Tag Archives: Environmental History

Gas Works Park: A Brief History of a Seattle Landmark

Seattle-based landscape architect Richard Haag has reshaped his city and his profession as a designer, teacher, and activist. In the new book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design, Thaisa Way deftly guides readers through Haag’s major influences, design philosophy, and his numerous works, both public and private. The photos and text excerpted below provide a brief history of one of Haag’s best know public works, the rehabilitation of Gas Works Park in Seattle.

*Scroll to the bottom of this post to learn about upcoming opportunities to meet Richard Haag and author Thaisa Way.

[A] significant  event in Haag’s career was the 1956 closing of the gasification plant that lay on the northern shore of Lake Union. Sitting on a small promontory once known as Browns Point, the plant had manufactured the gas that supplied the city for fifty years. It had also been the source of immense pollution in the soil, water, and, most visibly, air. When it closed due to new sources of gas and energy, it was a toxic wasteland, and yet, because of its central position in the city, many considered it potential park space. Money was available for such a transformation, but the question was how to address such a disturbed and toxic site. From these conditions, Gas Works Park evolved as one of the first postindustrial landscapes to be transformed into public place. …

Ever since his arrival in Seattle, Haag had been dreaming of what to do with the abandoned site. It would take until 1975 to open the park to the public. Today it includes 20.5 acres of land projecting 400 feet into Lake Union with 1,900 feet of shoreline. It features the 45-foot-high Kite Hill, preserved gasification towers called “cracking” towers, a boiler house converted to a picnic shelter complete with tables and grills,and a former exhauster-compressor building transformed into the open-air Play Barn housing a maze of brightly painted machinery for children. It inspired projects across the nation and around the globe, from the work of Julie Bargman in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, to the work of Peter and Annelise Latz at Duisburg Nord, Germany.

Haag saw the dramatic site for the first time by rowboat on an autumn night and was immediately drawn to the somber black towers of the gas plant, set on the promontory surrounded by water on three sides and the Olympic Mountains visible in the far distance. He continued to explore the place and over time developed an attitude toward the remains of the gas plant. As he described it:

“When I get a new site, I always want to know, figure out, what is the most sacred thing about this site? Well, this site, without the buildings, there was nothing sacred about it. It did have a shoreline, but it would have a shoreline with or without the buildings. So I decided that this big tower, the one right behind me, was the most sacred, the most iconic thing on this site, and that I would go down to the wire to save that structure. Then as I got into it more, I thought, that’s kind of silly. Why wouldn’t you save the one behind it? You know, husband and wife? And then you start thinking, wait a minute, there’s four more: those are the kids. So it would break up a family. So I began to think bigger and bigger about saving more of these structures.”

As Haag explored the site, he would become increasingly enamored of its character and its potential as a new type of public park, specifically, a new kind of historic preservation effort, this one focused on an industrial past. As he later recalled:

“I haunted the buildings and let the spirit of the place enjoin me. I began seeing what I liked, then I liked what I saw—new eyes for old. Permanent oil slicks became plain without croppings of concrete, industrial middens were drumlins, the towers were ferro-forests and the brooding presence became the most sacred of symbols. I accepted these gifts, and decided to absolve the community’s vindictive feel towards the gas plant.”

9.2.aerial by naramore.revised..00454w12 (2)

Gas plant, Seattle, c. 1950. Aerial photo by Floyd Naramore. CBE Visual Resources Collection.

Gas Works Park master plan, 1971.

Gas Works Park master plan, 1971. Richard Haag Associates records.

Gas Works Park as a concept, 1971. Rendering by Dale Jorgensen.

Gas Works Park as a concept, 1971. Rendering by Dale Jorgensen. Collections of Richard Haag.

Maylor Uhlman surveying the site while Haag explains his plans, Seattle, 1974.

Maylor Uhlman surveying the site while Haag explains his plans, Seattle, 1974. Collection of Richard Haag.

9.11.GWPoil slick.haag (2)

Oil slick as art, gasworks site, Seattle 1970. Collection of Richard Haag.

Aerial view of Gas Works Park soon after it opened, c. 1975.

Aerial view of Gas Works Park soon after it opened, c. 1975. CBE Visual Resources Collection.

Barn and machinery with dancers and filmmaker, Gas Works Park, Seattle, c. 1975,

Barn and machinery with dancers and filmmaker, Gas Works Park, Seattle, c. 1975. Collection of Richard Haag.


Gas Works Park, Seattle, 2014. Tighe Photography.

Gas Works Park, Seattle, 2014.

Gas Works Park, Seattle, 2014. Tighe Photography.

Thaisa Way is associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. She is the author of Unbounded Practices: Women, Landscape Architecture, and Early Twentieth Century Design.

See more images and learn about Haag and the making of this iconic Seattle landmark in The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design. Watch a trailer for the book here.

Meet Richard and Thaisa and pick up a signed copy of the book at these upcoming events:

UW Press News, Reviews, and Events


Weyerhaeuser-BookThe Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books catalog celebrates the first sixty titles published in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series under founding editor William Cronon’s direction. Authors published into the series express their gratitude for Cronon’s visionary editorial guidance and for the generosity of Jack and Jan Creighton, who have supported the series since its inception over twenty years ago. Browse the catalog and you’ll begin to get a sense of how the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series has shaped the discipline as well as popular understandings of environmental history. For more on William Cronon’s recent retirement as series editor, see our post Editorial Changes to Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series.

Continue reading

Bedbugs: The Social and Environmental History of an Urban Pest

In today’s post, Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats author Dawn Day Biehler examines the historical roots of bedbug outbreaks and how social inequality continues to exacerbate the problem for many city dwellers. Biehler also explains how American domestic practices have altered the genetic makeup of bedbugs, making them even more tenacious pests than the ones previous generations had to deal with. Finally, she argues for the need to view domestic spaces as both natural and social in order to get to the root of the bedbug problem.

In May of 1999, the New York Times column, “For Your Information,” included a letter from a reader who recalled visits from bedbugs—in spite of his mother’s bedtime blessings—during his Depression-era childhood. Having gone decades without suffering a bite, the reader inquired, “Has this lowly bug been completely chased from the city?”[1]

The reader’s timing was eerie. That year, Louis Sorkin of the American Museum of Natural History noted that his office had “received more bedbug specimens for identification in the past three years than in the previous 20.” Soon, discreet transactions with entomologists and pest management professionals could no longer contain the growing, tenacious multitude of bugs. Within months, tenants and landlords, hoteliers and cab drivers, retailers and office managers across the United States confessed to their struggles with this tiny bloodsucker.

Continue reading

Science, Whaling, and International Conservation

In his new book, Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas, Kurkpatrick Dorsey details international efforts to create a regulatory framework that would support a sustainable whaling industry. Although those efforts ultimately failed, Dorsey illuminates the implications and lessons learned from that failure for current international conservation and sustainability efforts. In this guest post, Dorsey draws parallels between the lack of scientific consensus in debates about climate change and the international whaling industry.

I suppose that if I were a newspaper editor, I would be thankful for climate change, whether or not I owned beachfront property. For the last few weeks, a lively debate on the subject has been running in my local paper, Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, New Hampshire. Climate change has been the subject of syndicated columns, letters to the editor, and even editorial cartoons. Most interesting was a debate between two area men with claims to expertise, which has been evolving through community commentary to letters to the editor to a head-to-head pairing of articles, followed by more letters. The most fascinating debating point was whether or not a consensus actually exists among climate scientists that people are contributing to changing the earth’s climate. In other words, is the scientific community really that certain about climate change?

Continue reading