted Bros. now on file with the Secretary of the Park Board. Motion carried."

Parks Superintendent's Subject Files

The Superintendent's Subject Files (Record Series 5802-01) relate to the administration of the parks system and recreation programs. Records document acquisition, improvement, and management of park property and facilities, and development of special projects and programs.

Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection

Playground Report
Playground Report for
Youngstown Playfield, 1927
Box 41, Folder 17, Ben Evans
Recreation Program History Collection
(Record Series 5801-02)

Recreation programs in Seattle parks are well documented in the Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection. The Ben Evans Collection documents the history of recreation programs within the Parks Department and reflects the history and philosophy behind recreation programs nationally. The guide to the collection includes a timeline of key dates in recreation in Seattle parks. The collection includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, and programs on individual playfields and parks. The sports programs are well documented in one subseries; included are the football and baseball contests, "Old Oswald" (Old Ossie) and "Old Woodenface" (Old Woody), which began in 1921. Of note in the Administrative Subseries are the Playground Reports, dating from 1925 to 1931. These are detailed narrative summer reports by playground directors discussing the recreation activities at specific locations.

"The days of the month of June did pass by...and the boys and girls in their freedom did shout and make merry.... Thusly, on the twenty-first day of the month of Roses, the playfield began its third summer of service. And the children were much surprised...they beheld new things to play on - swings and teeters. And well deserved were they for there was naught else to play on. Something else we were joyed to find, this was the back-stops for the tennis court. We are thankful for all of these things. For well it was remembered in the years before, when the tall grasses round-a-bout swallowed up the balls, and they were no more found."

As with the Sherwood images, photographs from the Ben Evans Collection can all be found in our digital collections.

Parks Department Construction and Maintenance Files

For research on improvements to Seattle Parks, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the Parks Department Planning, Construction and Maintenance Files (Record Series 5804-05) is a useful source. Dating primarily from 1965 to 1985, the records contain correspondence, contracts and agreements, copies of related legislation, reports, maps, drawings, newspapers and some photographs. In some cases, copies of deeds are included. The collection provides good documentation of neighborhood character because community input played a large part in the process of improving parks or developing new parks. Public art in parks is also documented in the files; contracts and correspondence with the artists can sometimes be found, as well as documentation of the logistics of installing the art.

Meeting minutes for various projects are included, often documenting the specific project through its various stages. When more than one department or entities outside of the City are involved, as happened in the construction of the Aquarium or the Freeway Park, for example, the interdepartmental relationships are well documented through memorandum, reports and contracts. Costs of each project are very well documented as well.

As an example of the types of records found in the Construction Files, there are 17 folders in Box 54, dating from 1969 to 1983, documenting Volunteer Park. Included is material on a traffic study, the conservatory, and the master plan. Discovery Park, Thornton Creek, Freeway Park, and the Burke-Gilman Trail are especially well documented parks in the Project Construction Files.

In some cases, information can be found in more than one place in the Project Construction Files. Mini-parks are listed under the name of the specific park, but there are also folders under "Small Parks and Recreation Areas" which have some information on mini-parks. There are a few park ideas that were explored but didn't come to fruition at the time.

Olmsted Parks

Seattle has one of the best designed and best preserved park systems in the country, thanks largely to the work of the Olmsted Brothers firm of Brookline, Massachusetts, in the first decades of the 20th century. They left their imprint on Seattle's landscape with a series of parks linked by boulevards, creating many connected green spaces for citizens to enjoy.

In 1903, on the recommendation of the Board of Park Commissioners, Council contracted with the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts to conduct a thorough survey of Seattle's park possibilities, and to submit a comprehensive plan that could be used to guide future work. This move was largely brought on by the public interest generated through the purchase of two large tracts, Woodland and Washington Parks, in 1900, and by the desire to prepare Seattle for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

The Olmsted Brothers had inherited the nation's first landscape architecture firm from their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. John C. Olmsted, the stepson of Frederick Law and the senior partner in the firm, spent several weeks in the summer of 1903 studying the topography of Seattle and its parks. His report was accepted by Council on October 19th of that year. During the first ten years after its submission, most of the primary elements of the plan would, through purchase, gift, condemnation, or bonded indebtedness, be incorporated into the city's structure.

The Olmsted Brothers continued to work in Seattle, for both private and public clients, until 1936, when J. C. Olmsted made his last visit to the city to plan the Washington Park Arboretum. Over that 33-year period the firm would see more of its designs realized in the region: the campus of the University of Washington, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (which would dictate the future of the U.W. campus), and the State Capitol plan.

Drawings, photographs, correspondence, and other materials relating to the work of the Olmsted Brothers in Seattle have been pulled together into an online virtual collection. The records come from various record series within the holdings of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

Other Collections

Old Woody contest
Ben Evans and youth participating
in the "Old Woody" contest
Image 31110, Ben Evans Recreation
Program Collection (Record Series 5801-02)

Other records documenting the recreation programs in Seattle parks include Playgrounds and Fieldhouses Final Season Reports, 1925-1932 (Record Series 5807-10) and Playground News Clippings and Reports, 1925-1965 (Record Series 5807-08). Both series complement the documentation of recreation programs in the Ben Evans Collection. The Final Season Reports constitutes one volume of primarily statistical data including attendance figures and activities by facility. The Playground News Clippings and Reports includes typed reports of sports and recreation activities sponsored by the Department on its playgrounds and playfields. The Works Projects Administration Project Reports, 1936-1940 (Record Series 5807-01) includes statistical and narrative weekly reports of recreation programs led by staff employed through the WPA's Division of Recreation and Education. Recreation Program Schedules and Brochures, 1972-1985 (Record Series 5807-04) is a collection of brochures, recreation program schedules, and flyers arranged by community center or recreation facility.

Other parks collections address land use and environmental issues. Land use issues related to parks can be researched in the Parks records of Property Appraisals (Record Series 5804-06). Dating from 1962 to 1977, these records assist researchers attempting to document land use and property values for park properties acquired during these years.

City Council records can also be a useful source of more current information on Parks in Seattle. The Parks Exclusion Act and lighted fields are examples of issues dating from the 1990s that can be explored through Council records. A search on Volunteer Park in City Council records reveals there is information from the mid-1970s on Phase II and a traffic study in George Benson's files. There is also documentation of the Conservatory in Cheryl Chow's and Sue Donaldson's files from 1990, and files on the off-leash program from the 1990s in Jan Drago's files. The records of the research arm of the City Council, Central Staff, are helpful, especially for issues from the 1980s and later which look at either parks issues from a City-wide perspective, such as the Comprehensive Plan in the early 1990s, or issues related to possible new parks, such as with the Seattle Commons and South Lake Union or the reuse plan for Sand Point. Budget issues related to Parks are also often addressed in Central Files records.

Budget issues can be addressed through copies of the published proposed and final budget which are located in the City Clerk's office and through legislation. Parks Department Annual Reports and the Annual Expenditures Ledger, 1909-1951 (Record Series 5803-01) also provide financial information for parks.

The legislative databases provide a framework for key legislation regarding property acquisition, parks funds, and other legislative issues related to parks. Ordinances, resolutions, and comptroller or clerk files all provide context for parks issues in the City. Legislation provides much more than financial information, and demonstrates the complexity of issues when researching parks. A search in the ordinance database for Volunteer Park reveals over 100 ordinances related to the buildings, reservoir, playground, public art, and other subjects. A search in the clerk files on Volunteer Park yields petitions, contracts, and protests.

The Engineering Department contains records documenting engineering issues related to parks, especially relating to Local Improvement Districts adjacent to parks and playfields, sewers, paving, traffic and other issues. The Engineering Unrecorded Subject Files (Record Series 2602-02) contains records dating from the 1920s to the 1980s, including chronological correspondence between the Engineering Department and Parks on various issues, some related to constituent issues, such as an amusement park at Alki, and some interdepartmental issues. There is also a series of correspondence arranged first by park and then chronologically. Correspondence on Volunteer Park from the mid-1970s, for example, relates to discussions of traffic on 14th Ave. E. with respect to Volunteer Park. City Engineer Paul Wiatrak writes to David Towne, Superintendent of Parks, on October 12, 1974:

"We recognize the park as a dynamic, ever-changing entity, responding to the needs of the community and adjusting to the developments of modern transportation. The bond issue of 1968 is certainly evidence of this, but we point out that the streets to be altered were not specified by name in the bond issue. We also point out that while citizen review was included for most of the general improvements, the south park residents were not adequately consulted regarding the Highland closure, and in fact, are extremely displeased by this because of the resulting traffic influx to their narrow residential streets."

Photographs documenting City parks are partially accessible through the Archives' digital collections. Researchers can search by neighborhood and time period, as well as name of park. All images from Sherwood and Evans are available in the online database. Images from the Engineering Department are added to the database on an ongoing basis. Researchers looking for images of parks and playgrounds not found online should contact the Archives. Not included in the online database are over 2500 slides dating from 1967 to 1990 of various Parks facilities, projects, and recreation programs. The Archives also has a small collection of postcards, many of which portray parks, from the early 1900s (especially around the time of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exhibition in 1909) to the present.

The Published Documents collection includes reports, studies, handbooks, plans, and other documents about City projects, facilities, and other issues. Other park-related documents include an urban wildlife management plan, neighborhood plans, and studies on recreation programs in Seattle, as well as many other topics.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.