IOWA CITY — Take a drive through Iowa City any summer day, and you’ll see Nancy Seiberling’s legacy growing everywhere.
Seiberling, who died Jan. 12 at age 97, was a co-founder of both Project GREEN and of the Johnson County Heritage Trust. Project GREEN, which stands for Grow to Reach Environmental Excellence Now, plants and maintains flowers, plantings and trees around Iowa City. The Heritage Trust, recently renamed the Bur Oak Land Trust, preserves wild tracks of land in and around Johnson County.
“People kind of just take it for granted now, but if it wasn’t for her, it really would be a different town, visually,” said Cindy Parsons, Project GREEN co-president. “People come to Iowa City and remark about how beautiful it is with all the landscaping and the greenery and our medians, and really Nancy Seiberling is behind all that.”
Seiberling founded Project GREEN in 1968 along with landscape architects Gretchen Harshbarger and Jim Maynard. Iowa City was going through an urban renewal effort at the time. Parsons said Seiberling didn’t want green spaces to be forgotten in the conversations about building renovations and economic development.
“She was pretty incredible. As far as someone whose contributed to the natural beauty of Iowa City, she’s probably the No. 1 person,” Parsons said.
The fledgling organization started by landscaping six blocks of medians on Iowa Avenue in 1968, quickly followed by planting 600 trees and shrubs along the Highway 6 bypass.
Seiberling marshaled volunteers, enlisting the help of gardeners and finding people to write a newsletter, manage the finances and complete the other tasks necessary for a not-for-profit. She wasn’t afraid to approach government officials and business leaders to obtain their support, Maynard said.
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That included convincing the city to donate spots for mini-parks in downtown, one of which still exists as the Black Hawk Mini Park on the Pedestrian Mall. That park gained great popularity, he said.
“She wanted to create a couple of little oases in the bleak downtown area,” Maynard said. “When the idea of the Pedestrian Mall was developed, the consensus by the public was they wanted it to reflect the same ambience as that park. That influenced the design of the mall.”
Since its founding, Project GREEN has raised and spent more than $2 million on more than 30 city and county beautification projects.
In 1978, Seiberling expanded her vision by co-founding the Johnson County Heritage Trust. A tract of land adjacent to Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City had just been sold to a developer, and Seiberling thought there should be a way for other similar parcels to be preserved.
She convinced lawyer Bill Hines to volunteer his legal services to help her create a new organization. Today, the trust owns eight properties, holds conservation easements on 13 others and is responsible for more than 560 acres of protected land.
Nancy Jackson was born in 1917 in Minneapolis and spent most of her childhood in Winchester, Mass. She attended Wellesley College, where she studied art history.
She and her husband, Frank Seiberling Jr., moved to Iowa City in 1959 when he was hired at the University of Iowa, where he served as head of the Department of Art and Art History. They raised four children, Franklin, Christopher, Angela and Grace.
Their house, which they called Fairhill, overlooked Coralville Lake north of Iowa City. It became a center for cultural events, with frequent receptions and dance and music performances. The home was know for its extensive and beautiful gardens, maintained by Seiberling.
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After Frank’s death in 1990, Seiberling took some the Fairhill garden peonies with her when she moved into a smaller house in town. Some of those flowers since have been replanted at the Ned Ashton House in Iowa City, a historic home the city of Iowa City has purchased and turned into an events center.
A Seiberling Peony Bed will be dedicated in her honor May 28, along with a celebration of her life.
It’s not the first memorial to Seiberling’s efforts. In 1997, to commemorate her 80th birthday, her family, community activists and Iowa City government officials worked together to plant an oak grove in her name at Hickory Hill Park.
Grace Seiberling said her mother’s legacy is not just the organizations she founded but in the way she drew people together around a cause.
“She really was interested in being a catalyst for getting people together and having them accomplish things,” she said. “She was proud of not only what Project GREEN accomplished but also of building relationships among people and having people work together for the common good.”
She said her mother defined herself as a civic volunteer, and listed that as her profession. Grace Seiberling remembered accompanying her as she visited downtown businesses to ask for their assistance with Project GREEN.
“She was able to get people to participate and give money in a way that made them feel glad about doing it,” she said. “She made them enjoy participating in something larger.
“It was part of her overall project to have them have a stake in what they were contributing to the town.”
Celebration of life
When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Ashton House, 820 Park Rd., Iowa City