Welcome to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s first World’s fair! Opened to the public on June 1, 1909, the A-Y-P was a magical celebration of the natural splendor and wealth of the Pacific Northwest as well as a new era of commercial and industrial expansion. By November 1909, the Expo had closed its gates for the last time, but its legacy lived on in two important ways. Not only did it establish Seattle as the Northwest’s pre-eminent metropolis, it also laid the framework for future development of the University of Washington campus.
The A-Y-P Exposition was sited on 250 acres of University property, the majority of which had been unused at the time. John Charles Olmsted, the nephew of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., was employed in October 1906 and given less than three years to create and execute a plan for the Exposition. He was the obvious choice, having also designed the grounds of the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon as well as Seattle’s park and boulevard system. The Exposition’s supervising architect, John Galen Howard, was brought on after Olmsted’s initial plan was approved.
A primary consideration in laying out the grounds was ensuring that the roads corresponded with the city grid and that the placement of paths and buildings slated for permanent use harmonized with the University’s plans for development. Olmsted organized the fair using a series of axes which led to views of nearby lakes and distant mountain ranges. Rainier Vista, arguably the most famous element in the A-Y-P landscape, was the central organizing feature and remains so today. The Washington and Union Vistas radiated out from Geyser Basin, showcasing the views of the Douglas-fir framed lakes. “If the landscaping at the exposition has made the most of the natural beauties at hand, then it may be considered a success.” (J.C. Olmsted, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 29, 1909)
Despite significant changes over the last century, the spirit of J.C. Olmsted’s design for the A-Y-P continues to inform the experience of the University of Washington campus. Many traces of the A-Y-P landscape, including primary spatial relationships, buildings, and vegetation, remain. But the story of the A-Y-P can also be told by those elements that we can no longer see. Come take a tour and witness what the four million visitors, donning their finest attire and fanciest hats, experienced 100 years ago as they strolled through the Main Gate and onto the grounds of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.