Lurie Terrace at Fifty
Published In: Ann Arbor Observer, December 2014
Author: Grace Shackman
Lurie Terrace, a residence for active seniors of moderate means, was a real groundbreaker when it was built fifty years ago. “There were none [like it] to the best of our knowledge” recalls Bob Chance, one of the four architects who worked on it. The designers had no template to follow, just organizer Shata Ling’s vision.
Ling was a remarkable woman who was not only full of ideas but made them happen. Born in 1905 in Houston and trained as a social worker, she came to Ann Arbor with her husband, Daniel Ling, in 1943 for grad school – he in civil engineering and she in public health. She later returned to U-M to study community organizing and worked part-time for researcher Wilma Donahue, a pioneer in the new field of gerontology.
When Ling realized that local seniors lacked a gathering place, she and her husband bought an old house at 439 S. Ashley to use as a senior center, renting out a basement apartment to help cover the cost. Ling served as the unpaid director and organized activities such as art classes and choral groups. “It was almost an instant success,” recalled Daniel Ling in a 1985 memoir. When they outgrew that building, a generous donation helped them buy a house at 323 Packard, again making it work by renting out apartments. One of the renters there was U-M student Bob Creal, who later served on the board of Lurie Terrace for thirty-eight years.
The seed for Lurie Terrace was planted when Ling learned that many seniors who came to the center lived in inadequate rooms or small apartments, often paying more than they could afford. The problem was compounded by the fact that many of the older homes that offered low rents were being tom down to make room for apartments in the post-WWII building boom. There were four nursing homes in Ann Arbor, but no places for active seniors except for the Anna Botsford Bach Home, which housed just seventeen women.
Learning of new federal programs that would loan money for supportive housing for the elderly, Ling in 1961 converted the senior center board into a nonprofit entity known as Senior Citizens Housing of Ann Arbor, Inc. She then put together a proposal, convincing professionals, such as architect Jim Livingston, to sign on without knowing if they would ever collect a fee or not. Daniel Ling was the structural engineer. Wanting a site near downtown, she convinced the seller of property on Huron St. to keep the land option open for two years.
In the spring of 1962, the nonprofit was approved for a $1.7 million loan, payable over fifty years at 3.375 percent interest. However, it was another year before they could break ground while they ironed out the last details, including raising funds to finish the interior. The community responded with contributions, including a lounge furnished by the Kiwanis Club.
Meanwhile, the architects went to work on the design. Chance remembers Livingston coming into the office and saying “Bob, we’ve got a good one. You’re going to love this lady.” meaning Shata Ling. He was right. Chance developed a “profound admiration and respect for her,” describing Ling as “an intense, brilliant, no-nonsense, off-the-shoulder kind of gal.”
Livingston, who owned the firm, dealt directly with the clients. Kip Serota was the chief designer, while Linden Pettys did the drawings. Chance’s main job was to see that the design was carried out as planned when building began. But Chance says they worked as a team. “If there was a problem we’d work it out together to make it happen,” he explains.
“We started with what was generally expected, but Shata pushed-she wanted something different,” recalls Chance. The challenge, according to Serota, “was to create something with a modest amount of money that didn’t look like a public housing project.”
The size of the parcel and the number of units dictated a high-rise. But Serota made it different from most blocky low-income projects by designing two eight-story hexagon shaped towers. The ten apartments on each floor are accessed from corridors that branch out from a central elevator, rather than a single long hall. The hexagonal walls made for wedge-shaped rooms, but Serota explained those made the small spaces seem bigger, and gave residents different views out their windows. Chance remembers doing mock-ups to make sure that furniture would fit in the unconventional rooms.
Serota’s original design had balconies, but Livingston nixed them, saying that the residents would rather have more floor space. Serota still thinks they would have been a good idea: in the era before air conditioning they would have allowed residents to cool off, given an illusion of more space, and made the exterior more attractive. The section connecting the two towers contained the elevator, stairs, and a different activity room for each floor: a music room, a greenhouse, an exercise room, an arts and crafts room, and a library.
The most controversial part of the plan was locating the dining room on the top floor. Ling suggested that so all the residents, not just those living on top floors, could enjoy the view over downtown Ann Arbor and the Old West Side. She felt the bother of bringing food up and carrying garbage down was worth it. City officials disagreed. Characteristically, Ling didn’t back down, and eventually they relented.
The groundbreaking took place in May 1963. Sid Woolner, head of the federal Community Facilities Administration – soon to be folded into the new Department of Housing and Urban Development – called Lurie Terrace “a remarkable, intriguing design.” When construction started, Ling resigned from her by-then-paying position at the senior center to volunteer on the site. She was given a hard hat and an office in the old house that the contractors were using as headquarters before tearing it down. “She was one of the few clients I’ve had who read the specifications,” recalls Chance. She monitored every aspect of the project, including the doors, carpeting, slate, drapery rods, kitchen cabinets, and tile. She also fought to save the trees on the site.
Daniel Ling recalled that his wife “climbed ladders to check the construction and brought coffee to the workmen on cold winter days. With such feminine supervision, some of the men wanted to be informed if she became involved in another construction project so they could apply for the work.”
As the opening date neared, there was a steady stream of applicants to live in the 142 apartments in the new building, which Ling had named after her mother, Anna Lurie. To qualify, people had [to] be at least sixty-two years old and have an income of less than $4,000 a year if single, or $5,000 a year if married. There were also federal rent subsidies for twenty people who qualified.
The official opening was October 9, 1965 – a day so cold and raw that some of the participants watched from inside. The program booklet included a quote from Donahue, from whom Ling had gotten many of her ideas: “Not only is this a ‘break-through’ in retirement housing for middle-income people, but Lurie Terrace represents the practical application of U-M’s many years of work and study.” The New York Times published an article about Lurie Terrace, and in the early years there were visitors from around the world who wanted to learn from its example.
Ling stayed involved in the new residence for the rest of her life. Louise Bale, who later became active in Lurie Terrace, recalled her first glimpse of its creator while dining there with a friend: “Ling entered, dressed in a classic brown suit, her gorgeous red hair piled high on her head. She radiated warmth and vigor. Table after table of the residents looked up to greet her as she passed. A quick remark, an inquiry about someone’s health, an infectious laugh – everyone in that section of the dining room became livelier at once.” Ling died of cancer in 1969 at age sixty-four, just five years after Lurie Terrace was completed.
Serota left Livingston’s office to work for Minoru Yamasaki, who was expanding his staff when he got the job of designing the World Trade Center. Chance spent most of his career working as an architect for the U-M. Livingston continued in private practice, where he designed a wide array of local buildings including Weber’s, Kale’s Waterfall (later Szechuan West), and Lawton Elementary School, as well as apartment houses and private homes.
If Shata Ling and Wilma Donahue were alive today, they would be amazed at how their pioneering efforts have mushroomed. Every community in Washtenaw County now has a senior center. Catholic Social Services Resource Directory lists eighteen senior residences including independent living, assisted living, and memory loss units, plus sixteen subsidized or affordable places. For seniors who wish to stay in their own homes, there are a myriad of services including Meals on Wheels, senior cab service, home sharing, and home health care.
The revolution that brought about this new order started in 1965 with the passage of the Older Americans Act, part of LBJ’s Great Society program. “It moved the needle on the needs of seniors and how to respond,” explains Henry Johnson, U-M emeritus vice president, who is a neighbor and supporter of Lurie Terrace. “As the population aged, a more informed public began advocating for better senior services, which led to both private and public development.”
In spite of the newer competition, Lurie Terrace is usually full, although vacancies are not filled as fast as they once were. “It used to be that they [new residents] would move in literally the next day. They’d already have their things in the car,” recalls Mary Jean Raab, who has been a board member for twenty-two years and is now president.
Most of the original units were very small efficiency apartments ranging from 300 to 350 square feet. While a great step up from the rented rooms many of the first tenants came from, as Americans grew used to having more space, Raab says, “that was simply not the right mix of unit sizes,” and eighteen of them were combined to create nine large one bedroom apartments. Though the efficiencies are a bargain – rents start at $546 a month, including fifteen meals in the dining room – those larger apartments are now in the greatest demand, with a wait list of several years.
Raab also notes that there used to be more couples. “Today with more options [for support] to bring into the home, couples stay [home] more often until one person passes.”
Another change is the removal of the original ban on walkers and wheelchairs – the thinking then was that the residents had to be totally independent. But as residents needed assistance walking, many just hid their devices or had others go through the food line for them. “We now realize that seniors can be active mentally and physically and still need help,” Raab says.
Last year the board paid off the fifty-year mortgage. That frees them from HUD rules but also means greater responsibility. Since 2002, the board has spent $1.2 million on major updates – installing air conditioning, replacing plumbing, and putting in new windows.
“Fifty years after the first resident, we are thriving, still around, fulfilling our mission,” says Raab. She hopes that with all the improvements, the same thing can be said at the end of the next fifty years.