UW News

April 23, 2009

The UW as it was: Campus tours to revisit Olmsted designs, AYPE sites

Those of us who work on the UW’s Seattle campus may not think we need to take a campus tour, but a series of tours being offered beginning this weekend may teach us some things we don’t already know.

The tours, led by volunteers from the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, will provide a chance to learn about the underlying planning that shaped the campus.

That early planning was done by landscape architect John Charles Olmsted, who designed the Seattle city park system and the grounds for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE), a world’s fair that was held on the UW campus in 1909. The tours, to be held on the last Saturday of every month through September, will start at 10 a.m. with a slide show giving some historical background and then revisit AYPE sites.

The tours are possible because much of Olmsted’s plan can still be recognized even 100 years later. He said of the fair, “The magnificent views…will…be by far the greatest features…and will be vividly remembered…when the best efforts of the architects and landscape gardeners have been forgotten.”

“It’s really prescient what the city leaders in Seattle said when they were first hiring Olmsted,” said Jerry Arbes, who, together with his wife, Anne Knight, planned the campus tours. “Quoting from an article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer at the time, ‘They [city park commissioners] want authority to secure the services of an expert on the subject of landscape gardening who would so arrange the plans for parks and boulevards that all future work would be done in harmony with that scheme, whether done now or a hundred years from now.’ The Board of Trustees of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition showed the same vision.”

Olmsted was a member of a renowned landscape architecture firm, Olmsted Brothers. His uncle and stepfather, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., is considered the father of landscape architecture and was the designer of New York City’s Central Park.

John C. Olmsted, Arbes and Knight said, believed that one should always take advantage of the natural surroundings in designing a landscape. So it’s not surprising that a view of Mt. Rainier formed the centerpiece of the AYPE plan. Rainier Vista survives today pretty much as Olmsted designed it, though of course many new buildings have grown up around it.

Tour leaders will share some of the photographs from Olmsted’s first visit to the University campus in 1903. They will then focus on the development of the Olmsted plan for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition from the time of Olmsted’s return in October 1906 to opening Day on June 1, 1909. Quotes from his daily letters to his wife will give insight into the process and illuminate his vision for the exposition.

Of course, the AYPE included buildings as well as landscape design. The UW Board of Regents at the time gave its approval for locating the fair on University land, provided the University could have a number of usable buildings after the exposition closed.

A few buildings were built as permanent structures for the University to use over time; others were temporary structures covered in lathe and plaster. Altogether, the University used 25 buildings as long as they lasted after the fair. Today the only remaining recognizable buildings are Architecture Hall, Cunningham Hall, and the Engineering Annex (behind the Mechanical Engineering Building). The tour will make stops at the surviving buildings and explore many of the remaining AYPE circulation routes.

Arbes and Knight say that, following the introductory slide show, the tours will last for 90 minutes and how much ground they cover will depend, in part, on the interests of those who come and how many questions they ask. No more than 40 people can register for a single date, and several volunteer leaders will be on hand each time so that participants can be split up into smaller groups for the tour. The tours are free, but registration is required. The April 25 tour is already full, but you can register for the others by e-mailing Friends@SeattleOlmsted.org or calling 425-885-3173.

The Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that advocates for the preservation and stewardship of the Olmsted-designed landscapes in Seattle and the region. A brochure they prepared, A Guide to the Olmsted Legacy at the University of Washington (funded in part by Humanities Washington), will be provided on the tours. They also produced a newspaper, the Olmsted A-Y-P Centennial News, made up of reprints of historic newspaper articles relating to the development of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and Seattle’s park system. That paper is available in the UW Visitors Information Center.

“We have such a historic legacy of significant landscape planning in Seattle,” Arbes said. “It’s important for people to recognize it and to preserve it.”

Walk Schedule

  • April 25, 10 a.m., start at Cunningham Hall (full)
  • May 30, 10 a.m., start at the Burke Museum
  • June 27, 10 a.m., start at the Burke Museum
  • July 25, 10 a.m., start at the Burke Museum
  • Aug. 29, 10 a.m., start at the Burke Museum
  • Sept. 26, 10 a.m., start at the Burke Museum

For further information about AYPE centennial events, go to www.ayp100.org.