On May 23, Plymouth Harbor celebrated its 50th anniversary, “Celebrating our Past. Envisioning Our Future.”
Many of us have tossed and turned at night, coming up with ideas, but when the sun rises, we do nothing to pursue those ideas. Plymouth Harbor is an exception — a late-night idea of the late Rev. John Whitney MacNeil, who was determined to bring it to fruition.
“He woke me up at 4 a.m., and he said ‘Wake up, Dear. I have something to tell you,’” said Judith MacNeil Merrill, wife of the late MacNeil, who founded Plymouth Harbor. “’I’m going to get on the phone in the morning and get things going. I’ve been lying awake all night, and I’ve decided the church is going to sponsor a retirement community.’ I said, ‘That’s nice dear. Go back to sleep.’”
The middle-of-the-night idea became reality when the retirement community opened its doors in January 1966. It has become one of the most renowned in the state and celebrated its 50th anniversary May 23.
“When you talk about Plymouth Harbor and the success, it’s really based on a three-legged stool,” said President and CEO Harry Hobson. “That’s the resident population, the strong and competent staff and the board of trustees. With those three groups working together, the sky is the limit at Plymouth Harbor.”
Several months after he awakened his wife in the middle of the night, in March 1961, MacNeil presented his idea to his church, the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Sarasota, and began searching for land.
“They had to hunt all over the place to find a place to build it,” MacNeil Merrill said. “Once the site was taken and the building plans were in progress, he realized his vision was not to have a sprawling place with long corridors. His idea was to have colonies, to divide the tower up.”
The colonies divide the 26-story main building into communities every three floors, which then have their own meetings and social events.
“You’ll know the people next door to you, on the next floor and the next floor,” MacNeil Merrill said. “People are so pleased here to have access to each other the way they do. To get together and be friends with everyone else in your colony is really special.”
When it was founded, Plymouth Harbor featured smaller studio apartments, but eventually, residents began asking for larger living spaces, so the community now features one- and two-bedroom apartments.
“Our apartments are now loaded with anything you would find in a private home, with office space, modern kitchens and surround sound,” Hobson said. “Plymouth Harbor has really evolved from a focus on housing and nursing services to a full continuum of living.”
In addition to the increase of the size of living space, Plymouth Harbor has upgraded and increased the size of its health facilities.
“It has changed in response to the changing needs of the elderly population, and I think that’s been very, very important,” said Tom Elliott, president of the Plymouth Harbor Residents Association. “People are living longer, and health care for the elderly has changed dramatically. Back when Plymouth Harbor opened, dementia wasn’t widely viewed as a problem because people didn’t live long enough to contract it. Keeping up with the times has been really important.”
Earlier this year, Plymouth Harbor’s Smith Care Center received the Governor’s Gold Seal Award for Excellence, which is awarded to the top 3% to 4% of skilled nursing facilities in Florida, and in fall 2017, the facility will open the Northwest Garden building, which will feature 70 units: 10 for independent living, 30 for assisted living and 30 for memory care.
“It’s been proven that people are healthier when they’re happier,” MacNeil Merrill said. “The size of the rooms have changed, and we’ve added on, but the thing that has not changed is the people. The people themselves have changed over 50 years, but the type of person drawn here is absolutely fantastic. All the people here, you look after each other. You look after the people next door to you. You say ‘How are you?’ and mean it.”
Plymouth Harbor now has more than 320 residents, many of whom are former executives and leaders of industry, including former CEOs of the New York Times and New York Stock Exchange.
“If you look at the biographies of people who are here, each and every one has an extraordinary story they have to tell,” Elliott said. “We have captains of industry and science and business. They’re just an extraordinary group of people.”
As Plymouth Harbor continues to grow, Hobson hinted at the potential of adding a second campus and at-home care.
“People ask me if John (MacNeil) would approve of things here today, and I can tell you he would have been very pleased with the way things are because people are happy and living together and doing well,” MacNeil Merrill said. “He’d be very happy. I think he would be amazed at how we have grown. The quality of life is really amazing here for everybody, whether you’ve been a high-up executive or been one of the bunch.”