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The Leschi of old was Umlauff's kind of park, one that was ordered, sentimental and thoroughly controlled by the people who used it. And he would work hard to make other parks this way too — particularly Seward Park.
Even before Umlauff there was Edward Otto Schwagerl, one of Seattle's first Parks Superintendents and the creator of the first comprehensive plan for Seattle parks. Schwagerl was hired away from Tacoma in 1892, where he had worked on Wright Park and the great Point Defiance Park.
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.
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, the worst depression to hit the United States at the time, put an end to the worrying about how to start Schwagerl's ambitious plan. Schwagerl left the park system and Seattle in 1895.
When the Olmsted Brothers came along — a Massachusetts architectural and planning firm hired by Seattle in 1903 to create a new parks plan — the firm adopted many of Schwagerl's ideas. It also incorporated the work of George Cotterill, the assistant to 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 turned into boulevards by the Olmsted Brothers to connect the parks they proposed.
The Olmsted Brothers did not have a back-to-nature philosophy. Instead, they went for a mix of different park themes. The firm thought that some parks should be highly managed and manicured — Volunteer Park, for example — but it also believed some parks should be kept close to the their original condition. The Massachusetts company mapped out the development of more than 30 Seattle parks, the most complete Olmsted Park system in the world.
Only one park — which would stretch along the top of the hill we had just left in Madrona — was not finished. That was left for Al Larkins and Glassybaby.
Meanwhile, Seattleites agreed on what to do with the Bailey Peninsula jutting into Lake Washington south of Leschi Park: Buy it before the loggers got it and keep it pristine for future generations.
The Bailey Peninsula is a drumlin, the name used for land created by the movement of a retreating glacial mass. The Vashon Glacier used to cover Seattle with 4,000 feet of ice. 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..
The odd-shaped peninsula attracted a lot of interest. Some speculators wanted to build a toll bridge to Mercer Island. Another proposal suggested cutting a channel at its west end so that boats plying Lake Washington could save a few minutes of their busy days. 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 wanted $2,000 an acre. It wasn't until 1911, when the city condemned the property, that Seattle was able to buy it for $322,000, or $1,500 per acre. The purchase came soon after the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in Seattle, so that the first on the list of possible park names was William Henry Seward, the guy who bought Alaska and jump-started modern Seattle.
From the beginning events conspired to erode the Olmsted dream of Seward Park, which was all that remained of pre-European forest cover. The city filled in the marshes in front of the peninsula. Then construction of the Hiram Chittenden Locks in 1916 lowered the level of Lake Washington by nine feet to create more land and easier car access. New shoreline plant species appeared and some timber died out. Soon there was a large section of lawn fronting the peninsula, the planting of which (and others that followed) nearly wiped out the peninsula's native grasses.
Jacob Umlauff's tenure within the Seattle Parks almost matched the 38 years, from 1903 to 1941, that the Olmsted Brothers worked on the system. He had his own ideas about Seward Park.
Umlauff was a gardener in the true sense. He believed every landscape had to be a garden; as if the ground were a vase and the trees a bouquet of mixed flowers.
In a March 9, 1930 Seattle Times interview, 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-like view of his photosynthetic charges, it was difficult for Umlauff to adhere to the Olmsted Brothers' 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 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 have learned to hate both holly and English Ivy — two of the state's most aggressive invasive species.
The underbrush in Seward Park, Umlauff thought, inhibited the enjoyment of the trees. So he grubbed it out, taking with it a rich habitat for animals of all kinds. Similarly, a 10-year parks plan in 1931 argued that dead timber and brush should be removed because it constituted a fire hazard. Umlauff did not — along with much of his generation — appreciate the positive aspects of fires in managing forests. All he knew for sure was that fire would hurt his voiceless friends.
These ideas got a boost during the Great Depression, when the parks department hosted many hundreds of relief workers. In March of 1936, 400 Works Progress Administration relief workers were employed at Seward Park and another 600 in the Washington Park Arboretum. Their 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 newspaper clips that this army of workers had gotten out of control and were cutting all kinds of healthy trees.
Word got back to Mayor John Dore that 800 to 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," Dore said. "But out here, it's just like getting false teeth when you have good ones."
While Umlauff retired in 1941, his legacy lived on in the form of a 4,000-seat amphitheater built at a grassy swale of blowdowns and cleared underbrush. The project included parking for 2,500 cars.
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