Starting Over


Several years ago, John and Polly Marion faced a difficult decision: to stay in the Bay Area home they’d lived in and loved for 30 years, or to move to an apartment that would be easier to care for.

“It was very hard to consider leaving,” says Polly, 70, a retired schoolteacher. In the late 1960s, the couple had designed and built a rustic, six-story house in Los Altos Hills, and they were reluctant to move. But 82-year-old John, also retired from teaching, was experiencing health problems and could no longer drive. They agreed it was time for a change.

The Marions decided to sell their house and move to University Retirement Community, an about-to-be-built complex in Davis offering independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing care and special care for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The couple planned to rent an independent-living apartment.

But their story doesn’t end there. The Marions, both artists, dreamed of living in a home that was visually exciting. “I wanted to wake up in the morning and be surrounded by beauty,” explains Polly, who didn’t want to live in a boring apartment with a cookie-cutter floor plan and uninspiring finishes. They managed to persuade the developers to allow them to tweak the floor plan and custom-design their new apartment home, using high-end materials and finishes, as it was being built.

The Marions brought in architects Fu-Tung Cheng and Cathleen Quandt of the nationally renowned Berkeley firm Cheng Design to help them achieve their vision. Polly had seen Cheng’s work in Sunset magazine, and she was impressed with his modern approach and his cutting-edge use of precast concrete.
“People asked us why we would spend so much money on an apartment we weren’t going to own,” Polly recalls. “We did it because we wanted it to be a visual experience—and it is.”

They were, in fact, so successful that the apartment is featured in a new book, The House to Ourselves: Reinventing Home Once the Kids Are Grown, by Todd Lawson and Tom Connor (The Taunton Press, $35). The book looks at the many ways today’s empty nesters—the fastest-growing segment of American homeowners—are creating beautiful and innovative homes for the next phase of their lives.

The Marions’ apartment is profiled in a chapter called “A Hip Retirement Haven.” And hip it is. You enter the 1,200-square-foot space into a combined kitchen, living and dining room that features gleaming bamboo floors, beautiful cherry and bird’s-eye maple built-ins, and striking cast-concrete countertops—Cheng’s calling card. (He is the author of a highly regarded book, Concrete Countertops: Design, Form, and Finishes for the New Kitchen and Bath, also published by Taunton.) Cheng designed the sleek stainless steel range exhaust hood and an angular concrete slab that visually separates the food-prep area from the living and dining spaces—two pieces that serve almost as art in their own right.

In the living area, a sideboard runs the length of the room, acting as a serving bar when the couple entertains. On the wall above hangs a metal picture rail where they display their paintings. A sandblasted glass and steel barn-style door separates the space from the office, which doubles as a guest room.

 In the Zenlike master bedroom, built-in cabinets make dressers unnecessary. The luxurious master bath, tiled in French limestone and slate, features a handicapped-accessible shower and a precast concrete sink whose top is imbedded with “fossils” and flecks of semiprecious stone. Its beauty, says Polly, does not go unnoticed. “I love to wash my face there in the morning,” she says.

A utility hallway running the width of the apartment houses a laundry closet and extra storage. There, the architects created a library wall for the couple’s books, complete with a cleverly designed cabinet set into a bookshelf that provides storage for glassware. The nearby guest bathroom door has a sandblasted-glass inset that, when closed with the bathroom light on, acts as a night light, softly illuminating the hallway.

It’s details such as these that make the Marions’ apartment special. The developers were so impressed that they used the redesigned floor plan for 32 similar units in the complex.

And today, three years into living in their new home, John and Polly are delighted with the move. “There’s a time for everything,” says John. “Our old house worked well for us, but it’s exciting to start a new life.”