From HoJo to Home: Inside Look at Turning a Hotel into Senior Living

When you think of a Howard Johnson hotel, what comes to mind? Likely not a bustling home to more than 100 seniors.

Well, that’s the vision for The Grand at Twin Lakes, a newly opened independent living community in Palatine, Illinois. The building was originally constructed in 1968 and has taken on many forms over the years, including as a hotel within the Howard Johnson family.

Turning hotels into vibrant senior living communities is a trend noted back in 2014, and now several are coming on line.


Another relatively new developer in the senior living space, with a background in multifamily and student housing, also has seen the design value in adapting hotel buildings. Chicago-based CA Senior Living, a division of CA Ventures, recently opened a senior living community in Olathe, Kansas, that at one time served as a hotel.

“The design of Olathe offered a lot of opportunities,” CA Senior Living Chief Operating Officer John Dempsey tells Senior Housing News. “The common areas supported the wellness concept.”

While the infrastructure of a hotel offers easy conversion, it’s harder to change the way people in the community view a well-known building.


Overcoming History

After opening in June this year, The Grand at Twin Lakes boasts 118 independent living units. To make the old hotel, which had closer to 200 rooms, into a senior living community, many rooms were converted from single hotel rooms into one-bedroom independent living apartments. Remaining single hotel rooms were turned into studio apartments, a conversion that was fairly easy for designers, with most of the structural elements in place.

The courtyard at The Grand at Twin Lakes

The Palatine building was first designed by Chicago-based design firm Fitzgerald Architects Associates, and the firm was also tapped for the conversion project. Funnily enough, the designers working on the project weren’t aware their firm was the original designer until the project got underway.

“We went into the job not knowing that,” Rick Whitney, architect-in-charge of the project at Fitzgerald, says of the firm’s history with the building. “But the original drawings were on site. It was really exciting to see that and the original design.”

While the project offered many advantages in its easy conversion to a permanent living space, overcoming the building’s history has proved to be an ongoing challenge. In fact, changing the image of the building within the Palatine area, where it had been a well-known hotel site for several decades, isn’t easy.

“It was a hotel,” Ellen Mustardini, executive director at The Grand at Twin Lakes, says. “Perhaps people still have that mentality. People still come by to see if they can rent a room.”

One of the ways Mustardini has been working to change the community’s view of the space is by distributing flyers of the community’s grand opening to virtually all local businesses in Palatine to get the word out.

In addition, she has invited neighbors who are 55 and older in the surrounding area to utilize parts of the community, including the pool, free of charge. Directly surrounding the community are several condo buildings with a dense senior population, and some neighbors have started to enjoy the community’s amenities.

Common lounge space at The Grand at Twin Lakes

The proximity with these condos also demonstrates one of the lease-up challenges, though: The Grand at Twin Lakes is competing with numerous other living options in the area, including the multi-family condominiums in its backyard.

Despite these efforts, The Grand is only 20% leased up with just eight residents fully moved in as of mid-October. But Mustardini is confident occupancy won’t be a long-term problem.

Competition vs. Space 

What sets the Grand apart from its multifamily neighbors is its multiple dining rooms, large library space, private party rooms, craft spaces, pool, fitness center and movie theatre—amenities that aren’t standard in apartment buildings or even age-restricted housing.

“Part of why we liked what was built here is there is more common space than apartment buildings,” Whitney says. “This is so much more than apartment buildings. It’s the ideal situation. Ground-up buildings sometimes don’t have the space.”

At the same time, hotel spaces offer some challenges, as well. For one, designers were limited to the size of existing hotel rooms when converting them into studios and one-bedroom apartments.

“The space limitations of a hotel room are a challenge, like fitting in a kitchen, and the bathrooms are small,” Whitney says.

A studio apartment at The Grand at Twin Lakes

However, the conversion process is relatively straightforward, and combining two rooms into one larger apartment is an easy process that can add more space by eliminating one entry door.

The rooms at The Grand run from $2,600 per month for a studio to more than $3,500 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. The rent also includes two meals per day at the community.

Attached to the building is also a space for four future retail shops, which may soon include a doctor’s office and a pharmacy. The retail spaces are still currently undergoing construction.

Converting hotel spaces into senior living with higher levels of care, such as assisted living, come with more requirements. However, residents who want to age in place at The Grand can turn to the home health agency on site. The building also has a home heath care agency on site, and residents can age in place in their apartment all the way through hospice services if they choose.

The library and lounge at The Grand at Twin Lakes

In addition to the potential benefits of having a doctor next door, the hotel’s design offered convenient accessibility for residents of a senior living community, including elevators, wide hallways, and flexibility in the common spaces.

As the community continues to fill and more residents move in, Mustardini hopes to keep the same intimacy the community currently has with its current group of residents, who continue to help shape the community as it completes its transition from hotel to home.

“Every person who comes in has experiences and passions,” Mustardini says of the residents. “Their passions have not diminished with age. It’s not our job to run their life or their home, just help them live it through their passions.”

Written by Amy Baxter

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