Adapting Washington’s Capitol Campus While Preserving the Olmsted Landscape Legacy


Our paper will share impacts of the robust community engagement program developed to gain public comment as Legislative Campus Modernization project adds nearly 150,000 square feet in the first major addition to the historic Capitol Campus since the Olmsted Brothers’ landscape was completed in 1931.

Quoting from William Wilder of the Wilder and White architectural partnership which won the 1911 competition for the state buildings,

“Olympia is wonderfully expressive of the State of Washington. Its location at the head of Puget Sound with the combination of water and mountains in every direction make it distinctive beyond most capitol cities, and what is true of the city is particularly true of the site elected for the capitol buildings themselves.”

In 1927, Wilder and White recommended to the Capitol Committee that if “some firm like the Olmsted Brothers (designs) the general treatment of the grounds, the highest results will be achieved, and we will cooperate in every way.” Correspondence was exchanged, and J. F. Dawson, a full partner in the Olmsted Brother firm, assumed responsibility for the capitol grounds. His work spanned 1927 – 1931.

Olmsted Brothers’ intent was to support the unified composition of the capitol buildings; individual landscape elements were considered subordinate pieces of the composition of the place was a whole. With deft handling of vegetation, paths, drives, materials, and siting of landscape elements, the Olmsted Brothers defined discrete spaces on the campus; reinforced axes; framed views; created thresholds; and treated edges carefully. Years have passed; maintenance funds have dwindled.

Moving forward into 2022, LCM project staff and landscape consultants have planned and initiated a state-wide call for public engagement on the issues of landscape stewardship and adaptation of the Capitol Campus. We are working with ASLA; AIA; APA; Master Gardeners; local Community Garden Clubs; Nisqually, Squaxin, and Chehalis Tribes; University of Washington; Washington State University; Thurston County Regional Planning; local heritage and historical organizations; Olympia School District; and Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks to engage all ages regarding continued importance of the Olmsted legacy on the Capitol Campus. Political opinions vary from year to year regarding the value of investment in the campus landscape; our LCM team is reaching out to the public for their opinions.

Our paper will describe public commentary and resulting guide for adaptation of the Olmsted landscape using Mithun’s 2009 West Capitol Campus Historic Landscape Preservation Master Plan.

Our public outreach has heard from all ages on:

  • Sustainability goals targeting carbon neutrality;

  • Diligent editing and re-planting of legacy landscape to maintain “rooms;”

  • Formal symmetry on an asymmetrical site bounded by natural forest;

  • New state law (2SSB 5253) requiring care for pollinator habitat;

  • Open access to a legacy landscape while many demand fences and gates;

  • Finding balance between parking and green-ness in the Olmsted landscape;

  • Locations of new public art;

  • Examples of historic trees represented by second generation George Washington Elm and recently planted Bush Butternut Tree, which originated as root stock brought over the Oregon Trail by black pioneer George Bush.


Clarissa Easton AIA joined the State of Washington in spring 2021 to launch the Legislative Campus Modernization Project, which makes the first major changes to the historic Capitol Campus since the original Wilder and White building plans and the Olmsted Brothers’ landscape planning for the new campus. Work by both firms spanned 1911 through 1931.

With a career devoted to public sector capital programs in three states, she models servant leadership and builds bridges with public stakeholders on every public project. She passionately believes that landscape and sustainability are priorities in design of public architecture.

Susan Olmsted is a Founding Principal of SOWorkshop, a design practice focused on cultivating resilience for people and the planet. As both an architect and landscape architect, Susan’s work explores intersections between landscapes, buildings, people, and natural/cultural resources. She enlists processes of integration, collaboration, and community/client engagement toward the creation and enrichment of high performance, enduring, and beloved places. Susan has led award-winning projects for the Washington State Capitol, Yosemite National Park, and a host of public and private campuses and sites throughout the country involving LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and SITES.

Part of a series of articles titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Last updated: December 21, 2022