The New Old- swimming pool
Image: Daniel Root

At the Heights, residents have access to a heated pool and sauna, as well as a Zen garden, a bistro, and views of Mount Hood.

Although it might help. Especially if you’re eyeing a spot in Terwilliger’s recently completed new wing, appropriately named the Heights. Connected to the rest of the building by a sky bridge, its 10 stories and 48 units push past mere luxury and into the realm of indulgence. Housed in the modern concrete-and-steel exterior are a heated pool and sauna, a Zen garden, and a bistro bar where residents can enjoy wine and a rotating array of tapas next to a well-stoked fireplace. Residents enjoy all the amenities of Terwilliger, but the apartments—both in design and price—suggest something more along the lines of New York’s Upper West Side. All have two bedrooms and range between 1,300 and 1,900 square feet; all have a deck with knee-buckling views of Mount Hood, as well as an in-room washer and dryer, the lack of which is a fairly common complaint among other Plaza dwellers. It can all be yours for an average membership fee somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars and monthly “rent” of $2,450 to $2,995.

Betty Perkins’s pad is typical of the Heights: glistening handpicked hardwood floors, kitchen countertops of fanciful yellow tile, walls lined with art, Pavarotti on the stereo. She removed one interior wall to make room for her grand piano and handmade harpsichord; every inch of shelf space is gobbled up by books. At the base of her large living room window are dozens of photos—most are shots of her daughter (who worked on the Obama campaign) posing with Barack and Michelle Obama. “She’s in Ohio right now, going door-to-door in the ghetto,” Perkins says excitedly. “They told her she shouldn’t wear any jewelry.” Beyond the window, the Willamette River shimmers like an oil painting.

“This is what this generation of retirees wants,” says Sellner. “They want to live their life, they want nice things, and they don’t want to feel like they’re compromising. Most important, they want to be in control.”

That last bit, especially, is taken literally. These sorts of elderly ivory towers are nothing new, after all. Even locally, papaw palaces like Willamette View, in Milwaukie, and Mirabella, a tower currently under construction on the South Waterfront, are drawing the more affluent members of the 60-plus crowd. And the Springs at Tanasbourne will bring upscale retirement living to the doorstep of the shopping malls in March 2009.

“This is what this generation of retirees wants … they want to be in control.”

Still, Terwilliger singles itself out. Its residents’ average tax bracket may have shifted since the Plaza was founded by a group of retired teachers, but its method of operation hasn’t: Now as then, Terwilliger is a self-governed facility, a unique trait not just locally but nationally. Resident representatives on each floor report to a 10-member board of directors made up of residents and a few outside professionals. Everything—from the choice of meals, the lobby’s air temperature, and the art on the walls—is subject to a vote. Majority rules. “It’s not lip service, either,” says McDowell. “We play a major role in the decision-making. For instance, we just finished a project to remodel the main lobby. That was a project that we voted to do, and we got it done.” 

No other accredited Oregon retirement community is thought to have this type of structure, and, according to the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, which accredits 5,200 service providers in the United States and Canada, only two others in the country have anything similar. “I believe it’s indicative that we call the people that reside here ‘members,’” Sellner says. “Because they truly are, and they have a say in the voting process.”