HARVARD — On an early Tuesday afternoon, the Hildreth House is bustling.
Seniors are just finishing up their lunch as staff scurry around and volunteers help clean up the party.
The weekly lunch is one of several activities held in the building, which is suffering from adequate parking space and a lack of some accessibility features. But with plans in the work for an expansion, hosting Harvard’s growing senior population might be easier.
The plan, proposed so far in three stages, would expand the parking lot, extend the porch to wraparound the back and install a lift, among many other things. Last week, LLB Architects presented an estimated $2.9 million in construction costs.
The obstacle lies in balancing senior needs with taxpayer money.
As she waits for the MART van to arrive to pick up the group, Harriet Blain, 93, has nothing but praise for the Hildreth House and staff.
“If you have to grow old, this is probably the best place to be,” she said. “I’ve never found so many welcoming, lovely people, and the services are wonderful.”
Blain comes to the Hildreth House once a week for any of the activities, including lunch. She said that some changes to the house would be very nice.
“It could be better,” she said. “Like I could never use the top floor because the steps are too much for me.”
The proposed vertical lift would be a big help for her, she said.
“Whatever the services are upstairs, most of us don’t avail ourselves of them because we can’t use it,” she said.
But the potential price tag is also on her mind.
“I always hate to say, ‘Yeah, this would be great,’ because actually I’m not paying for it,” she said. “I can say ‘Sure, spend $2 million, why not.'”
Anna Mason, 80, sits in the dining room as clean-up from lunch continues. She comes to the house every Tuesday and Thursday to bring dessert for lunch.
“Today it was too bad you couldn’t see it,” she said. “I made what I call my Jello cake.”
The bottom line for this project, Mason said, is that everything costs money, and committees have to realize it’s not theirs.
“We the taxpayers, my family and all the others, they’ll be footing the bill, and this is a lot of money,” she said.
For Mason, another important aspect is preserving the house as it is.
“I don’t want to see them take away any of the antiquity,” she said. “And I doubt it, I don’t see how the historical commission or anything would allow that to happen.”
Mason said the house needs a better kitchen, and also said parking needs to be better. But she also said she’s partial to older things.
“It doesn’t mean I want old plumbing or to go back to a scrub board to wash my clothes. I’ll buy an old scrub board to have in the laundry room, but I like to kind of blend the two,” she said. “And it can be done. It can be done.”
For Hildreth House staff, the most important thing is safety, a feature currently challenged with the lack of an elevator and a rough parking lot.
“The first phase is really going to address mostly safety and accessibility,” said Council on Aging Director Debbie Thompson. “And of course safety includes the parking lot.”
People could walk down the driveway, Thompson said, “but when you think about somebody who’s not steady on their feet and the dips and everything else — scary.”
Building a sense of community is also high on the list.
Outreach Coordinator Maria Holland said right now, all of the COA’s programs are off-site and people are isolated — they exercise and then they go home.
“It would really make the senior center a lot more communal and accessible if we had a large room that could serve a lot of people, and if we could have programs here and exercise programs here,” she said.
Thompson said she thinks the house will overall be less crowded if the project goes through.
“I think that when you have space for people and we can put on bigger, more exciting events, you’re going to have more people coming too,” she said.
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