By Lily Hansen, UW News Lab/Special to CHS
On a steep hillside just off Broadway sits just over an acre of cultivated woodlands. Home to Seattle’s third-longest stairway, the Blaine Street Steps, with views overlooking Lake Union and the Olympic Mountains, the idyllic gardens are the 48-year product of one dedicated family: the Streissguths.
Its patriarch, Daniel Streissguth, created the garden in 1962 after purchasing a plot of land and constructed a four-story house just north of the staircase. In 1965, Ann Roth Pytkowicz moved into the house next door and began cultivating her own hillside garden.
Bonding over their shared appreciation for gardening, Daniel and Ann fell in love. They married in 1968, and welcomed a son, Ben Streissguth, in 1970. Together, the family of three built, expanded, and maintained the Capitol Hill oasis known as Streissguth Gardens.
On November 21, Daniel died peacefully at his home of natural causes. He was 96.
In honor of his father’s memory, Ben is remembering Daniel for the loving husband, skilled architect, avid gardener, and community socialite he was. With the help of his fiancee and Streissguth Gardens assistant director Jade Takashima, the two are working to ensure that the green space is maintained for generations to come.
In 1972, Daniel and Ann purchased two hillside lots across the Blaine stairs, looking to beautify the land and expand their garden. Although Ben was only two at the time, he has vivid memories of working with his parents in the newly acquired land.
“Some of my earliest memories are of playing in what’s now called the public garden,” he said. “And realizing, even back then, that the soil that we were working with was really horrible. I don’t know how my parents managed to make [gardening] fun for me, but they did. And I’m so grateful to them for that.”
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Working together, the family thinned the property’s heavy tree canopy to allow for adequate sunlight and removed clusters of blackberries, feral ivy, horsetail, bracken fern, and nettles. They built trails for Ben and his friends to run through and introduced woodlands, fruits and berries, perennial plantings, and a vegetable garden.
Despite the extensive work, Ben says the garden’s development came about organically.
“There was no master plan or formal design for that part of the garden,” he said. “It was very much an as-we-went project.”
In 1989, King County voters approved a $117 million King County Open Space and Trails Bond aimed at preserving undeveloped land that was threatened by development. Three lots south of Streissguth Gardens which were under threat of being developed into a condominium and parking lot were nominated for purchase by nearby community members.
Under the conditions that the City of Seattle purchase the three parcels south of their garden and that the Streissguth would continue to care for the land, the family donated their two lots to Seattle Parks and Recreation in 1996. That transformed the majority of Streissguth Gardens from a private garden to a public green space incorporated within the existing St. Mark’s Greenbelt.
“We knew we weren’t ever going to develop buildings on that land, and wanted to add to the parcels the city was looking to purchase,” Ben said of his family’s decision.
In 2009, the family worked with the University of Washington Press to publish their book, “In Love with a Hillside Garden,” which documents their experiences developing their garden and offers lessons to others looking to develop their own.
In total, the family estimates that an average of 7,000 people visit the garden annually and some 35-40,000 people climb Blaine Street Stairs.
Jade Takashima walked to Streissguth Gardens in March 2018 with the intention of climbing the massive staircase. When she arrived, however, she found Ben pruning trees in the garden and struck up a conversation with him.
“We immediately realized that there was something special between us,” Takashima said.
Shortly thereafter, Takashima began working as a gardener and was eventually promoted to assistant director of Streissguth Gardens.
Exactly two years after meeting, Ben asked Takashima to marry him under the same tree he had been pruning on the day they had met.
Just like his parents, Ben found love in the garden.
For her part, Takashima remembers Daniel as being an “amazing father” to Ben and admired how much he cared for his wife, Ann.
“Daniel and Ann loved to go dancing and attend functions with their friends,” she said. “But they also loved their everyday routine like reading the paper and chatting together at their dining room table.”
Outside of Streissguth Gardens, Daniel worked as a licensed architect and Professor Emeritus in the University of Washington’s Architecture department. He played significant roles in the design and construction of the UW’s Gould Hall and its Nuclear Reactor Building which was destroyed following significant controversy in 2016. Overall, Daniel was responsible for designing over 70 projects throughout his career.
“I will always have wonderful memories of working with my father in the garden,” Ben said. “My love for gardening came from my family and it has ended up directing my whole life.”
On December 3, Daniel was laid to rest in Lake View Cemetery. As Ann, Ben, Jade, and a few of their close friends returned Daniel to the earth, each threw in a single white rose. Ben then added three blue irises — Daniel’s favorite flower — in remembrance of his father’s parents, Edmund and Lucile, and brother, Richard.
In a virtual service, Ben concluded his eulogy with a quote that had recently struck him: “Death is not the final word. Love is the final word.”
“Dad, we all love you,” he added. “See you in the garden!”
Enter the Streissguth Gardens at 1640 Broadway E. You can learn more and plan your visit at streissguthgardens.com.
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