Gas Works Park (Seattle)

  • By Shannon Sawyer
  • Posted 3/19/2020
  • Essay 20978

Gas Works Park, located on a promontory extending from the north shore of Lake Union, is a Seattle Landmark and National Register of Historic Places listed park. The site was originally proposed for a park in the 1903 Olmsted Report, but was subsequently developed as a gas works plant in 1906 by the Seattle Gas Light Company. The coal and oil gasification plant manufactured the gas that supplied the city until 1956, when new sources of gas and energy arrived in Seattle. The site was a toxic, inhospitable environment that evolved into one of the first postindustrial landscape to be transformed into a public park. Landscape architect Richard Haag designed the masterplan, incorporating remnants from the gas plant. Bioremediation methods, innovative for the time, were incorporated into the design to "clean and green" the contaminated soil. The Great Mound, also known as Kite Hill, opened to the public on August 31, 1973, and the park was fully open to the public in July 1976.

Coal Gasification

Known by Native peoples as Tenas Chuck (Small Water), the basin of the freshwater lake north of downtown Seattle was formed by the Vashon Glacier during the Vashon Stade. In 1854, it was renamed Lake Union by pioneer Thomas Mercer. The lake's northern, wooded promontory was considered at this time a special place by the Natives and early pioneers. The Native peoples referred to it as "descending from the ridge" and the pioneers chose the site as a popular picnic location when sailing across the then-wild lake.

With the settlement of Seattle, this landscape was dramatically altered as it became an industrial hub. Beginning in 1872, the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company ferried coal across the lake for portage over to Puget Sound. Canals with locks were cut in 1885 and a more massive system of locks and the Montlake Cut opened in 1916, linking Lake Washington to Puget Sound with Lake Union, aptly named, at the center. The arrival of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Rail in 1887 further strengthened Lake Union's industrial development.

The lake's northern promontory industrialized when in 1900, the Seattle Gas Light Company began purchasing lots in the neighborhood known as Edgewater and Brown's Point. This followed the loss of its first gas plant on the tide flat near present-day Pioneer Square during the Great Seattle Fire in 1889. The company turned to Brown's Point on Lake Union to rebuild because the new, more efficient method of coal gasification involved passing steam over superheated coal, requiring large amounts of fresh water.

Despite the fact that the land on the lake's north shore was being acquired by the gas company, in 1903, John C. Olmsted (1852-1920), who was commissioned by the City of Seattle to develop a park and boulevard masterplan, reported that "The point of land between the northeast and northwest arms of Lake Union and the railroad should be secured as a local park, because of its advantages for commanding views of the lake and for boating, and for a playground" (Williams and Crowley). The famed Olmsted Brothers were brought from the East Coast during a time of great growth in Seattle following the Klondike Gold Rush, when the city population tripled between 1900 and 1910 and the city was grappling to provide essential services to its citizens while also considering the long-term benefits of a designed park system. While the 1904 Park Commissioner's Report confirmed Olmsted's plan and restated his desires, "If not too costly, the point of land between the northeast and northwest arms of Lake Union and the railroad should be secured as a local park," ultimately the Seattle Gas Light Company acquired the 19 acres jutting into Lake Union in 1906.

The gas company established a coal-gasification plant for the purpose of converting coal into gas for lighting. In 1907, a small tar company, which manufactured tar from coal byproducts, began operations adjacent to the gas plant. At the end of this population boom, Virgil Bogue (1846-1916) in 1911 presented his plan for the city, arguing that Lake Union should be an industrial area located in the heart of the city. Although Bogue's plan was rejected by voters, Lake Union did indeed become industrial. The tar plant became the American Tar Company by 1921. The Seattle Gas Light Company became the Seattle Gas Company in 1930, pumping manufactured gas through 137 miles of main lines as far north as Everett and as far south as Kent.

While the plant supplied fuel to homes and industries during Seattle's growth, the "smoke-belching stacks" tarnished nearby residential developments and encouraged marginal commercial uses in the vicinity. By the time Seattle's first zoning ordinance took effect in 1923, much growth had already taken place. Manufacturing and commercial uses were located around Lake Union, often between residences. The Wallingford neighborhood, located north of the gas plant, had tremendous views to the south across the lake, yet was platted with the houses oriented east and west so residents did not have to look at the black smoke emanating from the plant.

Beginning with the gas plant's first day of operations, public health became a relentless issue for the plant's Wallingford neighbors. The plant discharged byproducts and wastes from the operations onsite and along the Lake Union shoreline. The effects of the fumes, soot, and odors convinced nearby residents to file a Citizen's Petition in 1934 for the removal of the gas plant. During the next two years, the city's engineering department conducted assessments that identified needed abatements, and the gas company responded that it would comply. However, in 1937, when new technology made crude oil cheaper than coal, the gas company added more machinery to the plant. Oil replaced coal as fuel for making gas, and crude oil was transported by boat to a loading dock at the east end of the site, where it was then transferred to storage in the northwest section of the site. It was then pumped to six new towers for further reduction processes. The demand for gas greatly increased during World War II, until barges and oil tankers unloaded 50,000 barrels at a time at the plant. For a time, the gas plant held positive public opinion, yet after the war, Seattleites again complained about fumes and odors. In 1950, the city engineer accused the plant of having more complaints than anyone else in the city, including the three city dumps. 

Production at the plant ended in December 1956, to the relief of its Wallingford neighbors. Seattle converted to natural gas with its introduction via the Trans Mountain Gas Pipeline from Canada to Washington. One year earlier, the Seattle Gas Company had merged with Washington Gas and Electrical Company and become the Washington Natural Gas Company (later Puget Sound Energy). When the plant on Lake Union closed, the site was used mainly for storage of equipment and some distribution.

From Industrial Hub to Park Site

The closing of the gas plant in 1956 coincided with a changing mix of industrial lakeshore uses and a renewed call for public amenities for the growing city. Small-scale manufacturing and maritime industries continued to ring and pollute Lake Union, yet commercial operations serving pleasure boats began replacing commercial shipping. Although the Gas Works site was polluted and degraded, the space was quickly identified as a site for a new public park, just as the Olmsted Brothers had envisioned at the turn of the century.

In 1962, a real estate purchase contract led by Seattle City Council member Myrtle Edwards (1895-1969) was initiated for the acquisition and development of a park on the gas-plant site, now 20.5 acres. The $1.3 million contract between the Washington Natural Gas Company and the City of Seattle let the gas company retain the property for another 10 years, until the final payment was received and it was released from responsibility for any below-ground improvements. The gas company was to demolish and remove the above-ground structures and purge pipelines. The funds for the 10-year contract were partially provided by the Forward Thrust bond, the Air and Water Patrol of the Seattle Police, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Gas plant operations had begun at a time when few, if any, controls were placed upon the amount of pollution originating from the site. Although the industrial activity had ceased over 15 years prior to park development, the site remained heavily polluted from its 50 years of industrial use. When the city made the real estate contract, its idea was that the towers and buildings onsite would be demolished, and extra fill would be brought in to level the site from the excavation of the Safeco Building on NE 45th Street in the University District. A 1962 Seattle Park Department inter-department memorandum notes the tentative plan for the site, with basic elements to include a large open area of lawn and trees surrounded by a seawall at the water's edge, which could accommodate a swimming pool, picnic area, and children's area. The need for significant efforts to develop the Lake Union Park was recognized in 1963 with the formation of the Technical Advisory Committee on Lake Union Park, an advisory group of citizens and city staff. 

In October 1962, landscape architect Richard Haag (1923-2018), from Richard Haag Associates, Inc., submitted one of a handful of proposals for Lake Union Park. Haag's masterplan differed from others in that he planned to save and use the relics onsite rather than haul them to the landfill. Edwards, who led the effort to acquire the land for a park, opposed Haag's ideas and advocated for the removal of all toxic materials and the creation of an Olmstedian park comparable to Volunteer Park 

Richard Haag, Landscape Architect

Haag's childhood experiences on the grounds of his father's nursery and farm in Jeffersontown, Kentucky taught him both horticultural and business skills. After serving in World War II, Haag studied at the University of Illinois, and earned a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, followed by a Master of Landscape Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. In 1953, he won a two-year Fulbright fellowship to study in Japan, and was a resident at the American Academy in Rome. He returned to Berkeley, where he became an associate faculty instructor while practicing landscape architecture. Haag was picked by the University of Washington's College of Architecture and Urban Planning to begin a landscape architecture program. He arrived in Seattle in 1958, and by 1960, the university approved the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program. Haag opened Richard Haag Associates, Inc., acting as lead designer of hundreds of projects until the firm closed in 2016.

Haag, the activist, participated in debates on the future of Seattle as a citizen and as a professional. He was appointed to the Seattle Arts Commission in 1962 and argued that design of public spaces was as important as works of art in the public domain. Haag joined other designers and advocates to study alternative plans for the city and made a film, What is so Great about Seattle, highlighting urban needs and how to meet them. Ultimately, parts of this vision were implemented, including Gas Works Park, Burke-Gilman Trail, and other successes including the preservation of Pioneer Square and the development of Occidental Park. Between 1967 and 1973, the city government was transformed with nine new council members and a new mayor, Wes Uhlman (b. 1935). The new members rejected the older council's vision of urban renewal, and were open to preservation arguments and alternatives in urban design, including the eventual approval of Haag's Gas Works Park proposal.

Community Engagement and Design Process

Debates about convening a design competition for the park dragged on for years; finally, in October 1969, Superintendent of the Park Department Hans A. Thompson (1924-2011) wrote to Washington Natural Gas Company that a competition was being planned and that no demolition should take place before the competition. In the meantime, the park board voted to name the park Myrtle Edwards Park in 1969. In February 1970, Thompson reported that the competition plans had died, and either Haag or Ian McHarg (1920-2001), a Scottish landscape architect who pioneered the concept of ecological planning, would likely be awarded the park project. That spring, the park board awarded Haag the authority to develop a master plan for the new Myrtle Edwards Park. Haag continued with the same controversial design approach as he proposed in 1962, to recycle and reuse elements of the former gas plant rather than full demolition in a traditional park development. "I started hanging around there and I suddenly realized that the city's intention to raze the site was all wrong," Haag said. "So, I decided to launch a campaign to save the gas works" (Goldberger).

Haag fought for an urban park that reflected its history and was to become one of the first parks to incorporate aspects of the earlier industrial age. In November 1971, his design concept was approved based on review of its economic feasibility -- it was less expensive to retain the structures than the more conventional development approach. Haag embarked on an extensive community engagement and public relations process and held meetings onsite at the blacksmith shop. Public engagement during a landscape architect's design process was a relatively new phenomenon, and was concurrently happening by Haag's friend, Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009), in the design of Freeway Park.

In addition to the controversy over the retention of existing structures, there was concern for the ability of the site to support plant life. Although it had been decades since the site was abandoned, no vegetation had grown, an indication of the level of soil pollutants. Concern was expressed especially for the root systems of larger trees extending into the oil-soaked soil. Haag, therefore, established a program and plan while collaborating with University of Washington professors and The Boeing Company's engineers for "cleaning and greening" of the park through bioremediation. "The main idea was to plow it up and let air and sunshine in" Haag said (Jones). The Environmental Impact Statement for the project stated that, "The combination of air and bacteria will eventually break down the remaining pollutants and leave the soil in a neutral state" (Jones). The city allowed Haag to test this theory on a plot of the site, and when it worked, he got the commission. 

Haag had turned public opinion in favor of the park. The city council approved Haag's master plan in March 1972, and the arts commission followed in January 1973. Yet, the final vote came at the objection of the family of Myrtle Edwards, who felt the park would be an unfit memorial to her name. Hence, the park became known simply as Gas Works Park in March 1974.

Building Gas Works Park

Haag's masterplan had five phases, described in seven zones: North Meadow, Play Barn, Prow, Towers, Great Mound, Swale, and North Field. The visitor arrived in a north parking lot and entered the park by crossing the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks and through a dark hedge of trees, stepping into the brightness of the open landscape with a long view of the city skyline. The concrete trestle arches near the entrance were remnant supports for railroad cars. During operational years, coal cars had ridden up the trestles and released coal into hoppers parked under the trestles. Other industrial remains included the cracking towers majestically standing in the center, juxtaposed against the Great Mound to the west, and the Play Barn to the east. The masterplan included both traditional and imaginative programming. 

On August 31, 1973, two months after the legal title to the property passed to the City of Seattle, the Great Mound opened to the public, the first recognized public recreational use of the site. It was an observation station to oversee the transformation of the park, and also became a popular place for flying kites, hence its common name of Kite Hill. Haag had incorporated fill from the excavation of the Safeco Building into his park design, creating the 45-foot high mound. The city's project manager for Gas Works Park, Ernie Ferrero, announced at the mound opening, "The mound is to serve as a grandstand from which citizens may observe the metamorphosis of an ugly gas plant into a healthy, green, 20-acre park" (Chadwick 1973). Haag's community engagement process was at play, while the remainder of the site was still fenced off and signed, the Great Mound had opened with interpretive panels explaining the coming development plans.

Visitors to the Great Mound could watch the extensive site preparations that occurred October 1973. The park department worked with Metro on Haag's bioremediation plan to break down the remaining pollutants and improve growing conditions. The city had recently finished investigating the site contamination, finding soils saturated with oil, and with tar, cinders, ash, carbon and lamp black, and slag. Cleanup and stabilization of the shoreline, along with removal of about 5,000 cubic yards of the worst contaminated material, began Haag's process. With the site graded, an application of four to eight inches of aged dewatered sludge cake, brought by Metro from the beach at Discovery Park, was combined with compost material composed of sawdust brought from the nearby transfer station, and leaves, manure, and grass clippings from city streets and parks. The application was rototilled into the top 18-24 inches of the existing oil-soaked soil. The following spring, acres of tomato plants sprang up on the site to everyone's surprise, demonstrating that tomato seeds had been in the application. Other types of fill and topsoil were added the following year.

The first phase of construction began 1974 and extended through the end of 1975. During and just after this phase, the city buried onsite 13 concrete purifiers, concrete slabs, cinders, and approximately 15,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Major construction activities began with a restroom, pathways, development of an existing surface parking area, and the barns, which were the first rehabilitated structures. The original pump house and exhauster-compressor building became the children's Play Barn,featuring a maze of Ingersoll-Rand machines. To the south, a playground with industrial tanks and pipes was installed. with the only surviving smoke arrestor hood for climbing. The boiler house was converted into a picnic shelter.

The second phase began in February 1976 with construction of a natural amphitheater, a drainage system, regrading of the Great Mound, and landscaping on the northeastern section. The six cracking towers underwent treatment, and the Prow, which once served as an oil-loading platform, becoming a gathering space at the tip of the promontory. Work was completed enough to open the park to the public that summer.

The third phase extended from August 1977 through 1987 and included continued work on the cracking towers, construction of walls and railings in the Prow area, outdoor elements for the children's play area, park furnishings and lighting, drainage improvements, paving of pathways, and interpretive signage. This phase exhausted the funds, and thus the remaining plans never came to fruition. The final phases were intended to construct a moat around the towers, a marine museum, and a floating restaurant.

Contamination Evaluation and Cleanup

Since the park's full-scale opening in 1976, it has undergone numerous environmental evaluations analyzing potential health risks for humans and source of pollution to Lake Union. Records indicate that a University of Washington soils professor and a Seattle horticulturalist wrote to Haag during the park planning process with concerns about soil contaminants and Haag's "cleaning and greening" methods, but Haag did not alter his approach. During the design and planning phase, soil efforts focused on plant suitability rather than on public health or lake pollution.

From 1981 to 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Washington conducted the first major investigations related to soil, volatile gas, and lake sediment at Gas Works Park. In 1984, the city issued a warning not to swim, fish, or wade in Lake Union. A gram of soil from the park was found to contain 2,000 times more benzo(a)pyrene than five packs of cigarettes. Despite the studies, the Center for Disease Control cleared the park for public use, stating that the threat of significant health risk would be posed only by frequent ingestion of the most highly contaminated materials over a long period of time. Yet Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) was forced to close areas of high concentration of contaminants in April 1984. They were covered with clean soil, and the park re-opened in August.

The park was evaluated again in 1985. The U.S. Geological Survey studied groundwater contamination, proving that the groundwater became contaminated as it encountered the contaminated park soil. Throughout the 1990s, millions of dollars were spent on environmental cleanup efforts focused on protecting park visitors from contamination and reducing pollution seeping into the lake. Groundwater wells were installed to siphon out sediment water, several inches of clean soil were added throughout the park, an air sparging and soil vapor extraction system was installed to remove benzene, and Haag designed drainage, irrigation, and soil improvements. During the 2000s, evaluations and cleanups continued with similar actions of added clean soil, new irrigation, and closing of the park in 2014-2015 to renovate access at the Great Mound and address the park's groundwater.

Truly Regional Park

Gas Works Park has continued to stand as a symbol of Seattle parks since its public opening. It projects 400 feet into Lake Union with 1,900 feet of shoreline and features the Great Mound, the preserved cracking towers, and transformed picnic shelter and play barn. The lawns are covered with a sea of people during the annual Fourth of July fireworks display. In 1996, Haag's wife established the Friends of Gas Works Park, a group that advocated for the opening of the towers, stewardship such as replanting of trees, and nominating the park as a City of Seattle Landmark (1999) and for its listing in the National Register of Historic Places (2013).

Gas Works Park has gained national and international renown as a protype for industrial site conversions and its ecological design. Haag is the only person to twice receive the American Society of Landscape Architects Award for design excellence, one of which given for his design of Gas Works Park. The park's story represents the reversal from when industrial monuments were regarded, even by preservationists, as ugly and unwanted, to a time when such structures as the gas works became recognized for their ability to enhance the visitor's experience and authenticity. This turnaround was anything from easy, and it was not only the design but also Haag's community engagement that made that happen. "The contrast between the timeless grandeur of the structures and the softness and temporality of the landscape will set the design scheme," Haag wrote in the masterplan. The park is also a precedent for methods in bioremediation and ecological design. At the time, they were considered new and risky, yet today, with the help of Haag's groundbreaking work, are appropriate, necessary, and commonplace throughout the practice.

On a local level, Gas Works Park came at a pivotal time in the city's park planning history, with the Forward Thrust funds in hand that allowed for the creativity and thought leadership that brought a renewed park identity that we know today. When asked what it meant to lead this project, through the controversy of retaining the remnants and through construction, Ferrero said, "I was really excited to support this project -- it defined what a regional park was -- I mean, you can put down anywhere a traditional swing, slide, and merry-go-round, but we got the chance to develop truly regional parks" (Sawyer).


Alf Collins, "Little Can Grown in Most of Gas-Plant Park Site," Seattle Daily Times, July 18, 1971 (; Bob Lane, "Plans for Hydro Plants Pass Test," Ibid., January 28, 1979 (; Lansing Jones and Lisa Konick, "Park was Built on Foul Mound of Chemical Soup," Ibid., April 22, 1984 (; Susan Chadwick, "Out of the Grayness, a Park is Born," Ibid., August 31, 1973 (; Val Varney, "Forward Thrust in for Hectic Year," Ibid., December 17, 1972 (; Val Varney, "First Phase of Gas Works Park Facelift Nearly Done," Ibid., May 8, 1975 (; Lansing Jones, "Park Designer Was Warned of Pollution," Ibid., May 16, 1984 (; City of Seattle Memorandum: Myrtle Edwards Park Economic Feasibility, 3, November 1971, Box 53, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Record Series 5801-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Correspondence from Cash Beardsley to Edward J. Johnson, 7 September 1962, Box 53, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Record Series 5801-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Correspondence from Edward J. Johnson to Richard Haag, 20 November 1962, Box 53, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Record Series 5801-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Coal & Transportation Company begins operating Seattle's first railroad on March 22, 1872" (by Jennifer Ott), "Seattle burns down in the Great Fire on June 6, 1889" (by Walt Crowley), "John Olmsted arrives in Seattle to design city parks on April 30, 1903" (by David Williams and Walt Crowley), "Edwards, Myrtle (1894-1969)" (by Mildred Andrews), and "Gas Works Park opens in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood in 1974" (by Priscilla Long), (accessed December 30, 2019); Simone McCausland, The Pollution and Cleanup of Seattle's Gas Work Park, Seattle Public Library, SEAPAM, 363.7394, M459P; Paul Goldberger, "Gas Works is Centerpiece of Seattle Park," The New York Times, August 30, 1975; William S. Saunders, Richard Haag: Bloedel Reserve and Gasworks Park (Landscape Views) (Hudson: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998); Shannon Sawyer interview with Ernie Ferrero, December 31, 2019, Seattle, notes in possession of Shannon Sawyer, Seattle; Thaisa Way, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

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