Design Decisions: Tearing down walls

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The Alverno tore down a wall and let in more light.
The Alverno tore down a wall and let in more light.

For decades, visitors to The Alverno in Clinton, IA, were greeted by a giant brick wall running across the front — not the most welcoming sight, recalls Environmental Services Director Jim Phillips.

The 50-foot wall was from a redesign in the 1960s. It held up one end of a canopy, forming a drive-through entryway. 

“It probably looked cool in the '60s,” Phillips says. No more.

It blocked light from entering; there was no view out the front of the facility; residents couldn't even gauge the weather by looking through the windows. Every landscape designer that came through would ask about removing it. 

In 2013, administrator Libby Goodman decided it was finally time to tear down that wall.

Demolition planning 

Goodman sought input from members of the staff and from residents about how to make the new entryway something special. Then she started contacting area designers.

“We kind of knew what we wanted, but we didn't tell [the designers] at first; we wanted them to be creative and come up with their own ideas,” she says. 

When the project began in July 2013, the impact was immediate. 

“The day that the contractors were tearing the wall down, we had a backup of employees and residents out in the hallways,” Phillips says. “There were a lot of ‘oohs' and ‘aahs.'”

Creating space

With many demolition projects, there's a worry that the facility will be taking away an area that residents enjoy. In this case, a brand new area was created. 

The new entryway is bright and open, with good views from the lobby and nearby dining room. Outside the main entrance is a large area for sitting and gathering with friends and family. Half a dozen “nooks” provide a feeling of privacy, despite being outdoors and surrounded by other residents. 

“That was something we really thought about,” says Goodman. “We wanted people to feel like they're outside, but not part of everyone's conversation.”

Life and joy

The project culminated on October 3, 2013, with the dedication of a new statue, a Tree of Life, in honor of the Sisters of St. Francis, who ran the facility for nearly a century. 

Designed by Missouri artist Donald Horstman, the sculpture is filled with religious symbolism, including three-part leaves representing the Holy Trinity, 12 doves flying toward heaven representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles, and a lamb resting at the base of the tree representing gentleness, meekness, purity and the unblemished Lamb of God. 

In the end, Goodman says, the real impact on residents is something simple but profound. 

“They're just so happy to be able to see out the front door,” she says. “I know when you say it that way it doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is a big deal. They say, ‘Oh, look at that sunshine,' or, ‘Look at that snow,' and it's joyful.” 

Lessons learned

Get resident and staff input, but also allow designers freedom to be creative.

Design features can create a balance between privacy and spaciousness.

Seemingly minor or basic changes can dramatically improve quality of life.


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