Best Campus Renovation of 2023: Remodeling a Motherhouse Near the Mississippi 

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Not long ago, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, needed help.

More than 5,000 women have gone through the religious institution since its founding in 1889. Today, there are around 200 sisters in Dubuque, with an average age of 84.

That lead the organization to the idea that its community, Mount Carmel Bluffs, needed to be redeveloped to better care for its aging population.

The organization chose Presbyterian Homes to lead the master planning for the community repositioning, with Pope Design Group as the project’s design partner. Developer Senior Housing Partners also was involved in the project.

The project remodeled an 18th century motherhouse and made it the centerpiece of the campus, with historic features such as a stained glass and a remodel of the campus’s chapel incorporated into the design. 

The project’s historic touches, coupled with its forward-thinking elements, propelled it to the top of the Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Awards’ Best Campus Renovation/Repositioning category.

The concept

From the get go, one of the biggest challenges for the project was getting the consensus of the hundreds of Sisters that the repositioning was necessary. The goal of the project was to “preserve the site’s character and highlight the beauty of its river bluffs setting” in Dubuque, Iowa, according to documents submitted by Pope Design Company.

The project was split into two phases, with the first focusing on assisted living and skilled nursing, with the second focused on independent living. Early planning for the project began in 2018.

Ward Isaacson, Pope Design Company president and CEO, told Senior Housing News that the majority of the existing campus building needed to be razed to allow for new state of the art housing options, and gaining consensus from Sisters across the globe was a requirement before moving forward.

“We overcame that challenge by a series of thoughtful ‘town meetings,’ where all BVM sisters on campus and others around the country were brought in via video feed,” he said.

This challenge was addressed through constant communication through the BVM leadership team, led by CFO Alan Stache and Presbyterian Homes CEO Dan Lindh, which Isaacson said gave the Sisters “great confidence” the project was in good hands.

The project planners also made a decision to move the campus’s main entry to the opposite side of where it then-existed, “allowing the Mississippi bluff side to open up fantastic views, trails, and park-like space to maximize the surrounding natural beauty,” according to Isaacson.

“This allowed the ‘atrium’ entry to be created where the dramatic and inspirational view of the river bluff became the visitor’s first impression as they enter,” he added.

The motherhouse was the priority location for the campus, with an emphasis on giving it “new life.” In order to do this, “functional links” to the new housing were created, and previously underutilized rooms were renovated to fit new purposes including dining, education and social activities.

In addition to the renovations, the teams aimed to be “good stewards of the environment” by preserving many of the trees on the campus while creating more green space and “maximized views of the surrounding river bluffs.”

However, the topography of the location also proved to be a challenge.

“It was originally thought that the topography along the southeast side of the campus was too great to allow a phase 1 building, but creative solutions were developed on how the building could ‘step down’ the hill and align with floors of the existing motherhouse,” Isaacson said. “This allowed the sequence of building phase 1, moving Sisters into the appropriate care settings, demoing the remainder of the buildings and building phase 2 independent living, all while keeping the operations of the campus and motherhouse intact.”

From the early concepts to master planning, the process took about 10 months.

The construction

With construction broken into two phases, Mount Carmel Bluffs saw two groundbreakings. The first occurred in 2019 for the community’s skilled nursing and assisted living wings. Workers broke ground again in 2021 for the community’s independent living section. Each phase was completed in 18 months.

The biggest challenge throughout the process, according to Isaacson, was conducting work every day onsite without disrupting the lives of the resident sisters while construction lasted for nearly three years.

The project largely stayed on its $90 million budget throughout the planning and construction phases of development.

According to Isaacson, the master plan for the project stayed largely intact as well throughout design, documentation and construction, though he noted the pandemic affected construction material, labor prices and the lead time of key building components.

Additionally, Isaacson said there were challenges caused by the pandemic with keeping the project schedule on time, but the team was largely able to deliver the promises of move-ins as close to the schedule as possible.

The completion

The 423,644 square foot project was completed in July 2023 and now highlights accessible seating areas, patios and walkways, with resident spaces taking “full advantage of the setting.”

The new atrium creates a flexible indoor and outdoor space for residents and guests, and new amenities include a theater, club room, library, multiple lounges, a bistro and various other dining venues.

Compared to what was originally planned for the site, the project has “met and exceeded” the expectations of the Sisters, Presbyterian Homes and the Dubuque community at large, Isaacson said.

“It has gained the attention of many other orders of Sisters around the country facing similar challenges and what a potential partnership could do to address the mission and future viability of their campuses,” Isaacson said.

Since opening, lease up has been going better than anticipated as well. Libby Newlin, Senior Housing Partners marketing manager for Mount Carmel Bluffs, said the phase 1 assisted living and memory care units were filled to capacity, and occupancy remains stable with a waiting list. The independent living, senior apartments and townhomes are in their final stages of fill with around 90% occupancy as of Feb. 26.

“We exceed pro forma/budget expectations with over 80 move-ins into the senior apartments within the first 45 days,” Newline said.

Judges commented on the architectural work, particularly in regards to integrating the new and existing structures together, though several noted the interior still feels a bit dark in areas.

“[The] architects did an excellent job integrating the new with the existing building, love the site plan and the new entrance,” LuAnn Thoma-Holec, principal owner of Thoma-Holec Design wrote. “This is an architecture win.”

Melissa Pritchard, managing principal of SFCS Architects, commented on the “complex scope of the project” and its “significant scale.”

Isaacson added the project will serve as a great example for other similar campuses, and will largely market itself moving forward as more people hear about the renovations.

“This model of faith-based mission driven partnerships is a winning scenario for not just Catholic monastery campuses, but for all organizations looking for viability of their future and a drive to serve the communities and the people that live, work and visit,” he said.

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