Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory may face closure right before its 100th anniversary

By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly

The facade of Volunteer Park Conservatory (Photo by Sarah Yee/NWAW )

From Seward Park to Woodland Park, the 20-mile stretch along Lake Washington is also known as the “emerald necklace.” The 37 parks along this route have more than 100 years of history. This comprehensive Olmsted-designed park system has always given Seattle residents a sense of pride.

As the economic recession hits, the park budgets are under scrutiny by the City of Seattle.

Volunteer Park Conservatory, neighbor of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, is one of the attractions that may face closure.

“Our sources in the Seattle Parks have implied that closure of the conservatory has been proposed by Parks as a possible reduction [of the budget]. The mayor will be weighing all of the options presented to him and proposing his budget in September. It is our hope that we can demonstrate enough support from the public to dissuade him from including the conservatory in his cuts,” said Anthonio Pettit, president of the Friends of the Conservatory.

When the Olmstead Brothers Landscape Architecture of Massachusetts was hired by the Seattle City Council in 1903 to design a park system for the city, it was an ideal time. The Klondike Gold Rush made Seattle a wealthy city and brought in ample funding to develop Seattle’s park system.

With $5,000, the Olmstead Brothers secured a Victorian glasshouse designed and manufactured in New York, shipped it to Seattle, and situated it at the north end of Volunteer Park in 1912. They envisioned a conservatory that would be modeled after London’s Crystal Palace.

However, in order to currently maintain the conservatory, the city spends approximately $430,000 per year. This covers all operating expenses and salaries for four full-time gardeners.

The inside of the Volunteer Park Conservatory (Photo by Sarah Yee/NWAW )

The conservatory houses 600 types of plants. Whether one wants to see anthuriums from Hawaii or tall ginger plants from Asia, the conservatory has conveniently placed these plants only a few houses apart.

It is also a historical structure, and it remains free of charge for visitors. Donations are accepted upon entry.

“In order to make a world-class city, this is one of the things you have to keep. Tourists include it on their itineraries. Yet it is hard to prove to the city,” said Audrey Meade, office administrator at the Volunteer Park Conservatory.

In order to keep the conservatory open, Friends of the Conservatory are focusing on a signature drive to be presented to the mayor’s office. They have collected 2,000 signatures so far. They also extended invitations to the mayor and city council members for a personal tour, in the hopes of demonstrating the conservatory’s values.

“The main point that we are trying to convey is that the conservatory is a one-of-a-kind historical landmark, which, unlike many of the potential cuts the city is considering, cannot be reopened. The plant collections, which represent nearly 100 years of careful cultivation, would be lost forever.

Seattle would lose one of its great icons,” said Pettit.

It is more than an attraction to school groups, plant lovers, and history buffs. For 98 years, the conservatory grew with many people in the area.

“There are a lot of botanical features in [the conservatory],” said Beth Purdum, who grew up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. “It’s very nice that there’s one in the center of the city. You don’t have to drive outside to enjoy the collection.”

“I hear a lot of amazing stories from people from all walks of life. A lot of people who visit from hospitals find this to be an uplifting type of environment. It’s so touching,” said Meade.

Without the conservatory, a big part of Volunteer Park would be missing. Although it has no membership that it shares with the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the two sites draw visitors to each other.

“We see more visitors on the first Thursdays of the month, when [the Seattle Asian Art Museum] is open free to the public. The two [facilities] really enhance one another,” said Meade.

“We are one-and-a-half years away from the celebration of [the conservatory’s] centennial. It went through the Great Depression, World War I, and World War II. It would be a shame if we can’t make it through this ‘Great Recession,’ ” said Meade, keeping her fingers crossed. ♦

Volunteer Park Conservatory is located at 1400 E. Galer St., Seattle, WA 98112. For more information, call 206-684-4743.

Sarah Yee can be reached at

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