The lobby of the Merion before (top) and after. Photos from Horizon Realty

North Shore Retirement Hotel has been an Evanston fixture since the 1920s, but the iconic building on the corner of Davis Street and Chicago Avenue recently opened with a new name, The Merion, after a massive renovation.

Jeff Michael, along with father Daniel, bought the building in the fall of 2012.  The Michaels, who own Chicago-based Horizon Reality, hope to turn The Merion into a luxury living experience for seniors who want to be active.

“We’re trying to set the standard for senior living,” Jeff Michael said.  “We’re trying to provide services that our competition does not provide, especially in the rental arena of senior living.  You’ll find a lot of the services and amenities in [The Merion] that you would normally find in a facility where you have to buy your unit.”

Named for the ship on which Daniel’s father came to America, the S.S. Merion, the Merion features units that are for rental only.  The building currently has 140 units, down from 185 that the building had when the Michaels bought it.  The reduction in units may sound alarming, but Jeff Michael says it has a purpose: to make each unit more senior friendly.

“Many of the [North Shore] units didn’t even have kitchens in them, because the facility was originally built as a hotel,” Mr. Michael explained.  “The first thing we did was outfit each and every unit with a full kitchen and bathroom, and that involved combining units.  Now, each apartment is a true apartment.  We work with an in-house designer that is cognizant of things that are easier for seniors to use.”

The building has standard one-bedroom units, “junior” one-bedroom units, studios, and two-bedroom units.  Residents must sign a lease for a minimum of 13 months, and rent is monthly and differs based on the type of unit.  It ranges from $2,000 per month to $4,400 per month. The units are equipped with furniture, electronics and other necessities, making move-in easy.

“All the units are fully furnished, so our [tenants] don’t have to worry about packing up what they have.  They can basically bring their wardrobe and move right in to a fully furnished apartment,” said Mr. Michael.

The Merion also has about 20 parking spaces and leases more in a City-owned parking garage on the corner of Church Street and Chicago Avenue, with valet available.  Mr. Michael said the small number of spaces is not a concern because most residents do not have vehicles.

The building will not stay at 140 units for long.  An eight-story addition with 63 additional units and more amenities will be completed by the fall of 2015, with construction expected to start this fall.

“[The addition] will have a two-story atrium, which is more public space for the residents to convene and lounge and relax,” Mr. Michael said.  “There’s also going to be an indoor swimming pool, and other facilities such as a fitness room, a theater and an art center.  It’s going to house more public spaces for the residents.”

But the renovations are not the only overhauls the Michaels planned.  The dining program also received a makeover, and Jeff Michael says it will set The Merion apart from its competition.

“We turned the dining program on its head,” he said.  “We’re setting a whole new bar in terms of what [is expected] in the meal program.  Before, the North Shore Retirement Hotel was associated more with institutional-style dining; this is more of a country-club setting and the expectations of a country club from our standpoint are what we are imposing on our staff.”

Mr. Michael said that residents can order meals a la carte, with a selection from sushi to “comfort foods,” as well as food to accommodate residents with dietary restrictions.

Residents must spend a certain amount of money on dining plans, but they have options to choose from, such as a $300 plan and an $800 plan.  Residents will not be required to eat every meal in the building.

“There [are] different tiers for people depending on how much they…want to eat on the premises,” Mr. Michael said.  “For those that are still more independent and want to unveil themselves to all the wonderful restaurants that Evanston has to offer, they [do not have to] eat every meal on the premises.”

The Merion targets active seniors who want to engage in the community, said Mr. Michael:

“We have a pretty elaborate social program, from excursions to lectures to recitals; A little bit of everything for everybody.  We have a great relationship with Northwestern University where we’ll bring graduate students [who perform] amazing recitals for our residents.”

Since many of the social events The Merion offers will be held on-site, the building’s previous public spaces, including a 3,500-square foot ballroom, needed some fixing as well.  Mr. Michael hopes that the residents take advantage of the renovated public spaces, but he also wants non-residents to be able to enjoy themselves using the new lounge that is open to all.

Mr. Michael said the other part of catering to non-residents is making the newly renovated ballroom available for outside events, like high-end weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.  Coincidentally, Jeff’s parents were married in same ballroom in the 1960s.

Mr. Michael said he hopes to attract independent, active seniors who want to be out and about and enjoy Evanston.

“We’re trying to provide housing for those that are not willing to or unable to maintain their own homes anymore, who want the security and comfort of being around people their age.”