Project Summary

Project Client: The Gathering Place

Landscape Architecture: Virginia Burt (Visionscapes), collaborating with MSI Landscape Architects

Photography: Marc Golub Photography

Completed: May 2005

Total Project Area (sq. ft.): One-third acre

Total Cost: $725,000

Can landscape support healing? The prospect that it does is being given a full test in the lavishly yet sensitively designed “Norma's Garden…A Place of Healing” at The Gathering Place in Cleveland. Founded in 2000 by longtime social worker Eileen Saffran, who had lost both her parents to cancer and had discovered that Northeast Ohio lacked supportive facilities for cancer patients and their families, The Gathering Place has provided a variety of offerings for more than 9,000 cancer patients and their families. Services include art therapy, massage therapy, nutrition counseling, and a variety of Eastern-inspired relaxation exercises—all provided at no charge. Doubling its size in 2004, The Gathering Place acquired a new building with a one-third-acre “backyard” that Saffran decided to put to use in supporting its mission: a healing garden that visitors would find to be truly healing. Landscape architect Virginia Burt, proprietor of the Campbellville, Ontario–based Visionscapes, was commissioned to plan, design, and oversee construction of Norma's Garden (named after founding donors Norma Siegler and her husband Ernie, who named the garden for his late wife shortly before he too passed away). The result of the $725,000 project was 11 “rooms” offering a wide variety of plants, activities for children and adults, original sculptures, and quiet meditation areas bathed in the soft sounds of running water. Norma's Garden enjoys the services of some 400 volunteers and two years of free maintenance by nearby Greensward Landscaping, Inc., and has a $1.1 million annual budget. Saffran and Burt took HEALTHCARE DESIGN Editor Richard L. Peck on a guided tour of Norma's Garden just before its opening in May 2005. Moving from “room to room”:

Entry Walk of Friends

The custom-designed gates by metal sculptor David Hind and stone sculptor Walt Rickli draw visitors in with concentric steel circles representing all-encompassing energy, along with stone carvings allowing visitors to trace a labyrinthine pattern by touch. These lead directly to an 11-circuit labyrinth inspired in design by the labyrinth at the Cathedral of Chartres; a large overlay of the labyrinth is placed on the Pool of Grass for actual use by visitors. The Pool of Grass is surrounded on four sides by sculptures indicating the four classical elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.

Edible Garden and Children's Garden

Moving to the right of the Pool of Grass, one enters the Edible Garden, which has raised beds with edible plants for horticultural therapy activities. The Children's Garden is replete with a waterfall, pond, stone bridge, five-ton granite “reading rock,” sandpit, and log crawl Hind designed. Children are closely supervised but are encouraged to romp, play, and read to their heart's content—unless they want to proceed on their journey for further surprises.

Storybook Maze and Sacred Mount

Winding upward from the Children's Garden is a stone pathway with inlaid story captions presenting the tale of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Participants move through a human-size cocoon to arrive at a butterfly—a 6' x 8' stainless steel butterfly that also serves as an interactive chiming instrument—and conclude the maze at the Sacred Mount, the highest point of the garden.

Secret Mystery Garden and Green Rooms

Adults (and children, too, if they're so inclined) can then proceed to the left to enter the Secret Mystery Garden, consisting of recovered barn foundation stones from nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania farms and antique water troughs imported from Great Britain. With a number of seating areas and a small semi-enclosure reminiscent of an old drive shed next to a gurgling water feature, it is a place conducive to meditation, journaling, and quiet conversation. Located nearby is Ernie's Rock, a four-ton purple granite boulder indicating, says Saffran, the “strength and gentleness of a man who was the ‘rock’ of our organization.” One can proceed gently downward along a winding path, with burbling water nearby, through an area called the Green Rooms. The Green Rooms are designed as a raised portion of the garden to reduce the scale of a neighboring two-story wall to the north that, at first, says Burt, reminded her of a drive-in movie screen!

Portico and Gathering Terrace

One concludes the journey at the comfortable, quiet, all-weather portico and adjacent terrace, which offers seats and tables for relaxation, conversation, and observation. Nearby is Water Leaves, a granite water sculpture by Rickli. Crafted with both rough and polished granite, it is designed to stimulate the senses with the gentle sound of falling water, feel of velvety smooth stone, and view of its sparkling surface. Moving upward from the terrace are connections allowing wheelchair accessibility through the garden up the Sacred Mount. The garden will be open year-round for people to observe and enjoy the transformation of the plantings—some 80 species of shrubs, perennials, and grasses and 25 species of trees—through all seasons.


Saffran: “This is not a hospice. It is a place where people receive support so that they can live their lives as long and as peacefully as possible. And most of our visitors here do live long lives. We want to give people the tools to live their lives to the fullest and be able to carry that learning from here to the outside.”

Burt: “Often you will see healing gardens that, while lovely, are seldom inhabited. It has been my experience that successful healing gardens have an integration of people, places, and programs. When a healing garden is integrated with a program for all ages, as demonstrated here, it comes alive for people touched by cancer as a place of healing, peace, and joy.” HD