Low-cost, high-impact renovations refresh Crown Center

Crown staffers Randi Schenberg (right) and Florence Schachter (left) look on as residents train on new equipment in the renovated fitness center.  

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Program enhancements and physical improvements are taking shape at the Gladys & Henry Crown Center for Senior Living, changes that could remake the facility for a generation to come.

“Basically, we are doing modest renovations with major impact,” said Nikki Goldstein, Crown’s executive director.

That’s the basic idea behind [email protected], an initiative that was announced in early 2013. Construction began early this year, and the 45-year-old apartment complex is already showing significant changes. 

Goldstein said nearly $2 million has been raised for the project, which has continued as funds become available.

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A greenhouse and four community-garden seedbeds have sprung up outdoors in partnership with Gateway Greening, an organization that came to talk to residents about planting, weeding and feeding.

“This was the first spring that we really went in and grew amazing herbs and plants and flowers,” said Randi Schenberg, community relations director for Crown Center. “Those that volunteered and helped with it were able to harvest and use things in their own cooking.”

Though the seedbeds are dormant for the winter, the small greenhouse is still operational. Inside its protective panes, an orange tree grows in warm, herbal-scented air amid shelves of lettuce, basil, oregano and sage.

“It has been hugely successful,” Schenberg said. “It engaged residents that we had not seen participate in other things before but who really dug their hands into the gardening.”

Also have a place to use them. Next to the library, a new culinary studio dressed in dark wood cabinetry and gleaming granite countertops serves as a venue for cooking classes. Guest chefs can give demonstrations using an electric range top tucked beneath a tilted mirror so the audience can see the action.

Schenberg said that baking and cooking events have always been popular with residents but that now they can take place in a state-of-the-art venue instead of in makeshift settings such as conference rooms. 

The facility’s café is being revamped as well. Kosher meals are now being enhanced with the addition of a dairy kitchen to complement an existing meat kitchen. Menus are also being changed, with lunch and breakfast selections being added to the five-day-a-week dinner options. 

The café initially will be promoted only to residents. Eventually, however, the hope is to make it a gathering place for others in the area via a second entrance from a new outdoor patio.

“It’s just a way to expand our space a bit so there are more places for people to do things and enjoy it,” Goldstein said. “People from the community can come here for a cup of coffee and maybe they’ll stay for a class.”

The café idea is based on a storefront complex premiered at the Mather LifeWays Café Plus in Chicago as a magnet for attracting active seniors from the community to a pleasant, relaxed and engaging setting.

“We are not just an apartment building. It’s also a community,” Goldstein said. “We’re a community center, and part of our mission is to serve as a place for seniors who don’t live here to feel welcome and have access to a lot of great programs and services.”

Some of those programs are on display in a redone fitness center enhanced with new video equipment, exercise machines and speakers. Everything is hooked into Fitness on Demand, a system managed by an interactive screen nearby that includes a schedule of events and classes. Selections might range from tai chi or dance to chair exercise and balance classes.

“We can use it with groups just to see what people are interested in and open to before we have a teacher on-site,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein and others at the complex say many of the changes have been made at a relatively low cost. Only four people have been hired for [email protected] Instead, much of the work is being done through partnerships with groups ranging from OASIS to COCA.

“We are either purchasing some services from them, or some things they are providing free of charge because it reaches a new population for them,” Goldstein said. “That’s been a great model for us. We aren’t necessarily content experts in everything, but we’re working with the best places that are the content experts.”

More work remains to be done. While the community garden, fitness area and culinary studio are mostly finished, the café isn’t expected to open until next month, and lighting is still being installed on the outdoor patio. 

Meanwhile, a proposed art studio near the workout area remains in the planning stages. 

“There’s lots of research that indicates that involvement in the arts can really be beneficial to people’s well-being and good health,” Goldstein said. “We want to make sure we can offer that.”

An opening event is planned for June to honor the individuals and groups that have helped fund the project.

Schenberg said there is a good reason to wait until spring to host the get-together. 

“We want to wait until the garden is in full bloom,” she said.