Jefferson Park, the missing jewel

by Joel Lee

Workers busy last week putting some of the new features in the park. Photo by kashgroves in the Beacon Hill Blog photo pool on Flickr.
On April 30, 1903, Seattle leaders hired the prominent Olmsted Brothers, one of the first and most important landscape architecture firms in the country, to design a park and boulevard system for Seattle. On October 19, 1903, Charles Olmsted wrote of the Seattle park system that the “primary aim should be to secure and preserve for the use of the people as much as possible of these advantages of water and mountain views and of woodlands, well distributed and conveniently located.” Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park was one of a handful of parks that the Olmsteds considered vital to the success of their plan and the health of the city, and joined a short list of important parks including Seward Park, Green Lake, the Arboretum, and Volunteer Park as key links in an “emerald necklace” of parks and boulevards connecting the city.

A new viewpoint shows the autumn foliage from Jefferson Park. Photo by Joel Lee.
Unfortunately Jefferson Park’s history has been more convoluted than these other parks, and the Park has gone through many changes over the years since the land was first purchased by the city in 1898. Named after President Thomas Jefferson, the area was used for everything from a “pesthouse” isolating smallpox patients, to military use, housing anti-aircraft guns and a G.I. recreation center when the land was requisitioned during World War II.

A large northwest section of the park was turned over to the water department where, until recently, it housed the two above-ground water reservoirs built a hundred years ago. This had the unfortunate side effect of taking what had been a key open green space and community gathering spot on Beacon Hill and converting it to a fenced-off barbed wire government compound which served as a physical barrier dividing the neighborhood.

Soon, however, the fences are coming down and once again Beacon Hill will be united. At 52.4 acres, Jefferson Park and its accompanying golf course are one of Seattle’s largest parks. Although some of the key components to the park such as the skate park and the Beacon Mountain Playground are not yet complete, it is already easily one of the nicest parks in the city. With its well-planned walkways and playfields taking advantage of the stunning views of downtown and Elliott Bay, it is easy to imagine how this area is going to become Beacon Hill’s new outdoor living room and one of the best green spaces in the Seattle park system. Perhaps more importantly, it will finally complete the plan that the Olmsted Brothers put into place over 100 years ago to unite Seattle with an “emerald necklace” of parks and boulevards, and bring Beacon Hill together with the rest of the city.

Joel Lee maintains the Beacon Hill Public Art website.

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A celebration in the Army Recreation Center, Jefferson Park, 1943. Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives via Joel Lee.

15 thoughts on “Jefferson Park, the missing jewel”

  1. When is this thing finally going to open? I thought there was supposed to be a grand opening sometime in October? Or did that get postponed?

  2. When I was there taking pictures two weeks ago, the Parks and Rec employee who (politely) kicked me out said the opening was scheduled for the weekend of 10/22-24. As of last night, the fence is still up. Internet?

  3. According to a July 30th letter from Andy Sheffer, capital improvement coordinator for Jefferson Park the opening was being delayed until October 23rd because “Despite commitments, the landscape installation is not progressing at the rate needed for completion by September.”
    It is now past the delayed opening date and its still not open. If they are having an issue then they are sadly not informing the community. Even worse I’ve walked by the park every day since the 23rd and there is very little work going on.

  4. The reason why no work is being done is because all the workers are needed to hold the Slow/Stop signs on Columbian Way. That important task – as I have noticed – requires one person holding the sign while 3-4 other folks provide emotional support…

    In all seriousness, how hard is it to update the Parks & Recreation web site with a date for the official opening and/or sending a note to some of the known community leaders?

  5. I’ve seen eight Olmsted parks in my life, from the Emerald Necklace in Boston to Central Park in NYC to Cherokee Park in Lousiville Ky. Believe me, to say Jefferson Park in Seattle, as I saw yesterday and have watched move along for the past six years, hardly qualifies as an Olmsted Park. It’s a converted construction site, perfectly flat, replanted mostly with no respect toward native species or original landscape, and holds very little resemblance to its original natural state.

    I personally watched the agro-culture workers spray the (non-native)grass seed/fertilizer mixture on the newly laid (and at that point flooded) ponds that had formed among the tractor planing during the August rain.

    The opening was delayed because the crew forgot to seal the federal gov’t funded water reservoir (taxpayer loss). Among other delays.

    Olmsted would have nothing to do with this park, believe me. I am not suggesting, however, that it isn’t perfectly acceptable for this neighborhood. I think it’s a huge improvement.

  6. @ Lockmore, lol…I know, it’s frustrating.

    @Ash, I’m not even sure where to start. You are correct that Jefferson Park is not an Olmstead designed park. The good news is that most of the Olmstead’s design principles now seem pretty formal, out of touch and outdated, and I’m VERY happy that their guiding ideals were not followed when designing this park. They built at a time when nature was something to be manipulated and they made design suggestions such as draining Greenlake to make room for a foot path. The huge advantage that they do have is that all of their parks are now around 100 years old and have the types of mature growth that only comes with time, we need to wait at least 50 years before we could really compare parks.

    You do realize that the Olmstead brothers designed almost the entire Seattle park system? If you have only been to 8 Olmstead parks I would suggest taking a tour around Seattle, you can hit 37 Olmstead parks without breaking a sweat. But I think your missing the whole point…

    “According to Jerry Arbes, Board Member of the National Association of Olmsted Parks and also of Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, the key to appreciating what the Olmsteads did for Seattle is not to look at the separate parks but to look at the system as a whole. “There is a sense of connection in the Olmsted plan,” says Arbes. “The interlinked parks provide a diversity of experience, yet one senses a relationship between these separate elements.”

    Jefferson park is not an Olmstead park, but it’s the last large unrealized link in the ‘Emerald necklace’ of parks that the Olmsteads designed for us.

  7. Not to get too pedantic about it, but most of the 37 other “Olmstead Parks” in Seattle are no more “Olmstead Parks” than the new part of Jefferson Park is. In most of them, the city acquired the land, but didn’t develop it according to the Olmsteads’ plans. On the other hand, the Jefferson Park golf course actually was designed by the Olmsteads. But this is all completely beside the point that we have a lot of cool new park space on Beacon Hill.

  8. Thanks for keeping it real Brook. I keep spelling it ‘Olmstead’ when its actually ‘Olmsted’, sorry for my crappy spelling skills.

    In other breaking news, I just walked by the park and they have 3 trucks full of new fencing that they are putting up around the upper reservoir. I’m guessing/hoping that they will will put those up and then take the rest around the park down? Maybe today is the day?

  9. Thanks for the article, Joel.

    In further breaking news, I just returned from the Lawn Bowling clubhouse overlook. The work crews put temporary fencing around the footprint of the underground reservoir and around Beacon Mountain (mound?).

    The perimeter fence around the north side of the park is already gone and the paths out to the Elliott Bay overlook appear to be open now. The perimeter fencing by the lawn bowling overlook is still in place (as of 1pm today) but the crews are still working.


  10. Ha! Joel, I thought I misspelled “Olmsted” when I saw it spelled the other way in your comment, and so I corrected myself into an error. I’m plenty capable of my own misspellings, but will happily follow your lead into yours as well.

  11. I went up this afternoon, most of the fences are down along the north end of the park, enter near the fire station and you can walk all the way around most of the park. The views are stunning and you can finally appreciate what a huge open green space it is. Wonderful!

  12. NIce aticle Joel. I appreciate all the comments and all the time and effort put in by neighbors over the last 15 (20?) years to make Jefferson Park back into a park. I agree that its stunning.

    I’d like to take a second to point out another missing link in the Emerald Necklace. Cheatsy Boulevard and Mt Baker Boulevard are both part of the original Olmsted plan. Both are terrific parkways that connect to major parks. Unfortunatley, when you get to the bottom of Cheasty, you are face with the chaos of the Rainier/MLK intersection, cutting you offf from Mt Baker Boulevard.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to ride your bike through a parkway, to the Lake (or to Franklin HS) in the summer? How could we make that last connection, across the great divide of Rainier and MLK? Is it possible to drive a swath of greenery across the river of cars?

  13. Yes, they’re taking down the fences!

    A few comments and explanations. We originally had tried to create a grand opening celebration set for the date of September 18th. When Parks indicated that Jefferson wouldn’t be ready for that date, they offered us the date of October 23rd. We declined to put the effort into holding a celebration on that date for reasons that should be obvious: it would likely be cold, wet, and dark early. Also, as you can see from how they’re setting up the fences, the field on the hard lid and the Beacon Mountain Playground are still unfinished. So our current plan is to try and have a “grand celebration” just as they finish the Mountain Playground, currently due for early September next year. (Construction on the Playground/Spraypark should begin in early April. We’ve just been told that Parks has a new deal with City Light to build a Picnic Shelter with a photovoltaic roof near the playground!).

    Jefferson is definitely an Olmsted designed park. We have a copy of their design, from about 1911. The only part of that design that really remains is the 18 hole golf course, and the remnants of the path that currently connects the community center, lawn bowling, and Asa Mercer. Don’t forget that the original park included all the land of the VA, Asa Mercer, and Parks horticulture as well. If you include the original two reservoirs and the 9 hole and driving range, you see that the city essentially gave away the ENTIRE park to various entities. (I should comment here to David here that Cheasty connects to Mt Baker Boulevard and Park, and the lake, via the pedestrian pass over MLK and Rainier. It’s not great, but it does connect the Olmsted boulevards and you CAN ride your bike over it.)

    So the bit of the park that we’re getting back is in some ways restitution. It’s been a very long haul: in my house we’ve been fighting for this park for more than 20 years. It’s going to be major draw to Beacon Hill, a huge resource for our community, and we should be very, very happy to have it, even while we work to improve it and make it even better. Nice piece Joel!

  14. Hi David. I was speaking with Sam Woods (sdot) and she said she was cooking up some plans to add decorative lighting under the ped bridge at the bottom of Cheasty. This would draw attention to this facility and celebrate the connection it provides. I especially like the plan because it reframes a symbol of urban decay and disconnection as a feature that connects our parks, schools. and transit centers to one another.

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