| Outings + Activities | Arts | Family fun

Volunteer Park and Conservatory

Tall trees and rainy day options
1247 15th Ave. E., Seattle

Volunteer Park is one of Seattle's oldest parks, beautifully planned and important to residents for generations. Natural beauty, open space, a large playground, a museum and a conservatory give families plenty to choose from.

History: The City of Seattle purchased the 40-acre property that is now Volunteer Park from sawmill engineer J.M. Colman in 1876 in hopes that Seattle would be named the state capital and that the Capitol Building would occupy the site. In 1883, however, Olympia was named the state capital and Seattle decided to use the land as a municipal cemetery. In 1885 the property was dedicated as Washelli Cemetery. ("Washelli" is a Makah word meaning "west wind.") Burials occurred in the area occupied by the current reservoir, built in 1901. The bodies were removed in 1887 to the nearby Masonic cemetery (now Lake View Cemetery), and the land rededicated as a park. The park was first called Lake View Park, but confusion with Lake View Cemetery led the name to be changed to City Park. The name was changed again in 1901 to Volunteer Park in honor of the volunteers then serving in the Spanish-American War (1898-1902). The land was cleared, and from 1904 to 1909 the Olmstead Brothers firm planned the park's layout and features. By 1912, the comfort station, walkways, pergola, lily ponds , conservatory, wading pool and a play area were complete. The wading pool was renovated in 1943 and again in 1973, and current playground equipment dates from the early 1990s. The playground/wading pool area is the oldest park playground in Seattle.

Features: The playground features a large climbing structure with bridges, two slides and several hand-over-hand areas, and a large swing set with three tot and three belt swings. Several wooden platforms foster creative play--or spontaneous performances. An abstract sculpture many kids call the dinosaur bone can be climbed over and through. A smaller tot area with bouncy seats, a tiny slide, and a small-scale play structure is set slightly apart under tall trees. Many picnic tables dot the playground's perimeter. The large circular wading pool does winter duty as a speedway for toddlers on wheels, so pack your tricycle. Restrooms are located a good distance up the hill past the wading pool and meadow.

The Conservatory, built in 1912 and modified several times, is a wonderful place to spend time on a rainy afternoon. The orchid collection, originally a 1919 gift from Anna and James Clise, is one of the largest in the country. The cacti, bromeliads and carnivorous plants are novelties to many Seattle children, and the building's interior makes a balmy refuge on cold days. www.cityofseattle.net, 206-684-4743.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum (formerly the Seattle Art Museum, built in 1933 and occupying the original pergola/music pavilion location) is free on the first Thursday and first Saturday of every month. Even a quick walk through will expose children to gorgeous Art Deco architecture and a healthy dose of culture. Don't miss the children's activity room in the rear of the main floor. www.seattleartmuseum.org, 206-654-3100.

The Isamu Noguchi sculpture "Black Sun," located directly across from the museum, is irresistible for climbing. Two lily ponds, recently restored, flank the sculpture. The many monuments scattered throughout the park are a historical treasure hunt, and the large old cedars that grace the park grounds make good playhouses or climbing spots.

The Water Tower (built in 1906 and located just south of the museum) makes a challenging climb for little kids, but the view is worth it. Climb the 106 steps that lead in a spiral to an observation deck, and look for the historical exhibit about Seattle's Olmstead-designed parks.

Access: Neither the wading pool, the Conservatory, or water tower are wheelchair-accessible. The playground predates and therefore is not required to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but has some accessible features.

Nearby: The Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library is located nearby at 425 Harvard Ave. E., 206-684-4715. Two blocks east of the playground is Cafe Europa: amazing panini and great baked goods, plus espresso, hot chocolate and a delicious house chai. 1501 17th Ave, E. at the corner of 17th and Lynn. 206-328-3155, www.europahideout.com

Paula Becker is a contributing editor to www.HistoryLink.org and mother of three.

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