Residents at Channing House in Palo Alto soon will be able to enjoy the outdoors from the building's rooftop. The retirement community is set to open two new terrace gardens this month as part of a major renovation of the second floor.
The rooftop gardens are a welcome addition for residents of the massive, block-long complex, which has been short of outdoor garden space since opening its doors in the early 1960s. Channing House residents now will be able to step off their elevator and onto turf adorned with large pots of roses, grape vines, lavender, thyme and pomegranate, lemon, lime, palm and olive trees.
Space became available for the gardens — as well as for 16 new apartments and new common areas for Channing House residents — in late 2015 when the assisted-living residents and skilled-nursing patients previously occupying Channing House's second floor were moved to a newly constructed Health Center adjacent to the main building and connected by an indoor corridor.
Workers gutted the entire second floor, said Kim Krebs, who worked on the renovation project and is now marketing director at Channing House. The renovation was completed in three phases: first, the apartments, which were occupied last year; second, the common area — which includes medical offices, a beauty salon and activity rooms — and finally, the rooftop gardens.
The new open-air gardens extend to each end of the second floor and are divided in the center by the indoor common areas.
The garden project was a longtime dream of some residents, who formed a committee to help make it happen. Three members, who worked for years, were recently joined on the project by a couple — both professional botanists — who moved to Channing House last year.
"One of the things we all think about as we leave our own homes is leaving our gardens behind," said Lee Newman, who led the residents' committee.
When Newman and her husband, longtime Palo Alto residents, were choosing among potential senior communities about five years ago, she said she was attracted by a large architect's drawing of Channing House's anticipated second-floor garden — "a very nice garden area with a big fountain and all kinds of people doing various things on the deck."
Initially, a landscape designer engaged by Channing House encouraged the residents to "think big," prompting Newman to go out and get a book on New York rooftop gardens and dream of the possibilities. But the grand hopes were dimmed after engineers warned of weight-bearing limits to the Channing House rooftop.
"The challenge turned out to be just the structural limitations of the space — it was never really meant to hold super gardens and large parties," Krebs said. "Having the input and buy-in from the structural engineers was crucial to make sure we had safe environments.
They had to do some inserting under the surfaces to shore up the weight load," she said.
Committee members pressed ahead with a scaled-down version, ultimately engaging San Francisco landscape architects Smith & Smith.
The resulting rooftop gardens — visible from above from all west-facing residents of Channing House — include pathways lined by the potted plants and surrounded by artificial turf. The gardens also feature small fountains, grape arbors and seating.
"Ever since I moved to Channing House, I've taken care of the outside plants of one kind or another," said 8-year resident Janet Creelman. Creelman, who keeps many potted plants on her own balcony and has worked on maintaining plants in the front parking lot of Channing House, also has cared for the plants of residents who have died or moved away.
"So when they formed a committee, naturally I was on it," she said. "We worked with two or three different landscape designers and finally we found these people from San Francisco. They're very good, and they gave us a very good plan."
"It's really fun just digging in the dirt," said committee member Joan Jack, who also has cared for potted plants around Channing House. Jack said the new terrace gardens will transform an area that was previously just a flat off-white rooftop.
The new gardens will be professionally maintained, Krebs said.
As with any project designed by a committee, "the final result does not necessarily represent everyone's views," Newman said. "But I think most people will be pleased with the fact that they have something green outside. We have something living outside and something that will seasonally change outside, and I think that's just a healthy part of retirement.
"As we age and our life becomes smaller and more confined, to be able to look out and, in our case, to actually be able to walk yourself or take a wheelchair or a walker out and be outside is just a real plus," she said.