A mansion outside Volunteer Park, Seattle, and the park itself

Volunteer Park: A dose of nature in the middle of Seattle

Sometimes I’ll take a detour up Aloha, just for the beauty of it. The tree-lined street curves up from 10th to 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, and beyond, past graceful old homes that speak of a different era.

If I have time, I’ll stop at Volunteer Park for a dose of nature. It’s nature of a different era, too: expansive manicured lawns, wide paths, two water lily ponds with koi, street lamps, a beautiful little 1912 conservatory. Still, there are paths and spots in this 48-acre park where it’s easy to forget you’re in a city.

How ironic, then, that there are two great photo ops for the city here. One is at Isamu Noguchi’s Black Sun sculpture (1969). If you line your shot up right, you can see the Space Needle in the donut hole. The other city photo op is from the top of the 1906 water tower.

The water tower at Volunteer Park, Seattle

Volunteer Park’s Water Tower has a view of Seattle. Shown here: a path nearby, the tower exterior, and one of the two staircases. Only 107 stairs up to the observation deck. (Rosie Gaynor photos)

It’s only 107 stairs up to the observation deck, according to the park’s website, but it’s a claustrophobe’s challenge. I’ve never been up, but when I was there snapping this photo, a woman strode up one side and down the other side of the tower’s double-helix stairway in the two minutes that it took me to walk around the outside of the building. So, it’s quick.

It’s actually only a short walk around the tower, but I got distracted by the textures in tower’s bricks. There are so many delightful old details in this park. Look how pretty the little flowers on the water tower’s sign are (below). Enjoy the foot-massaging cobbles in front of the Thomas Burke memorial. (Oh, sorry: it’s a “pedestal-bench-plaza,” a phrase that sounds excessive until you actually stand there in person. It really is a pedestal-bench-plaza with tons of typography.) One of the rock inlays on the plaza in front of Mr. Burke depicts the West Coast states in red and the Pacific Ocean in blue-gray. And, I don’t know, but I think I saw my first Art Deco penis. (Not Mr. Burke’s.)

The Thomas Burke Memorial and flower detail from the water tower plaque at Volunteer Park, Seattle

Details from Volunteer Park, Seattle: a flower on the water tower’s plaque + the Thomas Burke Memorial, which includes some rock inlays and some inlaid pebbles. (Rosie Gaynor photos)


There’s more Art Deco on the other side of the parking lot—a huge, glorious pile of it. Check out the doors of the Thomas Burke memorial.


the doors of Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park

The imposing doors of the Seattle Asian Art Museum…looking slightly less imposing than usual with the temporary, pink Neo Pop banners. Even if you don’t have time to go in, at least go up to the doors. It’s fun to just stand under all that hugeness. (Rosie Gaynor photo)


One of the two best lectures I’ve ever attended took place here (Xu Bing). I’ve only been to three exhibits at SAAM, but I really enjoyed them. Is their permanent collection any  good? I don’t know enough about Asian art to comment on that, but I can say that if you’re looking for a little inspiration on a rainy day, SAAM’s permanent collection can do the trick. You’ll just have to slow down enough to see it.

You can slow down for free outside. Volunteer Park is a great place to spread a picnic blanket or to stretch out in the sun (or shade). There are performances in the amphitheater. There’s a playground and a wading pool. And a dahlia garden, which is way cooler than it sounds. (Speaking of cool flowers, the conservatory’s corpse flower bloomed in September 2014. Check back in with this stinky flower in seven to ten years.)

When I was just about done taking the pictures for this blog post, one last detail caught my eye. On the park’s naming monument, there’s a chunky eagle carved into the stone, touchingly subtle for such a stolid piece, embracing a plaque that tells why the park is named Volunteer Park.

Volunteer Park monument, Seattle

A monument at Volunteer Park. Check out the eagle… I like him! (Rosie Gaynor photo)


The plaque reads: Volunteer Park—renamed 1901 in tribute to the volunteer services of Spanish-American War veterans who liberated the oppressed peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. April 1898–July 1902. “Lord God of hosts be with us yet lest we forget, lest we forget.” Erected 1953.

I’m sorry to say, I had forgotten about the war.

But you can forget a lot in this park.

Or remember.

It’s that kind of place.