The Miami Herald, Front Page, Sunday, October 3, 2004
“Gracious Assisted Living” amid Biscayne Boulevard ‘s bustle, Bay Oaks Home for the Aged embraces civility, style, pets and romantic matchups.
So she marches to the kitchen, grabs a knife and starts cutting the burgers into quarters.
By definition, assisted living provides minimal care, inappropriate for seniors with medical conditions, disabilities or dementia so serious that they can’t perform the basics for themselves. The home’s 36 residents come and go as they please. Many – like Sofia Tank, the oldest resident at 101 – seem content to pass the time in the sturdy wood rockers that line the enclosed veranda.
Tank, is always smiling, always pleasant, always neatly coiffed, and jealously guarded by Cameron, one of the three small resident dogs.
She can’t remember why she came to Miami from Milwaukee , but still sees well enough to lacquer her own nails.
“I don’t wear glasses,” she declares. Then she chuckles. “Yet.”
Bay Oaks was founded in 1947 by the Soroptimists, a women’s service organization. Members raised $27,000 for a house with then unobstructed views of Biscayne Bay, which are now blocked by the Hamilton , a high-rise. Their framed portraits line the walls. Over time, the trust acquired three adjacent lots and one across the alley on 35 th Street . The home underwent a late-1950s expansion, which the Herald called “the miracle of 34 th Street .” But Kassner keeps it small to maintain a familial feel, which, says Litha Berger, makes it so appealing. Berger is director of senior housing for the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens , a large multilevel-of-care facility.
“When I met Kathryn and her mother,” who volunteers, “and saw the appearance, the furniture and the friendly atmosphere, I thought, ‘I can’t believe this place!” says Berger, who has placed residents there.
AN OBSESSIONWhat began as a casual volunteer project for Kassner has evolved into an obsession. She grew up in the neighborhood, and in 1996 she bought the two-story home across the street from Bay Oaks to renovate. She got so involved with the home that when the board sought new leadership, she was the only choice.
It’s a coincidence that one of the founders was Mary Moore, a civic lioness and great-grandmother of Kassner’s husband, corporate lawyer James W. Moore. A foundation started by his grandfather, banker James G. Garner, is the home’s primary benefactor. Although Bay Oaks has always been a favored charity of well-connected Miami women – former Florida first lady Adele Graham among them – Kassner found it in disrepair, its half million dollar trust fund gathering dust.
She had a vision: Bed-and-Breakfast charm. Antiques and oriental rugs. Eggs from backyard chickens. Fresh flowers. Monogrammed linens from the estate of a plumbing-fixtures heiress. A Victorian style main office, where faux fire flickers in the hearth.
“There is no reason why you have to have plastic furniture and linoleum floors and bad food in an ALF,” she says.
The community room looks like the lounge at an old-money country club, thanks to donations like lamps from a Star Island mansion, a baby grand piano and an ornately carved pool table.
“Bay Oaks is a success because of community support,” Kassner says. “Here is something about a person who can do on behalf of another person and really make a difference in their lives.”
Given that South Florida assisted-living facilities generally cost $36,000 to $45,000 a year, Bay Oaks is a bargain, $2,500 a month on average for room, board and medication assistance. “Scholarship” residents pay even less, possible because Bay Oaks because doesn’t pay property taxes.
There are private rooms, shared rooms, a $4,500 suite with balcony, and no waiting list.
Pets are welcome. So when Augustus “Bob” von Hartz came two years ago, he brought his dachshund, Hans.
Von Hartz, 88, served on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s European headquarters staff during World War II.
Tall and dignified, he moved from Key Biscayne to Bay Oaks with his wife, who died last year.
Von Hartz keeps the staples of a proper bar – gin, vodka, scotch – on the dresser, under a photo of his grandfather, a Standard Oil executive.
“I’m still halfway a gentleman,” he quips.
Not only is alcohol accepted, but so is romance, and Kassner wishes for more “matchups.”
The latest couple recently split, but not by their choosing. Amanda Cherny, 92, went to live with a relative, leaving lifelong bachelor Forrest “Pete” Petray, 95, with only her photo around his neck. Petray, once a Miami Beach lifeguard, moved to Bay Oaks two years ago, lonely after losing all of his loved ones.
“Ever six months, I buried someone. I didn’t do anything but cry,” he said.
He would lead Cherny by the hand to meals, then retire to watch TV preachers in this room.
Life for the hardier residents goes on much as it always has. Every morning, retired waiter Ambrose Bellon walks a few blocks to church. Then at 3 pm, he wheels a refreshment cart onto the Bay Oaks veranda and serves snacks.
Bellon, 88, stands six feet tall, his big hands as steady as when he ferried trays around Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in the 1970s. “Jackie Gleason used to come in. You had to serve his bourbon in a coffee cup. That’s right!”
The residents are “a cross-section,” Kassner says. “In their heyday, probably the only way Mr. Bellon and Mr. Von Hartz would have crossed paths is if Mr. Von Hartz was eating at Joe’s.”
In 1998, Kassner brought in Luz Borges, a veteran nonprofit administrator, as her assistant and chef/carpenter/master engraver Jim Wilson, who handles maintenance. Her mother, also Kathryn Kassner, 80, does everything from folding laundry to helping in the kitchen.
Kathryn the younger says Bay Oaks wouldn’t survive without volunteers, who one recent evening transformed the dining room into what could have passed for a South Seas-themed bar mitzvah reception, but for the roast pork.
Teacher Ken Westlake dreamed up the luau night, featuring handmade decorations, Hawaiian music, orchid-garnished ambrosia salad, hula-dancing health aides and prom-type portraits by freelance photographer Maggie Steber. Her mother and Westlake ‘s live there.
Resplendent in floral mumus and Hawaiian shirts, the residents loved it.
“I can’t believe it!” 89-year old Albert Moss said over and over. But he drew the line at dancing when Kassner, in a grass skirt, tried to coax him out of his chair.
“Take me back to my room,” he said to an aide. “I can’t take the noise.”
by Elinor Brecher