George Mark Children’s House  

The mission of the George Mark Children’s House is to help families navigate end-of-life care for their children. The first standalone pediatric palliative care center in the U.S., GMCH focuses on quality of life and continuity of care for children with incurable illnesses or chronic medical conditions. Relieved from the stress of medical costs (which are fully covered by the center) and difficult decisions, families at the House can celebrate life and their remaining time together.

The center was founded in 2004 on a five-acre hillside property in the Bay Area; with this project, 1.3 of those acres were turned into a restorative garden. The George Mark Children’s House was conceived as an alternative to the clinical nature of institutional settings. The GMCH was designed to feel like a home, with rooms large enough for whole families and plenty of gathering spaces to build community, engage in play and make joyful memories.

Hummingbird Hill was designed as a natural extension of that same philosophy. It is a place where the young residents can safely spend time outdoors in nature and families can enjoy quality time together. It is also a place for staff and caregivers to rest before returning to continue demanding and emotionally challenging work.

At the start of the project, the property had mature landscaping around the house as well as a network of wheelchair-accessible strolling paths, but the hillside was left fallow and underutilized.

A small memorial fountain, a glazed pot with stones engraved with the names of children and the date of their passing, was tucked off to the side and had no shade or seating. To better honor its significance and create a more meaningful experience for families revisiting the site, the area was transformed into a serene garden memorial. The reimagined fountain was carved from a block of basalt. The water trickles over into a hidden basin by the commemorative rocks inscribed with children’s names. Japanese maples add sculptural form, seasonal interest and shade, while sensory plantings contribute scent. In order to create space for families and caregivers to sit and reflect, the nearby hillside is held back by a retaining wall of boulders and stones, which in turn provides seating.

From the chapel, a new connection was created to access the formerly vacant hillside, now transformed into Hummingbird Hill. One challenge that first had to be surmounted was the accommodation of a seasonal waterway. The solution was to create a raised boardwalk, which not only suspends visitors above dynamic moving water at certain times of the year, but creates percussive sound and vibration for those moving across in wheelchairs. What was once an unsightly gravel ditch is now spanned by a cedar boardwalk and edged with riparian plantings, creating a functional, attractive habitat.

A short roll away lies the plaza, the garden’s main gathering space, a central area with flat open space. The Plaza offers a variety of seating and an installation of interactive chimes, at once sculpture and musical instrument.

Continuing further into the garden, a wall fountain spills along the edge of the pathway. The patients’ fragile health does not allow them to plan in the water, but they can delight in its sound and watch hummingbirds drink from its spouts. The south end of the garden is anchored by an outdoor kitchen and dining area shaded by an arbor. Here, families can host and evening barbecue and staff can gather to share a meal and support one another.

Climbing up the hill, a series of wheelchair-accessible ramps leads visitors along raised vegetable beds and a small vineyard of table grapes and berry vines. Throughout the project, special consideration was given to providing sensory experience through plants — including smokebush, lamb’s ear, purple smoke trees, daphne and lavender — in beauty, form, foliage color, textural variety, scent and hummingbird habitat.

During the site analysis and investigation, the landscape architects discovered that the top of the hill provided views over the whole complex to San Francisco. They created a destination overlook crowned by a shade-providing tensile structure that takes on a birdlike appearance from the garden below.

Hummingbird Hill exists to support everyone in the GMCH community, whether it’s hosting a resident family celebrating a special milestone or enjoying an al fresco picnic, a returning family remembering a loved one, a community event or staff gathering, or the center’s annual Walk of Remembrance, when staff and families create a mandala from plant pieces picked from the gardens. The landscape architects were honored to donate their time in designing this garden and to help procure materials, support and expertise from as many as fifty other donors over a three-year period.

In some cultures, hummingbirds are a symbol of rebirth. Hummingbird Hill was conceived as a place where memories are made that will last a lifetime, and beyond.

Photographer credit: Jason O’Rear

Project Location: San Leandro, California, United States

Design year: Started 2017

Year Built: 2021

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