The New Old -Betty Perkins
Image: Daniel Root

Terwilliger resident Betty Perkins on a common patio, one of the Plaza’s many shared spaces for entertainment and relaxation.

Someday, maybe 40 years from now, I might pick up a stone and with a feeble right arm throw a rock in the general direction of Terwilliger Plaza. Not just because I’ll never be able to afford to live there—a basic membership is currently pegged anywhere between $30,000 and more than $600,000, and monthly fees average $1,700—but also because I’ll know what goes on inside Terwilliger, surely the most regal, forward-thinking retirement facility in Portland. 

In fact, to call Terwilliger something as vanilla as an old folks’ home seems insulting. In brochure-speak it’s an internationally accredited continuing care retirement community, a 12-story monolith with a variety of retirement residences, from independent living to assisted living and residential care, but that’s kind of like referring to the Taj Mahal as just some grave in India. Anne Kronenberg, my pal from the private dinner, says with a girlish giggle, “It’s more like a sorority house here.”  

Slap that on your advertising propaganda: Terwilliger Plaza, the great big Greek keg party in the woods. Once you get past the building’s drab concrete exterior—it opened in 1962 and looks like a stand-in for General Hospital—the description certainly holds up. From the moment you walk in, the place sizzles with geriatric energy. An abundance of sunlight pours through the large, glassed-in foyer, a see-through effect that extends along the eastern face of the building, covering the entryway, the library, and the common dining room. On a typical afternoon the lobby is all white noise. A visiting family logs in at the reception desk; four residents sun themselves in lounge chairs; a group of six ladies back from a matinee of Guys & Dolls at the Gerding Theater waits for the elevator; and a woman in her 80s motors past them all in a black scooter with silver metallic flames. Everybody—_everybody_—is firing off conversation with all the subtlety of an Uzi.

“Usually you get into an elevator and everybody looks down,” McDowell says. “Our elevator? You want to shake people sometimes, there’s so much talking.”

Maybe it’s overstimulation. Besides necessities like the on-premises bank, grocery store, thrift market, deli, salon, and private rooms for massage therapy, Terwilliger hosts guest speakers and free performances from chamber musicians and opera understudies who drop by on an almost-weekly basis. Or residents can just stay in and watch the in-house theatrics of the Plaza Players in the auditorium. “I live on the floor with those people,” Kronenberg says. “When I first moved in they were like, ‘Good, you’ll be in the plays.’ I told them, ‘Nope. I go to plays, I’m not in plays.’”

Even the oldest residents can play virtual tennis of bowling on a new Nintendo Wii set up in one corner.

There’s also a massive gym the size of two basketball courts with elliptical machines, Keiser equipment, personal trainers, and classes in everything from ab-blasting core training to yoga, pilates, and tai chi. Even the oldest residents, whose joints may be too battered for intense exercise, can play virtual tennis or bowling on a new Nintendo Wii set up in one corner.

On the roof, an ivy-trimmed gazebo deck gives a commanding 360-degree view of Portland; bronze markers point out the mountainous vistas in the distance. Off to the right is a narrow, 50-foot pathway lined on each side by tomatoes. It’s called “tomato alley,” and during the summer, competition for a healthy vine can get heated. “If somebody finds out someone else is picking their tomatoes,” says Terwilliger’s president and CEO, Dee Sellner, “there’s usually trouble.” 

The Tower’s 200 rooms house the majority of the Terwilliger population. The apartments range from a 378-square-foot studio to a 1,160-square-foot two-bedroom. All include full kitchens and have flooring and countertops customized to individual taste. Touring the rooms is about the time when prospective residents at a typical open house start crunching numbers in their head. Prices vary according to size and view, but even the smallest residence requires a one-time $30,000 membership fee (which gives residents access to all Plaza services, facilities, and on-site health care) as well as $731 in monthly maintenance. The largest Tower apartment peaks at a $366,000 membership fee and $2,191 in monthly maintenance. “We try to stress the fact that we’re affordable,” says Sellner, “but word gets out. Not everybody can be a multimillionaire.”