Finally, A Room of Their Own

Photo by Tam Taylor

The TCC Sages Room at the Topanga Community Center, a space dedicated to all things senior, will celebrate its Grand Opening and ribbon cutting ceremony on St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday, March 17, from 1-4 p.m.

The Canyon Sages (canyonsages.com) is Topanga’s first and only social and service organization designed for Topanga’s older generation. Topanga is a community of more than 10,000 residents, 47 percent of whom are seniors. Until 2009, there was no senior organization and no dedicated senior center.

Photo by Kelly Rockwell

The Sages would fill the gap. Beginning in 2009, as a committee under the non-profit Topanga Canyon Town Council to explore transportation options for seniors and, later, as a group with an elected board, to seek other services for seniors isolated or in need.

By 2013, the Sages turned five and were holding low-cost classes, free clubs, senior-centric lectures, and monthly first Friday dinners at the Topanga Community Club (TCC) that was offering the Sages free space. It made sense for the Sages to move under the TCC 501c3 non-profit umbrella

“It’s been challenging to make room for the classes,” says TCC President Kelly Rockwell, “and this should solve that.”

In August 2013, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was in the waning days of his 20-year tenure as County Supervisor.  His senior deputy, Susan Nissman, mentioned to Sages President Michele Johnson that if the seniors needed anything, now would be the time to ask. The Sages decided it was time to go big or go home and went for a mini-senior center.

The TCC Board unanimously voted its approval. A team was selected and TCC Treasurer, designer Franka Diehnelt, began to itemize the cost of the plan.

Diehnelt grew up in East Germany. Her path to LA began when she won the Schindler Grant while studying design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Since Rudolf Schindler was a big name in California architecture, this led to an L.A. firm offering to sponsor her visa to the U.S. to work.

From this small beginning, Diehnelt realized she was in for a big commitment. By the time she was done, she had developed several separate original designs and spent hundreds of pro bono hours to create what is now the “light and airy” space she envisioned. “I’m really happy, but I would have wished it was done much faster,” she says with a smile.

Diehnelt is co-owner of Merge Conceptual Designs, a public art design firm, specializing in public art installations. Her firm has done design for cities from San Francisco to Scottsdale and worked for companies like Greystar. She became TCC Treasurer when Gabrielle Lamirand, a committed Sages and TCC activist, was leaving the position to move to Gold Country. Those who know Gabrielle wouldn’t be surprised to hear Diehnelt say now, “Gabrielle made me do it. She made me be Treasurer. She told me it would only take two hours a week. Yeah, sure.”

In 2014, his last year as Supervisor, Yaroslavsky granted the Sages and TCC $211,810. That would be added to the $10,000 given to the TCC by Topanga’s American Legion Post 796, that was mandated for seniors.

When Nissman was asked why she helped with the grant, she replied, “Who wouldn’t want to help make this incredible project get done!  It seemed like a natural progression. Zev loved the proposal. More and more seniors are choosing to retire in place, stay in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. That population is growing and needed a “room” of its own. It was the perfect marriage with the TCC providing the Community House a new and needed space.”

When Supervisor Sheila Kuehl became supervisor, her deputy, Timothy Lippman, and Planning Deputy Nicole Englund continued to assist the project that Nissman had originally championed.

Once again, professional expediter Shelley Coulson, who had just worked countless unpaid hours to win approval for a new Conditional Use Permit for the TCC, stepped up. She agreed to expedite the Sages Room and, like Diehnelt, spent hours meeting with county representatives to push the permits through the system. A Sages building committee was formed to assist her and a month after Nissman officially retired from the County, she was asked to take the helm as volunteer Project Manager.

Tam Taylor, building committee member and Vice President of the Sages, has lived in the canyon since 1986. Since 2011, when she retired from her position as Public Relations Director of a nonprofit, she has thrown herself into volunteering for the community, not just for the Sages, but for the Town Council, the library, and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.

“I was very impressed by the commitment of the Sages to provide services and activities to seniors,” she explains. “Creating a building dedicated to seniors is in keeping with the goals of the community, as well as the objectives of the Sages.”

There were major bumps along the way. Anticipating that the rebuild of an existing structure would expedite the project, Diehnelt’s original green shed died at a downtown meeting when a county official pointed to a slide showing a long-view of the Community Center acreage. He laid out the perils of building on land that bordered an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat (ESHA) and suggested finding another site.

Diehnelt literally went back to the drawing board, planning to renovate and enlarge the upstairs space of the Community House. Even though the plan would include an elevator, the Sages demurred, feeling the space was not right for seniors and had no outdoor element.

Nissman describes what came next.

“On June 17, 2015, we all—the TCC Board, the Sages, Diehnelt, Coulson—sat down for our first “One Stop” meeting at the Community House with the planning and building departments to see what was feasible and what was not. One thing quickly became clear to everyone: the senior room needed to be designed as an addition, an annex, to the existing Community House, which made a lot more sense. Like adding a room to your house, right?”

After more trial and error, Coulson and Diehnelt discovered that they could just fit a room and patio behind the Penny Room—the back room of the Community House.

Bids were made, taken, and after a long search, a contractor, Robin Soper of Sound Structures, Inc., was chosen. He was familiar with the building since he was part of the work crew on the annual Topanga Nutcracker when his daughter performed.  

Diehnelt was struck by his commitment to do something lasting for the community. Of course, his company was paid for its service but Soper put in many extra pro bono hours.

TIME TO MEET THE $16,000 CHALLENGE

A huge challenge still lays ahead. The original grant money, meant to rebuild an existing space, could no longer cover the challenges of a new building. The county mandated that the TCC add another water tank for fire control. The TCC offered to pay that expense themselves, even choosing to buy a tank twice the size—10,000 gallons—than what the county required. TCC also covered the expense of laying a new asphalt drive behind the Center.

Still, due to permit requirements and the increase in cost for materials, specifically steel, the project faced about a $100,000 shortfall. This is when three strong women went to work; Susan Nissman, Debra Silbar and Nonie Shore formed a fundraising committee.

Several big donors came forward, pledging among them $35,000 in funds to be matched by the community. The original five donors were Beth Burnam and Monte Toberlin; Steve and Leslie Carlson; Anthony and Jean Pritzger Family Foundation; Allan and Sally Young, Pacific Youth Foundation; and Elaine and Doug Hanson.

The community then took up the gauntlet and within a few short months, dozens of donations, large and small, flowed in. Many Sages donated what they could. Most poignantly, Sherry Modell, a much-loved, long-time Topangan who recently passed away, left the Sages $5,000 in trust to help build the center.

Mohammed Alsi’s and Monica Temberly’s donation of beautiful wood floors from Alsi Wood Floors, have transformed not just the new space, but the Penny Room. Joe and Karla Morrison of Morrison Heating and Air installed the heating and air. This was not their first contribution from these generous people. Over years, they have donated heating projects and repairs for the TCC.

Nissman describes the whole process in shorthand: “Four or five design alternatives later, meetings with everybody, building committee meetings on final plans, and finally, submittals, corrections, submittals, getting bids, hiring a great contractor, raising more money from wonderful giving Topangans, all that and more came into play. What is here today, what was built was the final design that worked for everyone, especially Topanga’s seniors.  And, I love it! Especially its inverted hat roof.”

The final design is a window-filled, soaring space, topped by a winged roof. French doors open out to a patio for the indoor-outdoor feeling in the style of Schindler that the Sages wanted and Diehnelt championed.  

“You do things on paper… do models, but you’re surprised when it’s there,” she says. “It could have been conventional, but that wouldn’t have been what we wanted. It’s built to last. It’s a bunker. If anything happens, it could be the only thing standing,” she quipped.

“The Sages are excited that we have such a beautiful, light, airy room with all the amenities, like air conditioning,” Taylor enthuses. “A lot of what the Sages do, we do in response to seniors’ needs– ‘Shouldn’t there be…I’d really like to have…’ We’re not just making this up. We’re responding to the community.”

To finish the project and furnish the Room, TCC needs to raise $16,000 more. Please continue to donate at topangacommunitycenter.com.

It was a herculean effort by all and stands as proof to the tenacity and caring that has always informed Topanga. On March 17, enjoy entertainment by Ellen Geer and Peter Alsop, sign up for classes, join as members or volunteers.

Most of all, celebrate all those who helped make it happen.

For more information about Sages activities, scheduled to begin the week of March 24 in the TCC Sages Room: canyonsages.com. To become a Sages member, contact Michele Johnson at (455) 1319. There are no dues.

About the Topanga Community Center—The TCC has been operating for more than 60 years. Ground was broken for the Community House in 1951, and after a decade of fundraising and building, mostly with volunteer labor, the House opened. It has always been a volunteer-run community center, the centerpiece for activities in Topanga.

 

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