Ghosts of Lake Washington parks past

A new puppy and a walk from Madrona down through Seward Park evoke Lake Washington tales, new and old.
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Seattle's Seward Park

A new puppy and a walk from Madrona down through Seward Park evoke Lake Washington tales, new and old.

There are many side effects of caring for a new puppy. There is sleep deprivation. That intimacy with poop and pee you'd thought you'd given up years ago. Small cuts on the hands and forearms from trying to get the dog to drop the ball he loves to chase.

But there are also positive side effects. For me, they are the rediscovery of the Seattle Park system where my wife and I take the dog for his pleasure and ours.

One recent Saturday, we started in Madrona on Lake Washington's western shore and headed south to Seward Park, where I've not been for a long time. 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, an alarm came in and the firefighters burst through the tiny lobby to speed off in the station's lone pumper. Alone in the firehouse, we completed our voter forms, left them on a chair and walked home. We thought the whole thing was pretty cool. Today, that 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. Someone had kicked a hole in the living room wall of the house we rented. Since we didn't even know what drywall was, we covered it with a book case.

Memories return of our first neighborhood. One Sunday afternoon in 1968, when my wife was leaving the grocery store, a kid poked a gun in her face and took her purse. That same year, two state legislators living in Madrona had their houses firebombed anda house on Pine Street, a half a block away from ours, caught on fire. It had been vacant — just like the one we were renting had been a few weeks before. We believed the fire was intentional.

The neighborhood back then had a laundromat and a small store — Joe's Market, run by a tough little Chinese guy with an uncanny ability to spot a bag of Skittles sliding into a school bag. An IGA market, once thriving, hit hard times and became a clinic. I don't remember much else on the street, except the going-downward vibe. That year, 1968, was a tough one 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 are several other restaurants on the street: Bistro Turkuaz (not open until dinner), Naam Thai on the corner, Pritty Boys Family Pizzeria with a big crowd of tiny soccer players, Cafe Soleil (Ethiopian/Eritrean), Madrona Eatery & Ale House, and several others.

The parking place we find is next to Al Larkins Park, which is what happened to the land that remained after the 1968 fire. 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 during World War II. He was a musician in the U.S. Navy band, The Jive Bombers, who were stationed at Sand Point Naval Air Station and played everywhere. Larkins decided to stay in the Emerald City rather than return to Baltimore.

He was often picked up by visiting bands, and he 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, the night Ray Charles brought down the house.

Like many people who came to Seattle at the time, Larkins became as Seattle as Seattle could be. He was an original member of the Rainy City Jazz Band, 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, his friends, and a roaring bonfire to answer them. He and his brother, also a world-class musician, played in the first Bumbershoot in 1972. A University of Washington graduate, Larkins taught in Seattle schools and lived on 37th Street, three blocks away from what is now his park.

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. A place to linger, the store manufactures the hand-blown glass votive candleholders that have become such a cultural phenomenon here. My daughter and wife talked about nothing else during a dinner a few years ago, vaulting them into my field of consciousness. Soon after, they started showing up in my house in groups of two and three.

Glassybaby's origin is with Seattle housewife Lee Rhodes, who had a rare type of lung cancer and spent seven years in a brutal treatment regime. Her husband once brought home a small votive candleholder that he had made in a glassblowing class, and Rhodes put a candle in it. She felt a healing experience from that candle, which inspired her to design her own candleholders to give to friends. Her hobby soon became a business, which hired artisans from Seattle's large glassblowing scene and emphasized handmade products, unusual colors and giving away 10 percent of its profits to certain charities.

Now that shop is in my old Madrona neighborhood, making Glassybabys for the world. Someone gave a Glassybaby to Martha Stewart when she recovered from being in prison. Rhodes appeared on the first episode of Stewart's show after she got out. Then Amazon's Jeff Bezos fell in love with the product and bought 20 percent of the company. Today Glassybaby sales average almost $10 million annually with nearly $1 million a year going to various charities. The operation employs about 70 glassblowers in my old neighborhood, and is eying the possibility of a new 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 bad feelings from 1968.

Along the way to Seward Park we stopped at Leschi Park to photograph a small memorial there to Jacob Umlauff, long the head gardener for Seattle's Parks Department and frequently its de facto superintendent. The memorial sits below a stately Giant Redwood (Sequoia Gigantia) and reads: "This tree has been dedicated in fitting tribute to JACOB UMLAUFF, head gardener, Seattle Parks Department 1914-1941, who planted it with the skilled and loving hands that gave rare beauty to all Seattle Parks."

Umlauff came from Austria, where his uncle was a circus impresario. 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 he soon ended up 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.

Leschi was Seattle's second park (following Denny Park in South Lake Union) and created in the year before statehood, 1888. Privately-owned, it was served by a trolley car that followed Yesler Way, originally a skid road that brought lumber to the sawmill in the pioneer days. Later, when real estate developers replaced the loggers, the park and its connecting trolley were established to encourage development outside of downtown. The idea was to bring people to a beautiful place so they would buy lots and build houses on them, further expanding the new town of Seattle. The park contained gardens, a casino, a small zoo, and a diving board. It became a ferry boat terminus as well.

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.

It wasn't until the 1970s that the idea of a natural forest regained its primacy. Ultimately, the amphitheater was closed, the park's 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. Regardless of depression-era deforesting tactics, it is still the largest pre-settlement forest remaining in Seattle.

We walked the perimeter road that Saturday — my wife, puppy and I — slowly, like a puppy walks; not with its legs, but its nose. Finishing our walk and starting to tire, 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.


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