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Jan Gleason, Leader of Nonprofit Firm, Dies

February 4, 2010

By David Hill

Jan Gleason
Photo courtesy
Environmental Works

Jan Gleason

While many architects take on the occasional public service project, sometimes pro bono, Jan Gleason made an entire career based on creating innovative sustainable buildings for nonprofit community organizations. The Seattle architect called herself a “social worker in three dimensions,” and she specialized in child-care centers, affordable-housing projects, medical clinics, and community centers.

Gleason died January 6 of lung cancer. She was 61.

Born in New York City, Gleason grew up in Port Chester, New York. She received her bachelor’s degree in social science from Cornell University and her master’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington. She founded Gleason & Associates in 1982 and merged the firm with Environmental Works in 1997. She retired as executive director of Environmental Works, one of the nation’s few nonprofit architectural firms, in 2008. In 2006, Gleason was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Gleason was involved in the design of more than 50 child-care centers, and in 2002, she co-authored a design manual, Making a Place for Children, for child-care operators, developers, contractors, and architects. One of her gifts, says longtime Environmental Works colleague Roger Tucker, was creating “fun and enticing spaces for kids” while working on limited budgets. She knew how to get the most out of basic materials, but she loved to throw in something quirky—a chandelier, for example—whenever possible.

“Housing or day care,” she once said, “should be more than just a roof over somebody’s head. Dismal, dreary spaces are oppressive. Light and connections with the outside make us feel better. We believe everybody deserves them.”

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Gleason was as passionate about her outside interests as she was about her work. She played soccer in an over-50 league, and for 28 years she played cello with the Cascade Symphony Orchestra in Edmonds, Washington. She also enjoyed traveling to far-flung destinations, such as Nepal, Turkey, and Peru. But Gleason’s vacations, says her longtime domestic partner Ron Hand, were not necessarily about rest and relaxation. “She’d have everything planned out, and we’d rent a car and go all over the place,” he says. “She worked hard and she played hard.”

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