Lights out at the Leopold
Written and photographed by Hailey Hoffman // The Klipsun Magazine
Thursday, Mar. 21, 2019
On a sunny January afternoon, Marlene “Mickey” Spencer, 82, zips around the corkboard floors of her apartment in her red power chair. For the last five-and-a-half years, Mickey has gazed over downtown Bellingham and across the bay from her corner apartment on the ninth floor of the Leopold Retirement Residence.
“This is the best view in town,” Mickey said. “I get the winter sunset here and the summer sunset there.”
The south-facing windows overlook South Hill and Western where her two grandsons attend school. Patches of bright sunlight filter through the soft, white curtains, illuminating piles of psychology books, folded clothes and a few open suitcases. Her large oak dresser stands empty, waiting for her daughter to come pick it up.
Mickey is one of 79 former residents of the Leopold. Just before Christmas, the Leopold announced it would close its doors to the retirees on March 31, 2019. A press release on the Leopold’s website cited rising costs and lowering occupancy for the closure.
“We are a locally-owned business in an old and historic building,” Leopold Executive Director Peter Frazier said in an email. “With a quick and significant loss of occupancy, we decided finally to leave the senior living business to the larger companies and pursue a more sustainable business model.”
Shock, anger and sadness spread through the residents of the Leopold as they planned their next step to find their future home.
“I plan on staying until the 31st of March,” Mickey said.
LIFE AT THE LEOPOLD
In 2013, Mickey moved into the Leopold. Like many other residents, she was attracted to the central location downtown. It gave her the freedom to walk to different shops or easily hop on a WTA bus for a ride around town.
The building itself is a 1929 addition to the original Leopold Hotel Josiah Bryon first opened in 1899. After many years of changing hands, the building was restored in 1979, revealing the original hand-painted tiles, the interior fountain and the classic beauty of the building. In 1982, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1985, it opened its doors to the over-55 community of Bellingham as the Leopold Retirement Residence.
In 2006, David Johnston and Bob Hall of Clearstory Investments bought the Leopold and continued its operations. The pair also own the Bellingham Herald building, the Heliotrope Hotel and the Bellingham National Bank building.
Retirees enjoyed their afternoons lounging around the lobby during coffee hour, chatting with other community members or competing in rounds of Wii Bowling. Residents shared meals in the Chandelier Room, where notables like former U.S. President William H. Taft and explorer Richard Byrd once dined.
On the first Wednesday of every month, the Leopold hosted dances open to the community, where residents waltzed beneath the iconic crystal chandeliers.
As much as 17 percent of Americans 50 years and older experience social isolation, according to an AARP Foundation study.
Residents of the Leopold were given memberships to the Pickford Theatre, the Kulshan Community Land Trust, the YMCA and many other local organizations to keep them active in the community. The Leopold marketed itself as a place where residents could “age in place.” According to the CDC, aging in place refers to the ability of an elderly person to continue to live in their community independently and safely.
The residents took this advertising to heart.
“[It] was a big thing as far as we were concerned — the fact that you can stay here until you die,” Mickey said. “It’s your last home. You never have to move again.”
When Mickey first moved into the Leopold in 2013, she signed a month-to-month rental agreement as part of the independent living community. She planned to switch to assisted living when she eventually needed further accommodations and aid later in life.
Assisted living facilities allow elderly residents to live on their own with additional support from staff. They may receive help with cooking, cleaning, showering or managing medication based on their need. Independent living communities don’t have the same support for daily activities, but residents have easier access to things like dining and medical care than retirees who live completely independently.
On Jan. 1, 2016, three years after Mickey moved in, the Leopold cut all eight nurses and aids on staff. It changed its business model to be solely an independent living community.
“We determined that outside caregivers would be able to provide more options of care and support [for] the residents and their families than what the Leopold was licensed to provide,” Peter Frazier said in an email.
For residents who remained and needed the extra care of an assisted living facility, the Leopold directed them to Right at Home, an organization that provides in-home care to seniors. Aside from the change in business plan, the Leopold raised Mickey’s rent by 8 percent in 2017 and 8 percent in 2018, despite the reduction in services.
For five months, Dolores Kozera said she lived in the guest suite room in the basement of the Leopold. This room, formerly a sauna, is marked as the “computer room” on the building’s floor plan provided in the resident handbook. Without windows to cast natural light, the dark wood panels on the walls eerily reflect the incandescent lights. The room has no heat, according to Dolores, and has only one electrical outlet which was blocked by her bed when she stayed there.
Dolores said she was provided an extension cord and a small, rolling space heater for warmth. However, at night, Dolores had to choose between plugging in her scooter to charge, the heater for warmth or her CPAP to breathe. If she plugged all three in at once, it would blow a fuse, leaving her alone in the dark basement.
“The Leopold Retirement Residence is a historic building in which it is ‘grandfathered’ in with regards to certain local codes and state statutes,” Peter Frazier said in an email. “All facets of the Leopold Retirement Residence are and have been in strict compliance.”
One night in November 2018, fire alarms blared through the Leopold. Residents hid behind their fireproof doors and waited for the Bellingham Fire Department to check on them, as advised in the Leopold resident handbook. However, Dolores said no one came to check on her in the basement. Unable to walk up the stairs and with the elevators shut off, she said she was stuck in the basement alone for over two hours without cell service.
“I have two cell phones and neither one of them work down there,” Dolores said. “I couldn’t call anybody for help.”
Once the elevators turned back on, Dolores escaped to find other residents mingling in lobby. She said they told her the fire department had come and checked on everyone else in the building. The Leopold management did not comment on this alleged incident.
On Jan. 4, 2019, Dolores moved into a standard room after many had moved out due to the impending closure.
On Dec. 17, 2018, Mickey, Dolores and the other 77 residents of the Leopold packed tightly into the Chandelier Room, where for many years they ate, laughed and made memories with each other.
Peter Frazier stood in front of the crowd and announced the Leopold Retirement Residence was closing.
“It has been difficult to uproot the people I have gotten to know over the last three years and having to give difficult news to elderly people who had hoped the Leopold might be their home for many years to come,” Peter Frazier said in an email. In the days and weeks that followed, a deep-seated sadness and high levels of stress plagued the Leopold.
“Every day brings negative vibes to the Leopold,” Mickey wrote in a diary entry on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.
There was widespread frustration among residents and staff after the announcement. They said it was abrupt and the timing was poor. They also complained the owners, David Johnston and Bob Hall, did not attend the meeting to announce the closure themselves.
“Business is business, but you can do it with humanity,” said former resident Marsha Feldman, 72.
Peter Frazier said he remembers being apologetic, and it made little sense for the owners to attend the meeting, as they rarely interacted directly with residents.
With the announcement made days before Christmas, many residents said the holiday season ceased to exist. The press release on the Leopold’s website states they chose to make the announcement before Christmas because many gather with their families at that time of year.
“Most people here took that as, ‘You just ruined our Christmas, and it may be our last because we are old,’” Mickey said.
Family members flocked from all corners of the country to Bellingham to help their parents and grandparents find new housing. Mickey’s daughter, Karen, trekked from Edmonton, Alberta to help her plan the next stage of her life.
Several former residents said the prices of retiree housing throughout Bellingham jumped significantly immediately following the closure of the Leopold.
“The handwriting was on the wall — 79 [people] all of a sudden blown away and having to look for quarters,” said former resident Stephane Ligtelyn, 82. “I won’t say it was a stampede, but you had to make a quick decision.”
Elder care at an assisted living facility in Washington state costs a median of $61,000 a year and nursing homes around $104,000 a year, according to the Genworth Cost of Care Survey 2018. Former resident Sue Schelinski, 75, said she had to shell out an additional $1,000 in relocation fees to move to Affinity at Bellingham, just a 15-minute drive away.
The Leopold management provided aid to the residents by hiring Dan Hammill, a member of the Bellingham City Council, as a housing specialist. He was tasked with helping residents find new homes, Peter Frazier said in an email. More than 100 community members and former Leopold staff volunteered their personal time to help the residents move out.
In the meeting, residents were told the Leopold would run normally until the final closure, former resident Nancy Hirsch, 83, said.
However, to cut costs in the final months of operation, the Leopold reduced its bus service, turned down the heating and removed half the lightbulbs from the light fixtures in the hallway. On Feb. 16, 2019, the Leopold began catering food to the remaining residents.
The Leopold also cut the general staff. Senior server Lily Walter, 20, said she was told she would have her job until March 31, 2019, but they ended her employment on Feb. 2.
“They were really desperate to get rid of the workers, which I think is really unfair to both employees and residents,” Lily said.
Nancy wrote a letter to Peter Frazier with the support of Mickey, Dolores and the other six remaining residents on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. They asked for financial compensation and to be pro-rated for February’s rent because the Leopold was not fulfilling their side of the rental contract.
In response, Peter Frazier said he believed the Leopold was providing the level of service to which they were contractually obligated. He stated there was still staff on call 24 hours a day, there were other options for transportation, the activities were reduced because no one showed up and the food was still wholesome and high quality.
On Feb. 6, 2019, the Leopold held its last community dance. The tables donned red and pink tablecloths and were scattered with Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in pink tinfoil. Guests enjoyed complimentary cookies and wine. Live music filled the room as 40 locals swung and waltzed around the ballroom, as had been done for more than 90 years.
The community came together to celebrate the end of an era. Meanwhile Mickey, Dolores and the other remaining residents sat floors above them in their rooms, preparing to pack up and leave their homes, once again.
As of March 1, 2019, darkness enveloped the Leopold Retirement Residence. Only one light shone out across downtown Bellingham from room 901 where Mickey spent the last five-and-a-half years. She, her daughter and two grandsons spent the last week, packing her things in preparation for her journey to Edmonton, Alberta.
The Leopold now stands empty, lights out and doors locked, with an unclear future ahead.
Marlene "Mickey" Spencer sits in her top floor apartment shortly after receiving news that she would have to leave what she thought to be her forever home.
The view from Mickey's apartment to the downtown Bellingham waterfront.
Dolores sits, hands folded, in her second apartment at the Leopold. After the announcement of the closure, she was moved into one of the many empty rooms.
Dolores first suite sits in the basement of the Leopold, illuminated by warm tungsten lights.