Capitol campus: Historic landscape with cherry blossoms


This is the cherry blossom time at the State Capitol Campus in Olympia. But you will find a lot more than cherry blossoms. Find a treasure trove of history in terms of buildings and landscape, with 55 acres designated as a National Historic District. One day, in mid-April, I, with friends, visited to see the landscape with Horticulturist Brent Chapman, who oversees the 485-acre State of Washington Capitol Campus, including the following parks: Capitol Lake, Centennial Park, Heritage Park, Marathon Park, Interpretive Center, Sunken Garden, and Sylvester Park.

Olmsted heritage horticulture

Usually, we think of the buildings when we think of the state capital. On the campus, we have, as a hallmark, five historic sandstone buildings, designed in the 1920s by the famous Wilder and White architects. But the “vessel” that holds these buildings and others, is the Olmsted Brothers’ landscape. The two groups, Wilder and White (buildings) and the Olmsted Brothers (landscape) worked together toward a magnificent vision, at least until the stock market crashed. The Olmsteds were about 50% complete. More on that later.

The Olmsted Brothers worked on the campus from 1911 to 1931. It is one of the most extensive and intact examples of Olmsted’s work today. Chapman emphasized that Washington State Department of Enterprise Services (DES) staff strive to maintain the spirit and intent of the Victorian design while making any needed adaptations. True to Olmsted values, they value both native and site-adaptable trees and plants.

The landscape “house”

The grounds are a “house” of sorts. The interior is generally open with trees along the perimeter, forming the outer “house” walls. Inside are “rooms” and “hallways” that organize into interest areas and micro-climates with interesting trees, shrubs, and flowers from all over the world.

Olympia is one of 11 state capitol campuses the Olmsteds designed, along with hundreds of other projects around the country including college campuses, city parks, and the National Park System. The capital landscape and all its evolving features amaze me. Though the focus of photos this time of year, cherry blossoms and spring flowers are a bonus!

The Olmsted legacy, public space

The Olmsteds architects operated a long-lived business, from 1858-2000. Their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., initiated the profession and was known as the father of landscape architecture. He was a man of vision.

Chapman explained, “When he started his work, parks were kind of private. They were more for the upper socioeconomic class. We take it for granted that we can visit a park with wonderful green spaces available to everybody. But that wasn't always the case. Frederick Law Olmsted pioneered the development of urban green space, but he also changed how Americans thought about public space. He believed that parks should be open to the public regardless of one’s background and socio-economic status.” The Olmsteds also developed the concept of playgrounds for children and implemented the concept widely.

Chapman also discussed the family business, “So, like in a lot of families, when the father or mother gets busy with work, we put the kids to work. So that's exactly what happened with the Olmsteds. They inherited their dad's business and they were very prolific. They've done hundreds and hundreds of projects around the world. Most of them were large-scale. They designed the University of Washington campus; the Seattle parks and connecting boulevards; and Spokane’s city parks including Manito Park.” Chapman also noted that the family firm created New York’s Central Park and the famous Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina.

A vision delayed but not dismantled

The financial crash of 1929 stopped the Olmsted work on the State Capitol Campus by the end of 1931. For instance, a reflecting pool had been planned between the legislative building and the State Supreme Court. Also, there would have been four sunken gardens, not one. A boulevard design for a lovely transition between the capitol grounds and Sylvester Park was dropped. These are just a few examples. Now, 90 years later, landscape maintenance and development continue. Though we will likely never see our reflections in a reflecting pool on the campus, the Olmsted vision moves forward.  

DES plans, works, and staff are the best

The Department of Enterprise Services (DES), which is the Washington State agency responsible for the care/custody of the Capitol Campus, recently received a national award from the Professional Grounds Management Society for its efforts to continue the Olmsted legacy.

Also, the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program has recognized the Washington State Capitol Campus with an international arboretum accreditation for providing “a place for relaxation, education, and beauty for people who visit and work on the Capitol Campus”. This accreditation will enhance efforts toward best tree care practices and outreach and education about the diverse tree collection.

Heritage horticulturist

Brent Chapman, PhD is the horticulturist and grounds property manager for the 485-acre State of Washington Capitol Campus. He and the 16-member grounds team are responsible for keeping outdoor campus areas safe for the public to enjoy and for maintaining the health and integrity of the campus’s horticultural assets.  Much energy is devoted to short and long-term planning to maintain and expand the Olmsted landscape legacy on the west campus. 


A few examples of plant-related highlights to seek out on the capitol campus:

English Oak tree - The National Champion English oak tree in the Northeast corner of the west campus. It is 110 years old and the size of trees that are over 500 years old in other parts of the country. The tree’s status as National Champion was derived by taking into account measurement in all dimensions.

Douglas Fir – This tree was grown from a seed that went to the moon and back on an Apollo space mission in 1971.

Windmill Palm – On the other end of the size scale, find the windmill palms. Just babies. For sentimental purposes, they mark the site of the beloved former greenhouse, which was open to the public. It was irreparably damaged in a 1997 earthquake. Windmill palms seem exotic, a popular feature of Victorian horticulture.

Sunken Garden – The Olmsted Brothers designed this hedged area as a symmetrical formal rose garden 90 years ago. In 2021 DES finished renovation to add ADA access and sustainable plants. Honoring the Victorian design, they retained sub-tropical and other unusual showy plants, such as artichokes, but also added more sustainable perennials to minimize deer grazing. You may schedule an event at Sunken Garden through DES at no charge, even a wedding! Click here for details.  

Tree using a walker - A sprawling Norway Maple using a “walker,” eight poles supporting its branches, especially prior to spring leaves, looks aged but sturdy.

Yoshino Cherry grove - Thirty-nine Yoshino flowering cherries form a grove south of the Legislative Building. These were donated in 1984 by Mitsuo Mutai, a Japanese newspaper owner from Yoshino, Japan. Find a smaller cherry grove near the Tivoli fountain.

Cryptomeria - A Japanese cryptomeria that represents the State of Washington’s relationship with its sister state, Hyogo, Japan.

Dawn Redwoods – Two Dawn or Chinese Redwoods live on campus, a pair that replaced the Sequoia, which died. The Sequoia was planted in honor of our first female governor, Dixie Lee Ray.

Guided tour – Attend a botanical tour for individuals or groups (20 maximum). Visitors on the tour see first-hand examples of Olmsted landscape principles. The tour covers significant trees and garden plantings, where stories are shared about their history, care, and significance. To schedule, email

Self-guided tour - Take a self-guided tree tour… or just wander. Click here for details.

Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, writes about good things people in Thurston County are doing. If you’d like to nominate someone to be profiled, contact her at or comment below. 

CORRECTION:  April 22, 2023 -  In the original story we misspelled Olmsted. We regret this (common!) error.