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Above average housing

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • April 13, 2011 - 10:51 AM

Where should you spend your retirement years if your idea of a good time is less likely to involve a game of golf than, say, a lively discussion of the periodic table of elements?

For George Anderson and his neighbors, the answer is 1666 Coffman (www.1666.coffman.com), an independent-living housing complex reserved for University of Minnesota faculty and staff, age 55 and up. At 1666, as it's commonly known, intellectual challenge is a favorite leisure activity (and for those who also enjoy golf, the university's course is right across the street).

The sprawling white 93-unit building is set on 6.5 acres of university-leased land in Falcon Heights. It opened in 1986, though the stately Palladian design suggests an older structure. Resident Bert Sundquist, 83, an agricultural economist who just retired in December, measured the commute to his office on the St. Paul campus as "a 12-minute walk from portal to portal."

Much of the small talk at 1666 Coffman probably resembles that in any retirement community: chitchat about the weather and current events, and what other tenants are up to. But in a complex whose residents have spent their lives immersed in physics, economics, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, mathematics, English, history, archeology and other fields, conversations may get a bit more rarefied.

"People here are not stupid," the building's association president, Tom Arlander, said with characteristic understatement. "We've had a number of people here who have buildings named after them."

Anderson, a former physical chemistry professor (specialty: molecular spectroscopy) taught at the university as a visiting professor and then finished his career researching microwave heating for Pillsbury. Now 77, he plays squash several times a week and heads the technology and education committee at 1666.

"Academic topics seem to thrive here," Anderson said. "There's a cross-fertilization of ideas and interdisciplinary activities that enhances everyone."

In addition to the exercise classes, holiday celebrations and activities typically held in other independent-living complexes, a lecture series lets residents hold forth on their areas of expertise (Anderson presented one the periodic table, and another one on Shakespeare). Others stage plays, some of them written by residents themselves. Or they tend the gardens out back, which include a prairie restoration project and a rain garden with more than 2,000 native plants -- both, again, initiated by residents.

Gertrude Esteros, 96, has been living in 1666 since it opened. As head of the university's Department of Design for 30 years, Esteros studied cultural aspects of housing and toured planned communities around the world. After retiring in 1980, she took charge of the effort to establish housing for faculty and staff. Her colleagues had indicated in surveys at the time that they liked the idea of retiring in a place where they could continue the intellectual exchanges they had enjoyed in their careers.

Esteros laughed, recalling one recent Saturday evening lecture on a particularly esoteric subject.

"On a night when most retirees might be going out for some entertainment, we go up to the social room and have a forum on, of all things, slime mold," Esteros said. "Well, who else in the world would be talking about slime mold on a Saturday evening? It takes a special kind of community."

Katy Read is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

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