One of the great mysteries about cancer is why some people survive while others do not, wrote Michael Rubin in his proposal to establish a residential refuge for cancer patients and their families. Rubin, director of major gifts in the Development department, described a garden, where — amid the sound of singing birds or wind whispering through tree branches — "the immeasurable forces of the human mind, body and spirit" might find acknowledgement, comfort, healing.
Chief Operating Officer Myra Tanita and others agreed the idea was great. But with limited resources and competing priorities, the question was how to get it done. Thanks to a unique collaboration and dedicated donors, a healing garden on the rooftop of Pete Gross House came to be. This is the story about how.
Named after the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Seahawks," who died of cancer in 1992, Pete Gross House is a 70-unit, six-floor apartment building designed to serve as home away from home for cancer patients and their families. Development staff had long sought to establish a healing garden on the rooftop for the residents. Rubin, a former bone-marrow transplant patient himself, understood the unquantifiable need and the challenges of raising — outside of Development's research-funding mandate — the funds it would take to create the garden.
"It was sort of a chicken and an egg project — which came first? You couldn't fund the project because it wasn't developed but you couldn't develop the project because there wasn't any funding," Rubin said.
Everything changed with a starter gift from the Seattle Garden Club, facilitated by Lyn White. The mother of a middle-school teacher at Hutch School, White suggested a partnership with Daniel Winterbottom, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Each spring quarter, Winterbottom's design/build students design and implement a service-learning project with a local community group. Recent projects include the UW Medical Center, the Evergreen School and Cancer Lifeline. The Pete Gross House garden would be the last project for the graduating students in Winterbottom's 2005 spring studio. With design and installation, provided by the students, and donor-funded materials, the garden vision was finally within reach.
For Winterbottom, creating therapeutic landscapes is an academic and professional passion born in 1991 when his mother died of cancer. He felt the effects of fluorescent lights and pea-green hospital waiting-room walls, and noticed the comfort his mother drew from every breath of fresh air and even a glimpse of a garden. The experience taught him the importance of giving patients environments that support their needs.
"It's not a value judgment — this is a good candidate or a bad candidate — it's that you can live and learn a great deal as you die. In fact, often you live with greater intensity and insight as you are dying," Winterbottom said. "Whether you survive or not, you deserve dignity, respect and support through that struggle."
"The fact is you need an environment to cry, a place where you can let loose, a place where you can sit down and talk where you don't feel you are being observed and you can retreat inside. You need a place that makes you feel uplifted," he said.
For the 16 students in Winterbottom's design/build studio, building such a place would be an important lesson in creating landscapes for people living with cancer. For the Center, the UW and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, it would be a challenging new collaboration.
"It was not a simple project," said Debbie Fraley, housing coordinator at the SCCA. "A lot of people came together to make sure it happened." The property is leased, so the owners and their attorneys were involved. Insurance was an issue and there were structural constraints. The students underwent background checks and also received an orientation from the Center's Environmental Health and Safety department on infection control, as the building has immune-compromised residents. To top it off, the students had to complete the project within their 10-week scholastic quarter.
Class members divided into four teams and created four different plans for transforming a nondescript rooftop, lined with a few trees planted in animal-watering troughs, into a refuge. They presented their designs to a review committee consisting of donors and staff from the Center and SCCA. The committee picked one predominate design and pieces of others, then a new plan was created to incorporate the best ideas. The final design continued to evolve during construction as the students addressed structural concerns.
"I thought it was a really good experience — to go through the construction process, to realize what goes into it because what we had experienced up until this project was really basic design process, not seeing full circle what has to happen," said student Brenda Snyder. Her design group contributed the idea of treating the vents as sculptural elements that would allow circulation of wind and delineation of the space.
Michael Carney and Scott Ingalls, of the Center's Facilities Planning and Construction department,spent time on the roof almost daily. "I was impressed at the students' energy and dedication and commitment to follow through — to get it done to the bloody end. And they did it," said Carney, who served as project manager.
Ingalls noted the prompt and enthusiastic participation of building co-owner Steve Taylor who offered a lead carpenter from his own construction company to partner with the students. All in all, Ingalls said, the experience brought back memories of his own design-studio days.
"It reminded me that design should be fun and that the spaces that we make really affect people. The students really put their hearts into this project and it's something that we want to capitalize on — we want that to be part of what we do here, too," Ingalls said.
Snyder, who was in charge of the planting plan, is looking for a beginning position in a private design firm. Eventually she will pursue a master's degree in urban design and planning. But first, she will come back to care for the garden as a volunteer.
"It is one thing when you plant the plants, but as they grow, it really changes the space and so I just thought it would be really interesting to see how the space matures," she said.
In the meantime, it is the present moment that patients, families and their caregivers will come up to the garden to savor. They will spend time beneath the arbor as a family, congregate in larger groups past donated twin glass panels that reflect the city lights at night, or walk along a path leading to a hidden sanctuary overlooking Lake Union. Immersed in nature, they may find comfort in poems etched onto garden surfaces, from children who attend Hutch School, or in the smooth continuity of a stone. Floor-mounted binoculars will even bring far vistas closer.
"You are slightly hyper aware of things when you potentially have less time," Winterbottom said. "You notice the way the raindrops run down glass. You see light, you see new things."
Research that Winterbottom recently conducted with an environmental psychologist supports his belief that medical care is not just getting shots and treatments — it is also the presence of a place where in the midst of pain and uncertainty, people can feel engaged, invigorated and at peace. In a letter to the SCCA, former Pete Gross House resident Cindy Fagernes agrees.
"[My husband] Gerald and I moved here in February. The roof has been a place I could go to and relax and get my thoughts together. Now, since the students from UW have designed and constructed the Healing Garden, it is my 'getaway.' I love it!! :) The kids worked so hard on this project! They worked through super hot days and stormy days. They always apologized for the noise. (We live on the 6th floor.) We will be going HOME on June 17 so it's doubtful we will be here for the dedication event.... Thank you for helping make our stay more comfortable. You're awesome!"
For Michael Rubin — who envisioned all that came to be in his proposal — the patients who will spend time here are living proof that the healing garden at Pete Gross House is good medicine.
Healing garden donors