November 25, 2013

Gerald Hotel design mindful of elders’ needs

The interior designer of the historic Gerald Hotel’s renovation says authenticity can clash with practical needs of seniors.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — When the Gerald Hotel first opened its doors in 1901, there were probably a lot of paisley-patterned prints on the opulent furniture and wall decorations.

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Restoration: One of the restored paintings on the ceiling in “The Great Room” which is part of one of the community rooms inside the Gerald hotel in Fairfield.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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OLD AND NEW: Intricate wood detail fills the walls and ceiling inside the “Great Room” in the Gerald Hotel in Fairfield. The room will be furnished with contemporary items to be both functional and historical. Workers removed several layers of paint to reveal the original tangerine color.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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But as the final touches are completed on a $6.5 million project to transform the historic building into a senior housing project, the interior decorator for the project said you won’t find a scrap of paisley anywhere inside.

The purposeful avoidance of paisley might seem mysterious, considering historic preservation tax credits helped to fund the renovation at what is now officially called the Gerald Senior Residence.

But the answer to the paisley-free walls, and many other design choices, lies in an emerging field of interior design specifically for elders.

And paisley, it turns out, is not always safe.

While the common areas for the residents, who will be age 55 and up, will pay homage to its glory days as a posh hotel for vacationing tourists, it also will pay homage to design choices that make sense for those who live there.

The result is an example of a look more and more spaces will take on in the coming decades, as America’s population ages and the world learns more about how to better accommodate the living needs of seniors.

During the past 20 years, those who provide living spaces for seniors are becoming increasingly aware that a building’s interior can affect the health of the people who live there, according to Mary Jane Richards.

As chief operating officer for North Country Associates, a company that oversees 24 nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Richards has made a lot of interior design decisions for a lot of senior living spaces.

She said the look of places such as the Gerald and North Country’s residences will become more common in private homes, where increasing numbers of family members are taking care of their loved ones.

“It’s going to dictate how places look in the future,” she said. “Times are changing.”

When Lori LaRochelle, owner of Augusta’s LaRochelle Interior Design, was originally hired to handle the interior design of the building in September, the project leaders from Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, the building’s new owner, initially asked her to stock the rooms with vintage furniture.

LaRochelle said it wouldn’t be practical.

“I told them it wouldn’t really work because of the demographics of the building,” she said. “Old vintage furniture is very mushy and difficult to get into and out of.”

For older people, who might not get around as easily as they used to, that can be a real problem.

“A lot of people think designers just make things beautiful,” she said. In reality, she said, designers work to make a building more successful at filling its purpose.

Instead of vintage, the common-area seating, due to arrive this week, will be modern, with high, firm seats that are easier to get in and out of. Covered in a high-quality fabric that is durable and easily cleaned, the furniture took up the biggest chunk of an estimated $60,000 budget, LaRochelle said.

It was a problem similar to one she faced in 2008, when she began work on a senior housing project in North Berwick, in a building that had been an old woolen mill.

For LaRochelle, it’s not a compromise with authenticity. It’s an evolution.

“I love seeing a little piece of history evolve,” she said. “I’m not hard-core on total restoration, because that makes the building no longer functional.”

Paisley and other considerations

LaRochelle’s awareness of the specific needs of elders is a sign that interior design is changing, according to Richards.

“Things you don’t consider in your home, we consider all the time,” Richards said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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NEW LOOK: Interior designer Lori Larochelle stands in the new entrance to the Gerald Hotel in Fairfield holding examples of carpet and fabric that will be used in the entry.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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HISTORIC: Contractor Randy Woodworth works inside a room where original tin ceiling panels were restored and replaced inside the Gerald Hotel in Fairfield.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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SOCIAL HISTORY: Interior designer Lori Larochelle is designing the ornate “Great Room” into a functioning community room with contemporary furnishings inside the Gerald Hotel in Fairfield.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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