Berger, Thomas Lee (1945-2014) – HistoryLink.org
Considered one of the Pacific Northwest’s most influential landscape architects, Tom Berger was born in northern California on March 7, 1945. He moved with his parents and six siblings to Port Orchard in Kitsap County after his father purchased a garden store in Bremerton. Berger took to the Northwest environment with a passion, acquiring a deep familiarity with its native and adaptive plants and their distinctive color palette. After earning a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture in 1968 from Washington State University, Berger worked at several area landscape-architecture firms before founding the Berger Partnership in 1971. For the next four decades, his client list was a veritable who’s who of both corporate and private individuals. Some of his most notable projects included Two Union Square in downtown Seattle, REI’s Seattle flagship store, the Space Needle Pavilion at Seattle Center, Seattle’s University Village, and IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. He also designed the landscape surrounding Bill Gates’s waterfront mansion in Medina and the 40-acre Whidbey Island retreat of Paul Schell. Berger died on September 11, 2014, from Parkinson’s disease.
Nurturing an Early Love of Plants
Thomas Lee Berger was born in Crescent City, California, on March 7, 1945, to Carl and Edith Halladey Berger. With his parents and six siblings — Dick, Mary Lou, Rick, Bob, Neil, and George — Berger spent his early years in Brookings, Oregon, just north of the California border, where his father was a logger. In the late 1950s, Carl Berger moved the family to Port Orchard, leveraging his extensive outdoor experience to buy and manage a garden store in nearby Bremerton that he called Berger’s Garden Center.
Tom Berger loved plants from an early age. As a teenager, he increased his knowledge of Northwest plants by working in the family garden center after school and on weekends. While a student at South Kitsap High School, he held several leadership posts, including student council representative. It was in high school that he met his future wife, Mary Middleton (b. 1945). They married on October 16, 1965; both were 20 years old.
After high school, Berger enrolled at Olympic Junior College in Bremerton as a fine-arts major. One day his brother Bob, a student at Washington State University in Pullman, came home and announced he was changing his major to landscape architecture. Tom was intrigued and decided to switch schools and majors himself, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture in 1968 from WSU. His continuing interest in art coupled with a degree in landscape architecture was immensely helpful throughout his career, allowing him to better understand and merge natural and manmade environments, as a reporter explained in 1993:
“Berger’s architectural training enables him to assess a building’s mood and design gardens that capture — or complement — that mood so seamlessly that the landscape feels like an extension of the structure. In fact, Berger rarely separates the two, treating a building and its surroundings as a single design project” (Albert).
After graduation, Berger moved to Seattle, where he worked with area landscape-architecture firms, including Chaffee-Zumwalt and Associates. His early design projects at Chaffee-Zumwalt included a senior citizen home in Bremerton called the Tamarack as well as several private residences. In 1971, he set off on his own, establishing Tom Berger and Associates, later renamed the Berger Partnership.
Common Sense Meets Design
As a landscape architect, Berger was driven by his intense love of the Northwest’s distinctive natural environment and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s diverse plants. Not only were his design solutions creative, they were also functional and efficient, linked by a single commonality: to unite the natural and urban worlds. Looking back on his career years later a colleague said: “Tom’s approach looked to architectural elements that could be incorporated into the landscape … He brought the inside out and the outside in, so that the two worked in harmony” (“Building Legacies”). About half of his design work was in the residential arena. His home projects ranged from a simple water feature in a front entryway to a landscaping tour de force executed for the Medina home of Bill and Melinda Gates. The firm also designed for golf courses, wineries, parks, river walks, skyscrapers, retail settings, and office buildings.
Early in his career, Berger was asked to provide landscape design for the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. The structure was built in 1907 as the Home of the Good Shepherd to house Catholic girls. After the home closed in 1973, a group of Wallingford citizens organized and convinced the city that the historic building and grounds should be preserved, not sold for development. Their lobbying worked: The property was acquired in 1976 by Historic Seattle to use as a multi-purpose community center. In 1979, Berger received a $279,000 contract to create the property’s master plan. Its implementation carried with it a lot of firsts. A reporter noted at the time:
“[It] will be the first formal preservation park in Seattle planned in sympathy with a historic structure. It will be the first Seattle park to have an urban agriculture center with demonstration gardens for fruit trees, berries and vegetables as well as a caretaker’s cottage with a demonstration solar greenhouse and a kitchen for demonstration drying and canning of produce. It will be the first to have a croquet lawn and an old-fashioned perennial flower garden designed particularly for the elderly” (Huston).
Central to Berger’s plan for the 11-and-a-half-acre site was keeping the focus on the property’s historic ambience. He retained or recreated design elements including a stone arch with wrought-iron gates and stone steps leading into the park; an old orchard with horse chestnuts, locusts, and fruit trees; a grape arbor; and a summer house.
From Skyscrapers to Bonsai
In the mid-1980s, Berger was asked to provide landscape design for Two Union Square, a 56-story skyscraper that opened in 1989 at 601 Union Street in downtown Seattle. The building’s innovative design, led by the Seattle office of the architectural firm NBBJ, was heralded as a stunning example of Northwest regionalism, taking its cues from the region’s aeronautics and marine history. The metal-and-glass building featured a guard’s desk that resembled an airplane wing, for example, and outdoor flag pedestals mirrored the design of the posts used to secure boats at marinas around Puget Sound.
Similarly, Berger’s courtyard design for Two Union Square featured distinctly Northwest elements, including a waterfall that splashed down over huge granite boulders hauled in from the north Cascades. A small conifer forest was nestled on the property’s southeast edge. Berger’s attention to detail left little to chance. As one example, the locust trees he used in the courtyard at Two Union Square provided shade in the summer yet their small leaves would not discolor the pavement when they dropped in the fall.
“Two Union’s biggest contribution to Seattle — if the public discovers and uses it — will be the three-level plaza with fountains, waterfall and vegetation from around the region. …
“‘We have tried to create spaces that people will look forward to,’ says Tom Berger, who hopes the plaza will be a destination, rather than just a passage through. …
“The landscape architect promises color and fragrance all year from plantings such as witch hazel and nude jasmine … paperbark maple, larch and sweet bay magnolia … Chinese fringe tree and harlequin glory bower … five varieties of flowering cherries, rhododendrons and the Chilean fire tree” (King).
Another high-visibility project, undertaken in the late 1980s, was the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, later called the Pacific Bonsai Museum — one of only two museums in the nation dedicated solely to bonsai. Nearly three decades after its creation, the outdoor museum in Federal Way maintained some 150 plants, about 60 of them displayed at any one time, on an acre of forestland adjacent to the former headquarters of the Weyerhaeuser Company, and was touted as a regional tourist destination: “this little artistic gem deserves recognition as an ideal outing for Puget Sound residents or those travelling up the I-5 corridor” (“Pacific Bonsai Museum”). Consulting architect Thomas Kubota noted that, when starting the project’s design:
“Our first task was to establish a relationship between the wild forest setting, with its enormous conifers, and the tiny manicured bonsai. Second, because the display is self-guiding, we needed to make the physical layout and the traffic flow within the facility obvious. We also wanted to preserve a tranquil, reflective atmosphere for the better enjoyment of the bonsai … [and] to provide a neutral background for the bonsai, much like the walls of an art gallery” (Whitner).
Bonsai are meant to be enjoyed as separate works of art, so they are usually displayed individually or in pairs. But this display area had to exhibit more than 50 bonsai in a way that allowed visitors to focus on each one.
“The courtyard naturally funnels visitors into the bonsai display area immediately adjacent, where Berger designed a series of display arms to separate and to visually isolate the bonsai tables from one another. To visitors strolling the crushed-rock path between the display arms and tables, the bonsai resemble living jewels whose settings are enhanced by the cool, clear light filtering through the surrounding Douglas firs” (Whitner).
More than two decades later, the collection still delights the 40,000 visitors who tour annually. “The pathway through the outdoor museum is raked several times a day, adding to the Zen atmosphere that is heightened by the layout of freestanding outdoor walls and ever-changing artwork. The privacy and quietness of this self-guided museum allows you to really immerse yourself in the world of nature and feel surrounded by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest” (“Pacific Bonsai Museum”).
Berger was also hired to landscape and design the grounds for one of America’s most famous family residences — that of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his then-wife Melinda French Gates. Seven years in the making, the waterfront mansion in Medina cost some $63 million. Berger would not disclose the cost of the landscaping beyond noting that it would be more than $500,000. “In keeping with the home’s environmental sensitivity (much of the structure will be buried underground), the four-acre site will be designed to look like a naturally wooded hillside, with native plantings and water features that utilize existing springs and draining water on the property” (Albert).
Berger was particularly adept at matching plants to the location so they looked as if they belonged there. Tamara Buchanan, who managed The Sweetbriar horticultural nursery in Kirkland for more than 25 years, called Berger” a ‘plants’ person: someone who understands plants, is sensitive to plants, who cares about putting plants in the right places, and who is interested in using interesting and unusual combinations” (Albert).
Notable Projects and Growing Accolades
REI, the locally based outdoor cooperative that had grown into a nationwide retailer, had special significance to many Seattle residents, and the 1996 relocation of its Seattle flagship store from Capitol Hill to a new $28 million building at South Lake Union was much anticipated. As part of the landscape design, the Berger Partnership reinforced the retail giant’s outdoor and recreation interests by funneling one of the store’s entryways through a forest-like setting, complete with a bike trail and a waterfall, creating the feeling of dense woodland just steps from the sidewalk.
Berger’s design was a hit with both customers and the media. Seattle Times architecture critic Mark Hinshaw said “landscape architect Tom Berger arranged earth, water and rocks to resemble a stream cascading down a mountainside. The sound of water is everywhere, simultaneously soothing and energetic. Eventually, the plants will mature and create a cool cloister of supreme sophistication,” and added, discussing the store as a whole, that “the blending of forms, materials, space and landscape is so superb it makes one long for buildings this exquisite in the heart of downtown” (Hinshaw).
As the accolades for the Berger Partnership’s landscape projects continued to grow, so too did the firm’s client list. In the 1990s, the partnership was called in to lead a series of community meetings to help re-envision Capitol Hill’s historic Cal Anderson Park. Developed in time for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and originally called Lincoln Park, the green space had been designed by the famous landscape-architecture firm of the Olmstead Brothers and featured elegant pathways, open views, a wading pool, and pedestrian gateways. There were also a 21-million-gallon water reservoir and the city’s first hydraulic pumping station, both dating from 1901.
Despite its historic pedigree, over the years the park’s popularity had waned and it had fallen into disrepair. By the 1990s, the community was fed up. Local advocates wanted a green space that would be a community asset, not a crime scene. Five community meetings were held, facilitated by the Berger Partnership. In her first-person account of the visioning process, community organizer Kay Rood noted that the firm’s participation, led by partner Jeff Girvin, “brought much-appreciated and valuable continuity for us … Our collaboration produced a Park Site Master Plan, which took into account both the site’s historic legacy and contemporary needs and uses” (“Creating Cal Anderson Park …”). In November 1998, the park was designated a historic landmark and the ProParks Levy, which passed in 2000, providing initial funding. The landscape redesign honored the original Olmsted vision, with meandering walking paths lined with wrought-iron lamps, a parapet wall surrounding the reservoir’s perimeter, and a fountain. The park reopened in 2003 and was renamed in 2005 to honor state legislator Calvin Bruce Anderson (1948-1995).
Other notable Berger Partnership projects in the 1990s included the new Adobe Systems headquarters in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood and the Whidbey Island home of Paul Schell, Seattle’s mayor from 1998 to 2001, and his wife Pam. The landscape design for Adobe’s regional headquarters on Lake Union, completed in 1998, was the firm’s first foray into designing for the high-tech industry. As with many projects located in dense neighborhoods, finding the right balance was key. “It wasn’t easy to tuck over 300,000 square feet of corporate office space along with generous open areas into the heart of Fremont and keep the neighbors happy … A year after completion, it’s hard to remember when the new Adobe campus in Fremont wasn’t there, or even to find the edge of the campus” (Enlow, “The Software Life …”).
When Pam and Paul Schell needed help selecting plants and landscaping a 40-acre property on Whidbey Island they turned to their friend Tom Berger. For the Schell residence, Berger concentrated on plants that added fragrance and visual interest during the rainy winter months, such as harlequin glory bower, Chinese witch hazel, snowbell trees, and paperbark maples. He also designed a secret garden on the property complete with raised rose beds, herbs, and a cutting garden.
Pushing the Envelope at IslandWood
IslandWood on Bainbridge Island was a project custom-tailored for Tom Berger. The 255-acre environmental learning center, a 35-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle, was made possible by the vision and determination of Debbi Brainerd and her husband, Aldus software company founder Paul Brainerd (b. 1947). In 1997, when the Brainerds heard that the former Port Blakely Tree Farm was going to be subdivided and sold for development, they bought 255 acres of the property and then got to thinking about the best ways to preserve and transform the land.
“Out-of-the-box thinking and a deep love of the environment have created one of the most lush classrooms the Pacific Northwest has known. Outdoors, IslandWood students meander through bog, cattail marsh and ravine, engaging in scientific inquiry. Indoors, their feet pad on cork flooring, a sound-absorbent renewable resource” (Chou).
According to the learning center’s website, as of 2021 more than 13,000 visitors come to IslandWood each year for school programs, classes, weddings, meetings, and retreats. At the time, though, developing the property was a tough sell to neighbors who had chosen the island setting precisely for its peace and quiet.
“Opposition to the project was finally put to rest through assurances about noise and traffic disruption, as well as the knowledge that the site was sure to be developed anyway. IslandWood would be an environmental asset, a resource for local schools, and a good neighbor” (Enlow, “Learning from …”).
Berger teamed with Mithun Architects; the two had been partners a decade earlier on the REI flagship store. As IslandWood kicked off, designers from both firms camped on site as a way to get up-close-and-personal with the land. Construction took about five years; the result was an innovative environmental learning center focused on science, conservation, and the outdoors world. The design teams’ attention to detail, passion for the Northwest aesthetic, and determination to incorporate sustainable design earned the project a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, a rating developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. It was the first LEED Gold certification awarded in Washington.
“A Darn Good Guy”
Tom Berger died on September 11, 2014, at the age of 69 from Parkinson’s disease. He left behind his wife of 49 years, four children, and eight grandchildren. A popular speaker and advisor on landscape design and environmental issues, he was also a university lecturer and board member of the Washington Arboretum Foundation and WSU Spokane Interdisciplinary Design Institute. During his career, he was honored with awards from both the national and local chapters of the Society of Landscape Architects, the Audubon Society, and the Seattle Design Commission. A lifelong Washington State University Cougs fan, he also enjoyed soccer, volleyball, and antique cars.
A year after his death, an exhibit on his work opened at WSU’s School of Design and Construction. Called “Building Legacies, Designing the Future,” it explored Berger’s distinctive approach to design. As his colleague Kelly Rench told an interviewer: “Tom led the way for ecologically responsive landscape design … He addressed global warming, water conservation and air quality, while adding open, green space. As our cities become more dense and populous, that space becomes more important” (“Building Legacies”).
Following his death, Berger’s colleagues posted a tribute to their boss on the company website:
“Although he would prefer to be remembered as ‘a darn good guy,’ we will always remember him as a friend, mentor, leader, and an inspiration” (“Thomas L. Berger …”).
Jan Kowalczewski Whitner, “Living Jewels — Bonsai Collection Honors Centennial,” The Seattle Times, October 8, 1989, Pacific magazine, p. 24; Fred Albert, “Plants and People,” Ibid., February 7, 1993, Pacific magazine, p. 16; Mark Hinshaw, “From Awesome to Awful — Three New Seattle Stores,” Ibid., September 15, 1996, p. F-1; Valerie Easton, “The Mayor’s Getaway,” The Seattle Times, October 24, 1999, (www.seattletimes.com); “Building Legacies: Inaugural Open House Looks at Landscape Architecture Pioneer Tom Berger,” Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (https://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/article/building-legacies-inaugural-open-house-looks-at-landscape-architecture-pioneer-tom-berger/); Barbara Huston, “Park Plan Unveiled for Good Shepherd,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 25, 1979, p. D-1; Marsha King, “Building a Future,” Ibid., July 16, 1989, p. K-1; Clair Enlow, “The Software Life in Fremont,” Daily Journal of Commerce, August 4, 1999 (https://www.djc.com/news/re/10056545.html?action=get&id=10056545&printmode=true); Clair Enlow, “Learning from an Island,” Landscape Architecture Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 10, October 2003, pp. 84-93, copy available at Envirotech Soil Solutions, Inc. website accessed November 17, 2021 (https://www.axisplayball.com/learning-from-an-island-oct-2003-asla-magazine); “Bainbridge Island Campus,” IslandWood website accessed November 17, 2021 (https://islandwood.org/about-us-an-environmental-science-nonprofit/bainbridge-island-campus/); “About Us,” Pacific Bonsai Museum website accessed November 15, 2021 (https://pacificbonsaimuseum.org/about/); “Pacific Bonsai Museum — The Most Diverse Collection in America,” September 22, 2017, Explore Washington State website accessed November 18, 2021 (https://explorewashingtonstate.com/pacific-bonsai-museum-2/); Aimee Chou, “Brainerds Marry Love of Land and Technology,” Puget Sound Business Journal, November 17, 2005 (https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2005/11/21/focus10.html); Taha Ebrahimi, “Cal Anderson Park: The Park Behind CHAZ/CHOP,” July 1, 2020, Historic Seattle Preservation in Progress blog accessed November 18, 2021 (https://historicseattle.org/cal-anderson-park-the-park-behind-chaz-chop/); “Thomas L. Berger, FASLA, Honorary AIA, 1945-2014,” Berger Partnership website accessed November 18, 2021 (https://bergerpartnership.com/activity/thomas-l-berger-fasla-honorary-aia-1945-2014/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Creating Cal Anderson Park by Kay Rood,” “Home of the Good Shepherd” (by Toby Harris), and “IslandWood, an environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island, opens on September 22, 2002” (by Rita Cipalla), http://www.historylink.org (accessed December 22, 2021).
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