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Published in The Seattle Times online on June 1, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on June 4, 2023
For first-of-its-kind Hiawatha Playfield, the trees are the keys
By Clay Eals
To my childish eyes in the 1950s, the swing set at West Seattle’s Hiawatha Playfield was the tallest in the world. As an adult, I enticed my daughter and nephews (and their kids) to the park with the same claim. For no matter your age, when you pump hard and swing high on those swings, you feel like you just might touch the nearby treetops.
This scenario fits the groundbreaking role that Hiawatha holds among Seattle parks. Though West Seattle had been annexed only four years prior, this squarish tract became, in 1911, the city’s first public place for indoor/outdoor recreation. The 11 acres comprised a fieldhouse for meetings and games, a ballfield and tennis courts for athletics, and paths and groves for respite and reflection.
Our “Then” photo was taken 50 days before the Jan. 5, 1912, opening of Hiawatha’s “sumptuous” fieldhouse, as described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Some two-dozen trees dot an otherwise shorn and barren landscape. But as we see in our “Now” image, the foresight of the legendary Olmsted Brothers, Seattle’s early 20th-century park designers from the East, made possible a more lush fate, creating an Admiral neighborhood showcase.
One could lyrically surmise that its trees are the keys. Arthur Lee Jacobson, known as “Mr. Tree” for the 1989 and 2006 editions of his encyclopedic book “Trees of Seattle,” embraces Hiawatha because trees were integral to its conception, not “an incidental afterthought.”
The park’s scores of varieties include a majestic Red Oak (a “Heritage Tree,” says nonprofit PlantAmnesty) whose dimensions, measured anew by Jacobson, stretch 133 feet wide and 78 feet tall, with a trunk circumference of 15 feet, 8 inches. And it’s not even halfway toward a 250-year life expectancy.
Though Hiawatha provides many access points, its stairstep entry at the southeast corner of California Avenue and Lander Street offers an evergreen treat absent in 1911. It’s the comforting canopy of two robust, low-slung Lawson Cypress trees, imbuing visitors beneath them with an aura akin to photographer W. Eugene Smith’s famously forested tableau of two youngsters, “The Walk to Paradise Garden.”
The park, named by the late West Seattle philanthropist and park commissioner Ferdinand Schmitz for a precolonial Native American leader lionized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has hardly been static. Hiawatha’s fieldhouse — enlarged in 1949, rebranded as a community center in the 1970s and closed since 2020 — is slated for an upgrade, as are the park’s playground and its ballfield’s artificial turf.
The trees of Hiawatha, too, are ever-changing. Yet their sturdiest specimens keep beckoning a skyward gaze from the child in us all.
Thanks to Karen O’Connor, Ken Bounds, Ya-Hui Foozer, Chris Eals, Frankie Foozer, Diane Venti and especially Arthur Lee Jacobson for their invaluable help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
Below are a video interview of Arthur Lee Jacobson, 3 related documents, 9 additional photos and, in chronological order, 21 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.