In January 2007, one of the most exciting projects to happen in a long time in downtown finally opened to the public after eight years in the making. Posters for the Olympic Sculpture Park had given anxious downtown residents more lead time than a Michael Bay film. I say anxious because if you visit the city of Seattle, you may notice the distinct lack of green spaces. I live in Belltown so the idea of having a large park within walking distance was a very exciting prospect!
The Seattle Art Museum and the Trust for Public Land purchased the land between Western Avenue, Alaskan Way, and Broad Street in 1999 for a modest $16.5 million. That same year, Microsoft alum Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary, pledged to fund operations so that the park could remain free to public visitors. Two years later, Weiss/Manfredi Architects in New York were commissioned as lead designers and the park you can see now is the result of these collaborative efforts.
The park spans a road and a railway line, drawing your eye from Western Avenue to the waterfront view, which on a clear day allows you to see the magnificent Olympic mountain range. On your first visit I would definitely recommend entering the park from Western Avenue entrance and walking down towards the waterfront as opposed to starting on Alaskan Way.
Being as new as it is, most of the vegetation in the park is still young so you have to see the potential. Fortunately, Seattle is blessed with plenty of sun and rain so it shouldn’t take too long for shrubs and grasses to settle in.
Probably the most striking sculpture at the park is Eagle, by Alexander Calder. It has pride of place in the park and is visible from almost any angle. The PACCAR Pavilion at the top of the park is worth a look to start your tour. You can stop in for a coffee and check out two installations by Pedro Reyes. Next on the trail is Richard Serra’s Wake, which seem totally at home in a setting where you can look out at the Puget Sound and see huge cargo ships running in and out of the Port of Seattle.
There are 21 pieces currently at the park, some I think are wonderful and others not so much. But part of the fun of the park is walking the zig-zag path and considering the different sculptures on the way. On the corner of Broad and Elliott is the Neukom Vivarium by Mark Dion. It’s essentially a 60ft fallen tree that’s been laid to rest in a greenhouse environment and visitors are allowed to observe the different life forms now living off the tree. As you might expect of a greenhouse, it’s a very warm and damp environment. The only element that seems to be missing is a scattering of exotic butterflies.
If you follow the diagonal paths all the way down, you’ll pass Love & Loss by Roy McMakin. It takes a few seconds to put together the pieces of the puzzle but if you stand at the correct angle, you’ll be able to make out the different letters subtly painted onto trees, benches, a table and what has now become a wishing well of sorts.
The Olympic Sculpture Park eventually joins up with Myrtle Edwards Park, where you can continue walking along the waterfront for another mile or so. On a warm summer’s evening, taking in the two parks is an uplifting experience even if it does get busy with joggers and bikers (fortunately there is a separate bike lane.) The two parks are also very popular with dog-walkers and young families, understandable with the many well-paved paths connecting Western Avenue with the waterfront.
If you want to round off the evening in style, I’d suggest ducking into the bar at the Waterfront Seafood Grill on Pier 70 (2801 Alaskan Way) to watch the sun set. Try one of their mojitos, they’re delicious and you can’t beat the Puget Sound and mountain views although at $11 each, the pleasure comes at a price.
The Olympic Sculpture Park is open and free to the public 365 days a year.
May 1-Sept 30: 6am-9pm daily
October 1-April 30: 7am-6pm daily
Olympic Sculpture Park
2901 Western Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121