An urban oasis
Wednesday, July 18, 2012 5:04 PM
by Corinne Whiting
- The Capitol Hill Times --á
When I arrive at the Streissguths' northwest Capitol Hill home on a perfect July day, I am warmly greeted by Dan, Ann, their son Ben and his wife Andrea. We peer over their beloved Streissguth Gardens, a perfectly manicured yard that resembles a scene pulled from a glossy magazine as the fragrant air oozes with the sweet aroma of flowers. Chilled pinot grigio and a small cookie bowl await on a tray, and each family member sports a straw hat selected from the vast collection Ann has retrieved from inside. As I sink into my chair, the sailboat-dotted water sparkling in the distance, I think, "Is there truly any other way to spend a Seattle summer evening?"
The Streissguths communicate and banter in terms of gardening. For a non-green thumb like myself, it's often as if they're speaking in a foreign tongue. When we wander the property, the family chats about changes they detect on one slope (that was the work of volunteer Jake Wimberger, Ben clarifies), they tease one another about weeding, and, as if on cue, they all erupt into a symphony of excitement when Ben discovers a brand-new set of blooms on the Silky stewartia or Stewartia malacodendron. For this family, it is clear that gardening is a way of life.
Dan, an 88-year-old retired architect, grew up in Monroe, Wash., and moved into Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood as a young single man. He bought a plot of land on which he designed a spectacular two-family house, completed in 1962. The airy structure features colossal skylights and a balcony that arguably offers the city's best views of the Lake Union Fourth of July fireworks. In 1965 when a young woman named Ann said was looking for a bigger home, Dan mentioned that his neighbors were leasing their house, and Ann soon moved in next door.
"I started gardening behind my house; Ann started gardening behind her house. The rest is history," Dan recalls.
The avid gardeners combined forces when they married in 1968, and Ben was born in 1970. In 1972, they bought the hillside plot of land south of them across the East Blaine Street stairs, the property then a tangle of blackberries, neglected trees and accumulated trash. They immediately started nurturing the green space and reforesting, selecting different plants for their 'spring blossoms" or "fall colors." Ann recalls that she acted "like a pioneer woman," finding the flattest and sunniest spot for her vegetable garden. This garden thrives today, growing treasures from lettuce, onions and peas to rhubarbs, potatoes and artichokes GÇô a nod to Ann's California roots.
Their gardens, which gradually expanded over the years, became a public space when the family gifted the land to the city in 1996. In 1989 the city of Seattle passed a bond issue to buy properties with green qualities that were threatened for development. A parcel of three steep hillside lots directly south of the Streissguths had been nominated by the neighborhood. Though nearly 150 other properties were nominated by their local neighborhoods, officials selected to buy this particular land (making it one of twelve such plots throughout the city). The Streissguths decided to deed their portion of the land to the city, although they asked for permission to continue maintaining the gardens. The city agreed. Today, these newer gardens south of the East Blaine stairs are publicly owned by the City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation and open to all visitors, free of charge. The Streissguths happily continue acting as the land's caretakers. It's an arrangement that works for everyone.
The close-knit Streissguth family members exhibit an admirable amount of pride for their precious land they've cared for all these years and for one another. Dan boasts about the accomplishments of his wife, an accomplished psychologist, world-renowned researcher and former professor, who he sweetly brags was one of the first to identify Fetal alcohol syndrome. Ann only entered full-time retirement a year ago. Despite holding full-time jobs, Ben and Andrea still assist in the gardens whenever they get the chance.
The family takes me on a walkabout of the nearly one-acre Streissguth Gardens, feeding me samples of juicy marionberries and white strawberries along the way. They point out examples of Ben's irrigation genius " ponds and gabions he built, like those used on highways, to prevent future landslides after one occurred a few years back. They show me the winter garden, an unexpected sight that supports Dan's statement that Seattle has one of the best gardening climates in the world.
"Winter is the season in which you need gardens the most," Dan says.
The gardens have some impressive stats: flowers every day of the year, 68 trees, more than 280 shrubs, about 200 labeled plants (Ben is in charge of identifying and tagging), and eight kinds of berries. Seasonal highlights include Rhododendrons, Trillium and iris in spring, roses, Phlox and Stewartia in summer, Sedum autumn joy and Calicarpa in fall and Witchhazel and Tomasinianus crocus in winter. But perhaps the most impressive fact is its placement on a steep slope that gives the garden about 50 feet of vertical change.
Through the years, the gardens have survived several challenges, including threats of condominium development.-á It is clear that the Streissguths cherish their integral role within the Capitol Hill community. Dan speaks fondly of the school groups that now traipse along garden trails and the students who write poetry amid the greenery. The day I visit, he chats with young joggers stretching on a patch of grass, and Ann calls down the hill to exchange pleasantries with a couple out on an evening stroll. When we pass another neighbor taking photos of the vibrant blooms, Ann gushes to her, "We're just delighted to see you!"
"The garden presence has changed our lives; it has exposed us to a whole new range of society," Dan comments. "We love the increasing awareness [of the gardens] by the city and the increasing use by neighbors."
Before I leave the tranquil space and return to the bustle of the city, I thank the family for their hospitality and their time. Dan shrugs it off nonchalantly. "I love talking about the gardens," he smiles.
1650 Broadway East
The Streissguths' book In Love with a Hillside Garden (2009) can be found at shops like the UW bookstore and the Washington Park Arboretum gift shop (all proceeds benefit the Arboretum).
Visit www.streissguthgardens.com for more information about the gardens.