Historic Dunn Gardens in Seattle, An Olmstead Living Legacy

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Historic Dunn Gardens in Seattle, An Olmstead Living Legacy

In the early 1900’s, Arthur Dunn, who had made a fortune in fishery canning, sought out the renowned expertise of the Olmsted brothers to develop gardens at his family’s north Seattle summer retreat.

The Olmsteds were celebrated for designs that played off of what nature already had to offer, and today’s Dunn Gardens still reflect that basic design tenant despite the passage of a hundred years of growth and change. And, unlike many Olmsted-designed private residential gardens, Dunn Gardens, which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is open regularly for private tours.

Rhododendron Blooms at Dunn Gardens

Following Arthur Dunn’s death, the family’s summer estate was divided among his heirs. Fortunately, this didn’t lead to the garden’s demise, and in fact, one of his sons spent much of his life augmenting this beloved estate.  Edward B. Dunn, a plant enthusiast, added a woodland garden and outstanding rhododendrons below the intact native Douglas Firs, which the Olmsteds had intentionally preserved and integrated into their original design. Along the forest floor, ferns, trillium, dog-tooth lily, epimedium, and many other stunning plants flourish today under the diligent care of talented curators Charles Price and Glenn Withey – plus their small staff and many enthusiastic volunteers.

Olmsted inspired curving pathways at Dunn Gardens in Seattle

To tour Dunn Gardens, plan your trip for April-July or September-October. Docents lead private tours for a small admission fee. Or, schedule yourself for one of the slightly more expensive fundraising seminars or events such as the mid-spring wine tasting tour, which is perfectly timed for taking in the riotous explosion of blooming rhododendrons everywhere – potted on patios and towering overhead in broad, tree forms. Years ago, it was a lazy afternoon tasting wine and strolling the Olmsted-envisioned expansive lawns and curving paths with peek-a-boo Puget Sound views when I fell in love with this hidden and inspiring Seattle garden gem. Since then, I’ve visited earlier in spring when the wide lawns are exploding with crocus color. And, I’ve enjoyed the later turn of seasons when the many deciduous trees added by the Olmsteds (and others) begin to turn and color the grounds with the burnished tones of fall. At any moment in this garden it is easy to breathe deeply and imagine yourself among the privileged few who, a century ago, first lounged in this beautiful horticultural space all summer long.