29 Sep Meet Dan and Ann Streissguth
“My wife is full of life; full of happiness and joy,” Dan Streissguth confided to me when Ann rose to prepare coffee and snacks for our meeting. On her return they shared their inspiring story of partnership, devotion to community, and the development of Streissguth garden. It began with Dan’s first sight of Ann in the garden next door. “She was a young assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine,” Dan reminisced. He was already a well-established local architect and admired professor of Architecture at the University of Washington. Ann was new to the neighborhood but Dan had been living alone in his 4 story house for eight years. Through the foliage of their opulent backyard gardens, plants were admired, conversations began, and now, 46 years later, Dan relays his still delighted surprise with the exclamation, “I married my next door neighbor!”
Both Dan and Ann led remarkable careers. Dan, a graduate of the University of Washington and of MIT, twice chaired the UW Architecture Department and ran a small private practice. Through collaboration with Gene Zema, he was architect to University of Washington’s Gould Hall and of Wells Medina Nursery. Through collaboration, he was one of the architects of The University of Washington Nuclear Reactor Building, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Effusive in his praise of Ann, Dan described the development of her career. Ann became the chief researcher who recognized the connection between alcohol and child development. Those landmark findings, published in the medical journal, The Lancet, garnered international interest in the topic that she, in collaboration with colleagues, would later describe as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She’s impacted policy, published countless papers, been recognized for Outstanding Service and Distinguished and Outstanding Achievements, written books, and co-founded the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Information Service. Ann also mentored the development of PCAP, Parent Child Assistance Programs, which attempt to break the intergenerational cycles of substance abuse by assisting substance abusing parents and expectant mothers. PCAP programs originated at the University of Washington and now operate in Canada and all over the United States. “Now,” she said “I’m completely retired!”
At 90, Dan confides, arthritis is slowing him down a bit though he still spends an average of 20 hours a week gardening year round. Ann, several years younger, leads an active post retirement life that includes tennis lessons, dancing, gardening, and playing the ukulele with a joyous group called The Mother Pluckers. “I put gardening, music, and friends high up on the list of things that keep me interested and excited,” Ann said. Throughout their retirement, Dan said, they’ve been hikers, backpackers, and bicyclists. They’ve joined international bicycle tours several times. Last fall they were in Austria and this summer, when I met them, they were gearing up for a favorite local ride to Shilshole for a sandwich at the Little Coney.
The centerpiece of their life together is their house alongside the East Blaine Street public stairway, surrounded by Streissguth Gardens. The gardens, sprawling left and right of a Capitol Hill stairwell, are beautiful now but, “When we bought the land south of the stairwell it was a tangle of trash and vines,” Dan explained. They’d been nurturing gardens to the north for nearly fifty years but the acquisition south of the stairs was a new adventure. “I picked the brightest and flattest place for a vegetable garden,” Ann recalled. Together with their son, Benjamin, they designed and planted one of the city’s finest gardens now nearly one acre in size. In 1996, through creative negotiation, they deeded the gardens south of the East Blaine stairwell to Seattle Parks and Recreation. The Streissguths will maintain gardens during their lifetime but they hope to ensure perpetual upkeep with an endowment they have begun.
“In buying the land, starting to garden and [eventually] donating it to the city, I think we weren’t entirely aware of how it would affect our lives,” Dan began. “In the years before the gardens we enjoyed our contact with people coming up and down the stairs. Stair use has greatly increased in recent years. We think several hundred people use the stairs each weekend, exercising, doing neighborhood errands, and enjoying the gardens. It’s increased our enjoyment of and participation in community. We have groups that come and help us. Children run on the paths and swing on the trees and they bring their parents here. The other day Ann overheard a little girl looking down on the gardens saying to her friend, ‘I want to show you this secret garden that I used to come to as a child.’ It was a touching moment.” “We really feel strongly about sharing our garden with community,” Ann said. “We have a little bit of privacy here but, for the two of us, connections to the larger community are more important than any privacy we may attain,” Dan said. “We wouldn’t for the world want to put up gates. We like sharing it,” Ann echoed. “People wonder if we’ve had problems here,” Dan explained. “Once in a while we find a trampled or stolen plant but on the other hand we often receive gifts to be shared from other gardeners.” It all balances out. The gardens draw neighbors and plant enthusiasts from all over the city.
Both Ann and Dan had models for good work, gardening, and community involvement in their childhoods. Ann’s father ran a fruit orchard for many years. Her mother, concerned that a ranch couldn’t sustain the family, struck out on her own working as an executive secretary for the school system. “She liked working,” Ann recalled. Dan’s mother ran a grocery store in Monroe, Washington, until her retirement. After retirement she helped organize a quilting group through her church. Over time the quilters attracted membership outside the church. Through sales of their work they raised enough money to give support to Greenpeace and helped to buy land that eventually became the site of the local library. Recalling the bonds in his mother’s group Dan said, “It was so wonderful that her community of quilters, all ages, helped to take care of her in her old age. They were still talking together and quilting a week before she died.”
Drawn together across their independent gardens over 40 years ago the Streissguths have given Seattle their beautiful garden legacy and the fruits of their civic contributions. In addition, their enduring partnership, itself a kind of garden, planted with the seeds of care, love, and support, flowers in well-being and achievement. Their lives remind us that aging, like gardens, can be a satisfying and rich experience when we nurture our bodies and minds and welcome the company of others.
Dan and Ann Streissguth’s book about Streissguth Gardens, In Love With A Hillside Garden, is available at University Bookstore. All proceeds benefit the Arboretum Foundation.