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.
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.
It all boils down to recognizing that people’s bodies change.
“As people age, their senses change,” she said. “Their sense of sight, touch, certainly their mobility has changed.”
Sometimes, the features that will provide health advantages are obvious, and sometimes they are less so. The emerging field of interior design for senior health is addressing every detail, from the shape of a room to the color of a cup.
To account for weaker eyesight, for example, there is an active effort to reduce glare by avoiding shiny floors or glossy paint on the walls.
At the same time, there needs to be more, stronger light so that people with visual impairments can see.
In addition to chairs and couches that are easier to get out of, floors are cleared of area rugs, which constitute tripping hazards.
Many of the changes are done to accommodate those with memory problems, which can range from occasional forgetfulness to advanced, debilitating dementia. One out of four people age 65 or older has dementia, she said.
Richards said the brain of a person with memory problems might interpret a dark patch on the floor as a hole.
“That’s how they often process changes in color,” she said.
On the other hand, it can be difficult for some older people to detect a subtle contrast. So, for example, a white dinner plate on a white tablecloth could be a problem.
“Someone with visual deficits, that might all really blend for them,” she said. “It might be difficult for them to see where their food is.”
She said people with memory problems often see red better than other colors, which has led to a shift toward darker plates and cups.
“There are studies that show that people eat more when they have red plates,” she said.
The people who live in the Gerald Hotel are more independent than those who need active ongoing medical care, but they are both aged and aging.
And therein lies the answer to the lack of paisley.
The fashion sense of the Victorian period, which officially ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, about when the Gerald opened, included a lot of paisley, LaRochelle said.
But surprisingly, certain prints can be detrimental to the health.
She said floral prints with small, busy features that include a lot of small details, such as paisley, can cause problems for people in the early stages of dementia, who may become fixated on them.
“It can actually make people nauseous,” she said.
Instead, there will be a compromise.
“We took a floral that’s not exactly the same as you would have had then,” she said. “We found the closest things that would give us a feel for what that period would have, without being that period,” she said.
Because of the new concerns about intricate floral prints, Richards said more and more senior residences are trading their busy wallpaper patterns for muted colors.
For people who are renovating their homes to care for aging family members, Richards said it’s better not to assume that general rules will apply.
“What your grandmother needs is probably much different than what my grandmother needs,” she said.
Honoring the past
While safety is paramount, to the extent that the furnishings can be safe and also give a nod to the hotel’s original feel, which was heavily influenced by the Victorian era, LaRochelle has done so.
In the main community room on the second floor, which LaRochelle refers to as “the great room,” workers carefully chipped through several layers of paint in a communal room on the second floor to learn the original color of the walls.
It’s a strange color, LaRochelle said, and that’s coming from someone who does colors professionally.
“Usually there’s words for these in-between colors, but this one, it’s very difficult to describe,” she said. “It’s between a pink and an orange. It leans on the orange side. I’ve never used it on a wall before.”
And so, the great room has been restored to its original odd hue.
Murals on the ceiling have been preserved, as has some of the woodwork on the staircases and along the hallway. Some of the original stained-glass panels have been moved from the third floor to the second-floor landings. The lights in the great room were chosen by the historical society to approximate the originals.
“They kept the best of the old, and a touch of the new to make it work,” LaRochelle said.
There is one piece in particular that sums up LaRochelle’s approach to the design.
The columns that provide interior structural support to the building were originally ringed by circular steel radiators. LaRochelle has preserved one of the radiators, stripped off the paint, repainted it in its original bronze color, and asked a glass company to cut a custom piece of glass to serve as a tabletop in a room off the main lobby.
It’s a real piece of the Gerald, but it won’t work exactly as it once did. Instead, it has been changed into something different, something that is interesting and unique, but that also serves a practical function for the needs of the Gerald’s modern-day residents.
Unique but practical is a description that applies to many of the features inside the Gerald, from the picture frames that once held old artwork, to a peculiar shade of pinkish orange on the walls.
And now that the renovation has breathed new life into the building, it’s a description that applies to the Gerald itself.