Miller and O’Connell: Revisiting Capitol Lake

The previous two newsletters contained articles on the history of Capitol Lake, whose authors maintain divergent conclusions. As our newsletter policies maintain, the Olympia Historical Society welcomes submissions on any subject of local history and does not take positions on the points of view of our contributors.

Mr. Miller submitted the following:

Unfortunately the membership of the Olympia Historical Society was purposefully deceived by an article in the June newsletter by Emmett O’Connell entitled: “The Myth of Connection between Wilder and White and Capitol Lake.” The article was false on two counts. First it is an historical fact that Wilder and White’s 1911 plan for the State Capitol Campus included the reflecting Capitol Lake. The August 29, 1911, “Report of Group Plan” signed by Wilder and White and which is in the State Archives states: “A tide lock at the Boulevard would form a lake and the whole effect would be visible from most parts of the city as well as from the sound.” A full copy of the document is attached. Second, Mr. O’Connell deceptively overlays the 1912 Olmsted Brothers plan, which was rejected by the State Capitol Commission, as if it was the Wilder and White plan for Capitol Lake and the Campus. This history is clearly laid out in Professor Norman J. Johnston’s definitive book on the subject: Washington’s Audacious State Capitol, at pages 33-37 and page 124.

Mr. O’Connell submitted the following:

I have two thoughts about the discussion reflecting the piece I submitted earlier this year on the history of Capitol Lake.

First, in “The myth of the connection between Wilder and White and Capitol Lake” I opaquely described the early history of the Wilder and White era of capitol campus design. Based on a master’s thesis by Mark Epstein, I overlayed the Olmsted Brother’s plan for a more limited lagoon with the current Capitol Lake. I don’t think I was wrong in showing that overlay, but I would admit that I didn’t explain it well.

According the Norman Johnston, the Olmsted’s group plan was rejected in 1912 not because of its more limited lake, but because it suggested a new axis for the campus. The axis on which the group would be built was an important consideration for the Capitol Commission, as explained below.

By the time the campus landscape planning was completed in the late 1920s, the Olmsted Brothers were brought back in by the commission, and depending on what history you believe, waterfront improvements either reverted back to the Olmsted’s vision (according to Epstein) or were dropped altogether (according to Johnston).

Second, I find the suggestion that Walter Wilder and Harry White’s “Report of Group Plan” as the last word in any discussion of Capitol Lake’s history troubling. Yes, they did mention a lake in that letter, but its worth exploring the entire letter to see the lake’s context in their minds.

The “Report of Group Plan” is correspondence from Wilder and White to the Capitol Commission dated August 29, 1911. The document is just over 4 pages long and in it Wilder and White quickly lay out three questions to be answered by the letter:

1. Was Olympia the right place for a permanent state capitol for Washington State?

2. Can the city express any special character possessed by the state?

3. Can Olympia’s growth be directed to “enhance the importance of the state.” This was an important question because capitol buildings in many older states had become crowded and overgrown by their host cities.

In terms of the first question, Wilder and White demur because of their limited knowledge of the state. They do point out that a coastal city was a proper choice because the state itself is coastal. And, in terms of Olympia’s small size compared to other cities, Wilder and White point out that the city can be more attentive to the needs of the state government than trying to compete with Tacoma or Seattle.

Wilder and White move quickly from the second question into the third, answering that it is:

…in the possibilities that (Olympia) contains for expressing the character of the state, that the city in general as well as the site for the capitol is remarkable, and we believe careful development of these possibilities, will result in an effect unequalled by any capitol in the world.

Most of the report (the remaining three pages) deal with answering the third question, how Olympia’s growth could be shaped to emphasis the capitol campus they proposed.

They then discuss the alternative of the north south orientation of the campus that they recommend, the east west orientation which would connect the campus to Capitol Way (Main Street then). Wilder and White criticize this approach, calling it “nothing but an accidental importance, starting nowhere and ending indefinitely…” Changing the approach to the east would also turn the capitol’s back on Olympia and ignore the approach from the water.

More specific recommendations reconnect their vision of the north south axis with the possibilities they earlier mentioned. They go into detail about a new road, which would be a possible extension of 4th Avenue, that would “connect the main ridges contained within the city” and continue to coastal towns. This road would be connected to the campus by another, which would extend along the east shore of what is now Capitol Lake and continue to the then proposed Pacific Highway and then onto Tumwater.

Wilder and White then propose regrading the hill between Water Street and the campus, creating space for a park-like setting for city and “other public buildings.”

Then, they discuss the building of a tide lock at the boulevard first mentioned earlier to “form a lake and the whole effect would be visible from most parts of the city as well as from the Sound.” In the entire document, this is the only mention of a tide lock and a lake.

Then follows a more philosophical discussion of why the city growing the manner they prescribe, while a sacrifice, would benefit Olympia in the long run. They quickly pivot from their specific recommendations about the growth of the city to the benefits that would be created by “any sacrifice made by property owners in the city for the sake of its beauty…”

The sacrifices on the part of the city would, in our opinion, be trifling compared to the advantages that would accrue from them, while the development outlined would facilitate the natural travel through the city and direct it past the most beautiful portions.

They then propose that the “present park” – Sylvester Park as far as I can tell – should be physically connected to their park and civic district proposed for below the campus.

They then cover their opinion of whether a foundation laid during a previous capitol building effort should be employed. Wilder and White write that taking into consideration the entire cost of the capitol campus, the sunk cost of an old set of foundations should not be considered, especially if they interfere with their design.

At the close of the letter, they refer to the need for more detailed plans for the campus.

While Wilder and White do mention a lake in this letter, it is important to put their suggestion in context. The reference is a single sentence in a more than four page long letter. It is also one suggestion of how the city itself should grow.

This is an important point in the discussion of the campus and Capitol Lake. By placing the lake in the discussion of how the city should grow and outside the group plan, they make it secondary. Their primary concern with the letter is the axis upon which the group is oriented. Obviously the city should grow around that axis, but that growth is secondary to the axis itself.

Also, like the grading between Water Street and the campus, the road to Tumwater and the location of a post office and other civic buildings below the campus, very little of what Wilder and White wanted in Olympia’s growth actually happened. In fact, the lake is practically the only thing they advised that was carried through.

Also, by using words like “sacrifice” when talking about the city’s growth, its also questionable whether Wilder and White ever saw these improvements as even part of the capitol campus. It seems likely that the roads, civic buildings and the lake would be constructed by the city itself and be complimentary to the campus.

I’m not trying to point out that Wilder and White didn’t envision a lake at the base of the campus. What I am trying to do is put their vision in its proper context. Their suggestion of a lake wasn’t the first one and the connection between what Wilder and White actually suggested and what eventually came about is tenuous.

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