Rustic constructions were common features in Seattle’s first parks. The rough-hewed twists and textures of the region’s own materials gave these generally fanciful creations — pergolas, bandstands, benches, bridges, fences, portals — a feeling of having grown with the landscape. The original gateway to Cowen Park was a sizable example.
Cowen Park was given to the city by an English immigrant who stipulated that in return for the 12 acres a marker be placed commemorating his gift. Actually, Charles Cowen’s family name was Cohen not Cowen and their wealth was made largely from the diamond mines of South Africa. Coming to America on business for the family mines Charles decided to stay and soon changed his name.
The 41-year-old Cohen-Cowen arrived in Seattle in 1900 and purchased 40 acres of cleared but not yet platted land north of the University District. It was the part of these acres that bordered Ravenna Park, which he gave to the city with his namesake provision. The remaining flatter acres he platted and sold, generally prospering from them and his other Seattle investments.
Cowen also paid for the construction of the rustic gateway at the park’s southeast corner where University Way crosses Ravenna Boulevard. Within two years of his gift the city had cleared the park of its underbrush, built a shelter house and groomed the brook which ran from Green Lake through both Cowen and Ravenna parks on its often babbling way to Lake Washington’s Union Bay. When Green Lake was lowered seven feet in 1911 the creek’s primary source was cut off and its volume restricted to park springs and runoff alone. The creek’s old meandering way between Green Lake and the Cowen-Ravenna ravine was graded over and straightened as Ravenna Boulevard.
Most likely this photograph from the Asahel Curtis studio was recorded late in 1909. The number on the original negative falls near the end of the roughly 4556 studio numbers allotted that year. For Curtis it was a record year for picture taking, in part because the summer-long Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition was held in 1909 in a Seattle made photogenic for it. Although Curtis was not the fair’s official photographer, he and many other studios were able to exploit the fair thanks to both citizens and the exceptional surge of visitors who gathered their souvenirs while consuming Seattle.
Most of the greater University District was retouched for AYP including Cowen Park although obviously the hard surface paving on University Way did not make it as far north as the entrance to the park here at Ravenna Boulevard.
Looking here beyond the woman standing with the child and through the original rustic gate it is clear that neither shall man leave the land alone. On the north side of the gate the park drops away into what in 1909 would for only two more years be a babbling ravine. Since the early 1960s it has been a more-or-less level playfield made from one hundred thousand yards of “free fill” scooped away during the creation nearby of the 1-5 Freeway. At the time, to quote from Don Sherwood’s hand-written history of Seattle parks, “Many residents and the Mountaineers Club were appalled.”
Still the fill has had its uses. The hip community’s first Human Be-in was held at Cowen Park in the spring of 1967. Later in August 1971 the Second Annual Frisbee for Peace Intergalactic Memorial Thermogleep U.F.O. Frisbee Festival was held on the settled playfield. However, a proposal from the event’s sponsors, the University District Center to make it an official Seafair event was rejected. At the time future historylink founder, Walt Crowley, directed the Center.