For as long as I have lived on the Hill, I have not only enjoyed the many fine views our particular situation presents us, but also the many stairs (or, in Seattle parlance, hill climbs) that dot our landscape, providing even more vantage points to take it all in. Among my Capitol Hill favorites is the Blaine Street hill climb, which is perhaps the longest and best located of them all. Yet, it is not only its length that distinguishes it above its peers, nor its spectacular views. Instead, the Streissguth Gardens, which are adjacent to and south of the hill climb, between 10th Ave E and Broadway, raise this hill climb to a must-visit status for all Capitol Hill and Seattle residents.
The idea for this post has been germinating for over two years, originating when I made the hill climb part of my morning run. Admiring it in the predominantly twilight early morning hours, I passed by dozens of times, leaving determined to explore the garden in more favorable lighting and without sleep still in my eyes. Imagine my fantastic luck when the very spring afternoon I set forth on my task, none other than Ann Streissguth was tending her family’s masterwork. Fantastic luck indeed, as Ann graciously and spontaneously led me on what must have been a one and one half hour tour of the garden. The artist’s tour of her life’s great passion and creation proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing blend of creativity, planning, space, and time.
Developed gradually over the course of more than forty years, the gardens have grown from a tangled and disordered hillside to approximately one acre of ornamental gardens and tamed woodland. The oldest gardens surround the family’s two houses on Broadway East, just north of the East Blaine hill climb. These gardens remain private, but visitors are welcome by appointment. The newer portions of the gardens lie south of the East Blaine stairs and they are now publicly owned and open to visitors year-round.
Throughout the tour, it was a treat to hear not only the Latin names of dozens of plants casually yet authoritatively thrown about, but also to be privy to the story behind each particular plant’s selection, planting, and location. Among the dozens referenced that day, more than one had a deep personal history behind it. The one pictured below came from Ann’s mother’s home in central Oregon, and is some sort of exotic and apparently sturdy flower. If memory serves me correctly, this particular flower may be over half a century old.
Many of Ann’s stories that afternoon centered around the heroics of her son – the indomitable (and evidently charismatic) Benjamin, who either single-handedly or with the assistance of his seemingly inexhaustible legion of friends, has performed much of the actual heavy lifting for the garden, including installation of its sprinkler system, construction of many of its stairs and gabion-basket retaining walls, as well as hoisting a stone bench up the steep hillside in order to provide fabulous views to Lake Union and the Olympics.
Access throughout is provided by a thoughtful system of paths, which deftly navigate the steep hillside and are advantageously placed to afford equally rewarding distant and territorial views. The stroll along the pathways is akin to strolling along a historical timeline, for as one wanders further south, one gradually transitions to the garden’s pre-Streissguth state, entering the northern limits of the St Mark’s greenbelt, with its blackberries, erosion, and detritus indicating that dedicated and enduring stewardship of Ann and her family is required to achieve the results visitors so readily enjoy in the garden proper.
For those desirous of either confirming or enhancing their botanical knowledge, one need not have the benefit of Ann as docent; there are plant identification tags for much of the flora (although Ann noted that visitors often make off with the tags, so do not be disappointed should you leave still wondering just what cultivar of rhododendron so captivated you). Other signage reminds that care needs to be exercised while enjoying the plantings; and, as one enters from the hill climb, there is a diminutive box that welcomes all with a colorful brochure and trail map, which also includes a list of seasonal highlights.
Ann’s oral history of the garden, from its early conception to its current state, included tales of powerful storms that have shaped the hillside, supportive friends and foundations who have aided in the achieving of the garden’s many splendors. Each event has proved fertile ground for the Streissguth’s creativity, and resulted in new terraces and stairs, or in the case of the tree topping by capricious neighbors, in the preserving of dead trunks in order to provide habitat for woodpeckers.
The planning and design of the garden offers flowers in bloom throughout the year, even though Ann admitted that the March afternoon of our impromptu meeting was perhaps the best time of all to visit. It would be hard to contest her appraisal, with the gentle pastels of green, pink, and white sinking one into another, creating a glowing world of polychrome serenity. The spatial dynamics of the garden are equally compelling as is its palette. The steepness of the hillside (over 50 feet of relief), combined with the varying density and either horizontal or vertical disposition of the planting creates a visual complexity that is extremely satisfying in its layering and shifting combinations.
[mappress mapid="52"]Regardless the season or time of day, a visit to the garden – or better yet, ongoing visits throughout the year – proves to be a fabulous experience and leaves one with wonder that such variety and beauty can be tucked away in such a compact and seemingly inaccessible hillside. I envy the fortunate neighbors who can avail themselves to the garden’s endless charms on a daily basis.
A brief history of the garden (and website information should you want to volunteer), taken from streissguthgardens.com:
In 1962, Dan Streissguth completed building his house on the lot he had purchased north of the Blaine Street stair. He immediately commenced work on the garden surrounding his new home. In 1965 Ann moved into the adjacent house at 1806 Broadway East and began at once working on her hillside garden. The winter of 1968 saw the two gardens combined through Ann and Dan’s marriage. The coupled settled into what had been Dan´s house, leasing out Ann’s house in the years since, while continuing to care for the combined gardens. 1970 welcomed the birth of Ann and Dan’s son, Benjamin.
In 1972 the family purchased the hillside lots south of the Blaine Street stairway and began nurturing them into a cultivated green space. After twenty-four years of growth and development, the family’s 1996 gift of the land to the city led to the garden becoming a public space. That same year, as the Streissguth land was transferred to public ownership, the city purchased (from a third party) the larger hillside tract abutting the existing garden to the south. The gifted garden and the adjacent heavily-wooded purchased land have become extensions of the city´s existing St. Mark´s Greenbelt. This carried the older 1/4 mile long green space a full city block further north, connecting it to the busily-used public stair right-of-way along East Blaine Street.
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John Feit is an architect on Capitol Hill, and works at Schemata Workshop. He blogs frequently on design and urbanism, with a focus on how they relate to and affect the Capitol Hill community.