Driving down memory lane

The staff at The Gardens at Laguna Springs watches a ‘car drop’ or the installation of a 1955 Buick station wagon at their facility on Sept. 1.

With the help of a crane, a 1955 Buick station wagon landed in the courtyard of The Gardens at Laguna Springs on Sept. 1.

Drifting down through a smoky sky, the station wagon in all its glory was met with applause from facility staff. The memory care facility is scheduled to open in November.

A member of the Koelsch community, The Gardens at Laguna Springs is following the family-owned business’s tradition of having a car in the courtyard for residents to take a trip down memory lane. Those invited to the car drop enjoyed a Hawaiian-style vacation in the courtyard as the wagon undoubtedly calls for memories of summer vacation.

“When I look at that car what I think of is everyone piling in that car and going on a family vacation, so we’re kind of dressing up in Hawaiian outfits, like tourists going on a vacation,” said Irene Charnell, Director of Community Relations.  

“I love the historical surprises,” she added. “It’s an amazing touch Koelsch uses in their community to build that nostalgia. I mean how many of us don’t love to think about our childhood or young adulthood – the things that we remember that were fun. But personally, I am a classic car buff. I find it exciting to see an old 1955 station wagon.”

John Giese, a retiring contractor for Koelsch Construction after 41 years, has been supervising the project says this is his last project.

“I just look at it and we call it, ‘memory care,’ and I don’t have a memory and I don’t care,” he said, before laughing. “It’s a great facility. It’s a great family. The Koelsch family – they build them, they own them, they operate them. They take great care of their residents.”

Asked if he’s witnessed a car drop like the one on Sept. 1, he said, “Oh yeah, every building I’ve done like this, we’ve done one, yeah.”

A former owner of a ‘55 Buick himself Giese also remembers owning a ‘55 Oldsmobile, ‘68 Malibus. “I’m old,” he said.  

Only 10 months since construction of the memory care apartments, the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t slowed down the construction because most of the framing had been completed before the economic shutdown began in March.

A big piece of memory care is reminiscing about the good memories.

“Because this is memory care and it’s based on family, I think they thought to do what we think of as the family station wagon,” Charnell said.

To safely occupy the premises, the fire marshal required all combustibles be removed from the Buick, including the fuel, all the oils and coolant.

“But, it does run,” Giese said. “The dad (Emmett Koelsch) used to have 35 or 40 antique cars in a museum (which houses his Emmett’s mom’s original car) I built for him years ago. He loved the antique cars. The son now kind of does this for the residents and also in memory of his dad.”

The Koelsch family bought the Buick wagon at an auction in Portland, Oregon about three years ago. Troy Stephens, transportation director for Koelsch Senior Communities said they were looking for a wagon because they didn’t make too many of them.

“This one – there’s only 2,900 of them – had a really low production number,” he said. “While it’s not in perfect shape, it’s in pretty good shape.”

After bought at auction, the car was driven from Washington state (the home base for the Koelsch business), to Phoenix, Arizona.

“Every time we stopped for gas, it would take an extra 10 minutes because people would be asking about the car,” Stephens said.

He said they bought a Westwood Coronado vintage trailer that had been at the time recently restored and the idea was to have the car bring along the trailer to marketing events. They had a custom hitch built into this car but they figured 35 miles per hour was the max speed. The wagon had just been driven to Elk Grove from Phoenix a few weeks ago.

“This will be the final home for us,” Stephens said.

They are trying to find a vintage-style surfboard to place on the roof. Because the vehicle has been drained of all liquids pursuant to the fire code, the station wagon will never be driven again. It’s purely a museum piece to be enjoyed by the residents and guests.

“It’s fairly expensive to crane a car in, so we try to just do it once. It’s not something we want to rope off. We want our residents to sit in it, put their grand kids in the back seat and tell them stories. We want them to touch it, sit in it, do everything,” Stephens said.

For more information about The Gardens at Laguna Springs, call (916) 209-0735 or visit www.KoelschSeniorCommunities.com/senior-living/ca/elk-grove.