Green Lake Park is a 323-acre park located in north Seattle, adjacent to Woodland Park. Famed landscape architect John Charles Olmsted included a boulevard around Green Lake in his 1903 plan for Seattle’s park and boulevard system. The Board of Park Commissioners acquired the lake and surrounding land by 1908 and hired Olmsted to create plans for the park in 1908 and 1910. Over the years, the park evolved from a boulevard, to a rustic lakeshore park, to a more formalized park with numerous annual events held on the lake, to a park with fewer water-based events, but a highly used pathway circumnavigating the lake. It is one of the most popular parks in the state.
The Vashon stade of the Fraser glaciation covered the Puget Lowlands with about 3,000 feet of ice, scraping the landscape as it advanced, and carving it into hills and valley as it melted and receded. In some places, chunks of ice remaining in depressions in the ground melted and formed lakes. At Green Lake, the resulting pool of water grew with the addition of water from a Licton Springs-fed creek and runoff from the surrounding hills.
Duwamish people have lived for millennia along the shores around Lake Washington and Lake Union. People living at sluʔluʔwiɬ (near the eastern border of today’s Ravenna Park) likely walked up the outlet creek and visited what is now known as Green Lake for its freshwater resources, including fish, waterfowl, and plants, and for swimming, canoeing, and generally enjoying the beautiful lake. From there, they could easily continue to líq’təd (Licton Springs), a spiritually significant place (and a City of Seattle landmark).
Once Seattle was established on Elliott Bay in the 1850s, it was not long before non-Native settlers dispersed up the waterways in search of land and resources. In 1869, German immigrant Erhard Seifried claimed a homestead on the lakeshore. William D. Wood (1858-1917), who would later be Seattle’s mayor, and Edward C. Kilbourne (1856-1958) purchased Seifried's land and laid out several plats around the lake in the 1880s and 1890s. They reserved land on the northwest side of the lake, at the end of the streetcar line. Some sources reference an amusement park there, but newspaper articles written at that time indicate it was largely undeveloped, with just a swimming area and a pavilion that was built in 1890.
The shoreline was entirely in private ownership in the 1890s, with some parcels owned by individuals and a streetcar right-of-way encircling much of the lake owned by the Seattle Electric Company. In 1892, Wood approached the newly formed Board of Park Commissioners and proposed widening the right-of-way for Green Lake Boulevard and acquiring its route and the shorelands "for park purposes" (Minutes, 77). The Board referred the proposal to a committee for study, but it languished there due to the onset of the Panic of 1893 and ensuing economic depression that brought park development in Seattle to a halt. Seattle's economy revived after the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897 and drew hordes of new residents to the city, sparking renewed efforts to develop a park and boulevard system. The Board of Park Commissioners hired John Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm to lay out a plan for Seattle. He incorporated the proposed Green Lake Boulevard into the primary boulevard system that linked the system’s larger parks together. He wrote:
"For the large and growing population north of Lake Union, and in the neighborhood of Green Lake, very liberal provision has already been made by Woodland Park and Green Lake Boulevard, with the State University grounds not far away to the east. These existing park areas, however, will be added to by the extension of Green Lake Boulevard around the west side of the lake and by securing fringes of land left outside the boulevard, and by the liberal inland boulevard proposed on the line of Pine Grove street [today’s N 50th Street] from Woodland Park to the State University grounds" ("Original Report of the Olmsted Brothers," 82).
In 1905, the state gave the city the lake itself, retaining the right to manage the wildlife, primarily fish and birds that occupied it. Between 1904 and 1908, the park board acquired the shoreline, first making a deal with the Seattle Electric Company for a portion of its land and later purchasing five more acres. The board then turned to the private landowners, acquiring the final parcel in 1908.
In the meantime, the board commissioned Olmsted to design the boulevard right-of-way and lakeshore. The commissioners requested that he include a pleasure drive along the lake and a general traffic drive on the uphill side of the streetcar tracks. The board also wanted Olmsted to determine a route for the streetcar and drive to continue through Woodland Park. Beyond the borders of the lake, the board wanted advice on bringing overflow water from the Green Lake low-service reservoir (located at NE 75th Street and 12th Avenue NE), and managing upland spring water running into the lake, which were important to keeping Green Lake fresh.
While working on that report, Olmsted also consulted on the extension of today’s Stone Way N around the south end of the lake. Greenwood neighborhood businesses and residents had requested the street extension to connect the area with Stone Avenue, the primary route into downtown at that time. Olmsted strongly resisted running the extension through the park because it would, "smash through and interrupt what is now a continuous, dense, natural forest growth of great beauty and of special attractiveness because [it is] so rare in and about the improved areas of the city" (Olmsted, December 10, 1907). He felt that with a shoreline drive, it would be easier to build pleasant connections between the lake and forest.
In January 1908, Olmsted delivered his report to the Board of Park Commissioners. He recommended lowering the lake by four feet to expose more shoreland, piping surplus water from the Green Lake Low Reservoir into the lake, capturing the overflow of Licton Springs and other springs in underground pipes and carrying it to the lake near the planned bathhouses, building a pleasure drive "as near the proposed water surface as possible," and planting the area between the drives with turf and shade trees (J. C. O. to J. M. Frink, January 22, 1908). Trees would screen the streetcar tracks and general traffic drive from the pleasure drive. He recommended footbridges or subways (underpasses) to connect Woodland Park and the lakeshore, and significant areas of fill along the shoreline.
The plan, delivered in May 1908, showed the drives encircling the lake, with walkways, small artificial islands, trees planted in rows along the drives, and three bathhouses along the shore. At the northeast corner of the lake, roughly in line with Sunnyside Avenue, a dike and fill would be used to significantly reduce the area of the lake and create dry land for a ballfield. A crescent-shaped artificial island was shown just off the western shore. Olmsted revised the plan in 1910, to reduce the shoreline filling and make other refinements. Work began in earnest in 1910. The lake was lowered by six feet in order to accommodate the newly constructed North Trunk Sewer, which ran along the eastern shore of the lake. This precluded use of the existing outlet creek, so the lake’s overflow was directed into the sewer. The outlet creek dried up and its bed was filled in.
Hub of Activity
This burst of development led to construction of East Green Lake Way (the separate pleasure drive was never built), some lawn planting, completion of the ballfield, and some plantings, primarily trees. The park remained fairly rustic. The south end and a section along the western shore were more wetlands than solid ground, and no paths, docks, or other facilities were built. The city council placed the shoreline and lake under park-board control, but not the street. The park landscape, known initially as Green Lake Boulevard, was renamed Green Lake Park in 1912. To create the playfield, a 6,500-foot dike was built using tram cars that carried fill from the area north of the lake. It took 288,000 cubic yards of fill to build up the field above the level of the lake. A city-run dump at the foot of today’s Ravenna Boulevard provided additional fill.
It was not long before the first issues with water quality arose. Between the lowering of the lake, making it shallower and allowing light to penetrate closer to the lake bottom, the diversion of spring water and other drainage to the sewer because it was contaminated by septic systems and other pollutants, and outlet changes, the water became more stagnant, and algae bloomed. Although the algae did not pose health risks, it was unpleasant for swimmers. The first attempt, in 1920, of what would become a decades-long, and ongoing effort to improve the lake’s water, involved improving the pipe from Licton Springs to the lake to prevent upland contamination.
Olmsted Brothers associate James Frederick (Fred) Dawson (1874-1941) visited Seattle in 1917 to consult with the Board of Park Commissioners on several projects. Seeing the filling work that was underway along the southwest side of Green Lake, he encouraged the department to make the shoreline irregular to retain the naturalistic character of the lake. He also suggested adding a sidewalk along West Green Lake Way and a shore path around the lake, and planting grass around the streetcar tracks as soon as possible because he believed the boulevard was an important part of the park experience.
Parks are community spaces and are often used to commemorate people and events that affect communities. In Green Lake Park there are several memorials and buildings named in honor of people. The first was the planting of black walnut trees along West Green Lake Way in 1919, "in memory of our men who sacrificed their lives for our country" (Thomson to Board of Park Commissioners). In 1932, in honor of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, a grove of elm trees was planted on what has since been known as Elm Hill near the bathhouse at the west swimming beach.
In 1914, a new type of vessel came to the lake. Lou Evans (1892-1966), the Park Department’s Aquatic Director, brought in University of Washington crew coach Hiram Conibear (1871-1917) to lead a youth crew program. The program gained momentum when Alex C. Shults (1904-1953), sportswriter and chair of the Junior Rowing Association, and Clarence Massart (1897-1975), president of the Boy’s Club, Inc., organized a bowling tournament in 1947 to raise money for a new racing shell. It was named "Old Ten Pins." In 1947, the program expanded when the Junior Rowing Association of Seattle, the Seattle Bowling Operators’ Association, and the Young Men’s Business Club sponsored crew races for junior rowers. The University of Washington supported the endeavor by lending the time and expertise of its athletic manager Harve Cassill (1900-1979) and crew coach Al Ulbrickson (1878-1948). In 1967, a new shellhouse building at the lake’s southwest corner was named for Massart.
As the city grew up around the park, new water quality problems emerged. First, as streets crisscrossed the hillsides surrounding the lake and construction filled the lots, more and more runoff was diverted into storm drains. This reduced the amount of water entering the lake, exacerbating circulation problems. Furthermore, the runoff that did make it to the lake was polluted with chemicals from fertilizers used on lawns and gardens and from vehicles. In 1922, the city council appropriated $10,000 for water purification. A chlorination plant was built to treat water from Licton Springs. A system of pipes was laid at the Green Lake Low Reservoir to catch water that seeped out of the reservoir and feed it into the lake. They also treated the lake with copper sulphate to kill the algae.
In 1928, the Park Department built a bathhouse, with changing rooms and showers, on the west side of the lake. In its first year, 53,000 people used the facility. Two years later, the Park Department built concrete steps and armored the shoreline with concrete slabs at the east swimming beach. In 1929, the Speed Boat Regatta, featuring hydroplanes, marked the start of an era in which the lake served as a kind of stage, with races, fishing contests, swim meets, and performances drawing large crowds of participants and spectators. Later events would be sponsored by the Seattle Outboard Association, the Queen City Yacht Club, and the Seattle Yacht Club. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce seized upon the popularity of the hydroplane races and launched an annual Water Festival in 1931.
After World War II, the hydroplanes would be a key element in the annual Seafair celebrations at the park before they moved to Lake Washington in 1951. High school swim meets were held in the lake from 1933 until 1963, when they moved to Evans Pool. The first Flattie Regatta was held in 1939. It would move to Lake Washington near Leschi Park in 1962. Flatties are small, flat-bottomed sailboats that were designed by Ted Geary (1885-1960) in 1928 for the Seattle Yacht Club to use for teaching youth to sail.
In another burst of construction, the Green Lake Fieldhouse was built in 1929 in the filled area, near the playfield. It served as a bathhouse for the east swimming beach and had a gymnasium for indoor sports. It also had rooms for community classes, programs, and events. It was designed by Park Engineer Eugene Hoffman (1887-1976) in the Streamline Moderne style.
One of the most spectacular spring blossom shows in the park originated with a donation of hundreds of cherry trees for Seattle parks from the Japanese Association of America in 1931 in recognition of the long relationship between Seattle and Japan. Along West Green Lake Way to the northern side of the park and along the walking path from today’s wading pool area to the boathouse near the Aqua Theatre, visitors enjoy an explosion of blooms each spring. The most spectacular display can be found just south of the Bathhouse Theater. The donated cherry trees prompted some further shaping of the shoreline and other refinements. The construction of the new Pacific Highway (today’s Highway 99) provided about 100,000 cubic yards of soil that the Park Department used to raise the southern shore and eliminate swampy areas where the Pitch and Putt and parking lot are today. Not long after the fill was completed, work began on a shoreline path around the lake.
Water, Fish, Fauna, Birds
When water-quality problems arose again in the 1930s, Works Progress Administration workers dredged more than 450,000 cubic yards of soil to deepen the lake to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the lakebed and to remove the organic material that had built up and contributed to the abundant algal growth. The Parks Department filled in more of the shoreline, installed a new sewer line to prevent sewage leakage into the lake, and laid new pipe through the garbage fill to ensure upland spring water entered the lake uncontaminated. The department also treated the lake with copper sulfate to kill the algae.
WPA crews also built a large island in the approximate location shown in Olmsted’s 1910 plan. The island was reserved as a wildlife sanctuary, primarily for waterfowl. In 1956, the Parks Department designated the island the Waldo Waterfowl Refuge in honor of Waldo Dahl (1902-1988), a park commissioner. The refuge’s first residents were two white swans, gifts to the city from Vancouver, British Columbia. They were soon joined by Canada geese that nested on the island.
In the summer of 1941, the Board of Park Commissioners approved a plan to build concrete steps and a bulkhead at the east swimming beach, adjacent to the fieldhouse. With the decommissioning of the streetcar tracks throughout the city, beginning in 1939, a plethora of concrete slabs, which underlay the tracks in city streets, were pulled up and made available for a variety of retaining walls. That fall, the streetcar tracks around the lake were removed and lawn seeded in their place.
Fishing has drawn people to Green Lake for as long as the lake has been a lake. With all the modifications made to the lake and changing public expectations, the Parks Department adopted a more managed approached in the 1940s. In 1943, the lake was divided into youth and adult sections and a youth fishing pier added in the northeast corner. Sometime in the late 1940s the state Department of Game began stocking the lake with rainbow trout, a fish preferred by anglers. To "make room" for the trout, the Department of Game poisoned the existing fish, suckers, perch, and catfish, in October 1950.
The southern lakeshore continued to provoke complaints in the 1940s. It was the least developed section, and the swampy, willow-filled conditions led neighbors to complain about mosquitos and rats that they believed bred in the willows. The Parks Department made plans to clear the vegetation but was opposed by members of community groups. The Seattle Audubon Society opposed willow clearing because it served as vital habitat for purple martins. Earl V. Larrison, corresponding secretary for the chapter, wrote the Board of Park Commissioners that, "about one half of this clump of trees has the unique distinction of being the only place in the Pacific Northwest where those interesting birds, the Purple Martins, gather for the fall migration. Every evening in August and September, they come from miles (some say as far as 75 miles), gather in great flocks above the lake, and then drop into this grove by thousands and spend the night in the willows" (Larrison to The Seattle Park Board, June 27, 1944). Other concerned citizens, including Mrs. Erich A. Maritz, the publicity chair for the Washington Federation of Garden Clubs, wrote in defense of the willows and the birds that used them.
The first of many Fourth of July celebrations was held at the park in 1948. It would be an annual event that attracted thousands of spectators until 1972, when it outgrew the park and moved to Seattle Center. Another activity that operated at a smaller scale, but drew remarkable numbers of spectators, were the model-boat races. Excitement and interest generated by Stan Sayres organizing the first Gold Cup limited hydroplane race in Seattle led to construction of a racing basin in 1950. Using a miniature course laid out by the racing club, onshore captains used remote controls to maneuver their boats to the finish line. Though small, they were fast. The record speed was an astonishing 90 miles per hour. Two local clubs held regular meets and annual Seafair-affiliated races attracted about 4,000 spectators.
At a slower pace, but no less competitive, an annual casting contest drew a crowd of anglers each year. Contestants entered bait, dry fly, or wet fly categories and tried to land their hooks closest to targets floating in the lake. In 1962, a casting pier was built near Duck Island. It would host the casting tournament each July for a number of years. Casting lessons continue to be offered on the pier.
Aqua Theatre's Rise and Fall
One of the more unique attractions in the park debuted during the first Seafair celebration in 1950. Greater Seattle, Inc., a booster organization, sponsored and organized a city-wide series of parades, contests, and performances. The organization got the Parks Department to build an "Aqua Theater" at the southwest corner of the lake as a venue for a "swimsical revue" called the Aqua Follies. A concrete grandstand with 5,200 seats curving along the shore, facing a floating stage. In addition to the Aqua Follies, which was performed annually for Seafair until the mid-1960s, plays, rock bands, and other musical performance drew crowds each summer. The Aqua Theatre was expanded for the 1962 world’s fair, but then declined in popularity rapidly in the ensuing years, largely due, ironically, to the new performance venues built for the fair. In 1979, when the facility was dismantled, the center section of the grandstand was preserved.
In the 1950s, neighborhood parents began lobbying for construction of an indoor pool in the north end of the city. At the time, the only public pool was the outdoor, saltwater Colman Pool in Lincoln Park. In the post-war era, the Parks Department developed recreational facilities across the city to serve the rapidly growing population of children and teenagers. It decided that Green Lake Park was the best location for a pool, partly because Green Lake itself was already the site of many swimming programs, including lessons and swim meets. The pool building was designed by Daniel Lamont of the architecture firm Lamont & Fey. It features a thin-shell concrete roof system and large windows on all four sides, providing views out into the park. It opened in 1955 and is named in honor of Park Department employees Lou and Ben Evans, brothers who served, respectively, as Director of Aquatics from 1912 to 1957 and Director of Athletics from 1917 to 1960.
In 1959, the water quality came to a head once again. Robert O. Sylvester (1914-2011), a University of Washington Sanitary Engineering professor known for his work on Lake Washington’s pollution problems, was hired to investigate the causes and remedies of the problems in Green Lake. He studied the lake’s history and the changes that had shaped the waterbody’s functioning. Immediately after receiving Sylvester’s report, the Parks Department increased input from the city reservoir by 10 million gallons per day, removed more vegetation and silt from the shoreline, made a new connection to the North Trunk sewer, and installed a chlorinator plant near the west swimming beach to bolster water quality for swimmers.
1970s and Beyond
Beyond the lake itself, improvements to infrastructure further reduced the stormwater that entered the lake. Sylvester recommended adding more inlets and outlets, deepening the lake’s edges by at least 10 feet, installing fish screens at outlets, and protecting the lakeshore from erosion where wind and wave action were causing the most damage. The Board of Park Commissioners hired Stevens & Thompson engineering firm to develop a plan to carry out the additional improvements. The Water Department, Parks Department, and state Department of Game all worked on elements of the plan. Water quality problems would continue, however, with the proliferation of milfoil, an aquatic plant, adding to the lake’s issues in the 1980s.
Other changes came to the park in the 1970s. After much debate and input from the public, the Parks Department began paving the path around the lake. That same year, Cultural Arts Director Mildred Noble (1904-1998) proposed transforming the underutilized bathhouse at the west swimming beach into a space for cultural programs. The 130-seat Bathhouse Theater, with Brian Thompson as its first director, opened in 1969 and received many accolades for its performances over the next two decades. Since 1989, the venue has been home to the Seattle Public Theater.
The lake continued to serve as a venue for programs, including Memorial Day commemorations, Fourth of July fireworks, the Seafair Milk Carton Derbies, waterskiing championships, and El Toro sailboat races. Since 1984, From Hiroshima to Hope, a non-profit organization, has organized an annual lantern-floating event to honor the victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and promote peace.
In 1980, the Green Lake Small Craft Center opened. It was part of a rehabilitation of the southwest corner of the lake, which included the demolition of part of the Aqua Theatre, construction of a sailboat and canoe boathouse and a new dock, and renovation of the Massart Shellhouse.
That decade brought big changes to programming in the park. The last Fourth of July Fireworks display took place in 1980. It was moved to Gas Works Park for one year because of construction, but then never returned. Gas Works offered more room for large crowds of spectators. The hydroplane races left the lake in 1985 after complaints about noise and safety concerns. One new program launched at the park: The Bite of Seattle, a festival of foods served by local restaurants, took place at Green Lake from 1982 to 1986, after which it, too, moved to a larger venue.
Over the past 30 years, the park has hosted smaller, but beloved community events, including crew races, the Seafair Milk Carton Derby, the annual lantern-floating memorial, and a yearly "Pathway of Lights" winter walk. And each day, rain or shine, the path around the lake is filled with walkers, bicyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders, and runners.