Salem Heights repurposing brings apartments

Story by Dave Eck and photos by Michelle Bodine

DAYTON ‑ IN THEIR EFFORTS TO be good stewards of the environment, the Sisters of the Precious Blood make recycling, reusing and renewing items part of their daily life. Now a new buzzword is being used at Salem Heights: “repurpose.”

In March, construction crews began work at the Dayton building to create 51 apartments, replacing about 90 bedrooms. All the apartments will feature complete kitchens, full bathrooms, updated wiring  and plumbing, and more living space, said Sister Judy Kroeger, administrator at Salem Heights and a member of the team overseeing the project. The apartments will feature one or two bedrooms, and several units will be efficiencies. The size of the apartments will vary, but each of them will offer more space than anyone living at Salem Heights has currently.

The first phase of the project began with the demolition of the interior walls in the two wings facing Salem Avenue. Construction of the apartments in those wings should be finished in mid-August. The project, which is scheduled to be completed in August 2013, is being undertaken in four phases.

Though living space is changing, amenities such as the library, fitness area, beauty salon, nurse office and parlors will remain. The dining room and chapel – centerpieces of Salem Heights – are not being disturbed. The adoration chapel, however, is being enlarged to improve ventilation and accommodate more people.

Miller-Valentine Group is the general contractor for the project and Cole & Russell are the architects. The project team consists of Sister Judy and Sister Florence Seifert along with Chuck Carmack, director of maintenance for the Sisters of the Precious Blood. A project advisory committee is made up of Precious Blood Sisters Martha Bertke, Deb Huss, Jane Francis Hoffman, Eleanor McNally and Charmaine Grilliot. The construction cost of the project is $5.3 million plus $200,000 for ancillary expenses.

Dedicated to St. Joseph, the project began with prayer in the Salem Heights chapel. Sisters, employees and construction company officials came together to pray for a good project, the sisters living at Salem Heights and the safety of the construction workers. Several sisters who don’t live at the motherhouse also attended.

The decision to repurpose the building was approved by the congregation at the 2011 assembly. A strategic plan that studied community living for all members of the congregation was compiled about seven years ago, and Salem Heights was part of that plan, Sr. Judy said.

Converting the building into apartments will adapt Salem Heights to its fullest potential, create larger living spaces for sisters, provide a space to care for the sisters and maintain a facility in which the congregation can continue its spirituality.

“We could have made the decision that as we retire we would go on to an assisted living place or nursing home that’s managed by someone else, but then our lives would not focus on our spirituality and we would lose our traditions,” Sr. Judy said. “This way we can maintain those.”     

With only 42 sisters living at Salem Heights, the building was underutilized. All the apartments will eventually be filled as sisters choose to move to there. It is anticipated that sisters will use the majority of the space for much of the next decade.

As the housing needs of the sisters decrease, however, the apartments could eventually be rented to people outside the congregation such as former sisters or family members. Studies indicate there is an interest in the apartments among lay people connected with the congregation.

Among the challenges of the project is balancing the construction while keeping the building functional for the sisters who live there, Sr. Judy said. When one area of the building is shut down for construction, plans are in place to relocate affected activities and amenities so they remain accessible to everyone. Every detail has to be addressed, even simple things, such as where to place the daily newspaper.

The project team shares updates and ongoing changes with the sisters. Regular emails are sent. Notices and photos are also posted on bulletin boards.

“The aspect of communication is a high priority for us,” Sr. Judy said. “If the sisters have any concerns or questions they are invited to ask them at any time and we try to make known whatever we can. If we don’t know, we’ve got to find out.”

The Salem Heights maintenance staff moves the sisters’ personal belongings when the sisters are relocated to temporary bedrooms because of the construction. The staff members know and appreciate the sisters, which lessens the sisters’ anxiety about the move.

“The goal is to respect and provide every sister with a good transition,” Sr. Judy said. “Moving is difficult for anyone. These sisters have done an exceptional job with accepting the transitions.”

Despite the project team’s attention to detail, unexpected things sometimes occur. Among the more pleasant experiences was the uncovering of decorative artwork that no one knew existed in the top of the rotunda. The area was previously used as a chapel.

Other “surprises” aren’t so welcome. Water pipes in one section of the building were turned off for construction, which caused sisters living in another part of the building to lose hot water. Such things are typical when working in an older structure, Sr. Judy said. Sections of Salem Heights date to the late 1920s.

“Those things pop up partly because it’s an old building and lines cross,” Sr. Judy said. “The attitude is we laugh about it and move on to the next thing.”