The Origins of Kendal at Lexington: When Vision, Persistence and Good Timing Came Together

With 20 years now passed since the opening of Kendal at Lexington, it can be a challenge to remember a time before the Lexington/Rockbridge area had a retirement community. Yet, for the original members of the Lexington Retirement Community Board, there was a time when having a viable option for older adults to receive continuing care — without leaving Lexington to find it — was merely a pipe dream.

In celebration of the twentieth official anniversary (and quarter-century anniversary of Kendal at Lexington’s first official launch), many of the original members of the board participated in a panel moderated by Tom Camden and Ted Delaney this past November. As part of the “Celebrate YOUR Story: Exploring the History and Stories That Shape Us” theme put on by the Culture and Entertainment Committee, this event was designed to share Kendal at Lexington’s origin story, taking attendees from the first inkling of an idea to the successful opening day.

While we’ve shared many of the revelations and comments from the panel below, you can watch the full discussion here.

Realizing and Understanding the Need

The first step in making Lexington’s own retirement community a reality was realizing and understanding the need. David Cox, then rector of the former Robert E. Lee Memorial Church, said he initially became aware of the lack of retirement options in Lexington when several of the church parishioners moved to Westminster Canterbury in Lynchburg or similar communities in Charlottesville.

“Those people didn’t particularly want to move, but there was nothing in the Rockbridge area that could provide for them,” David said.

Yet, though he clearly understood the need for a local retirement community that summer of 1994, David was unsure what to do with this idea. “It’s a wonderful thing to have an idea, but it doesn’t go anywhere unless there’s somebody to help put it into reality,” he said.

Then, as luck would have it, David ran into Dianne Herrick.

The former director of the Lexington Downtown Development Association, Dianne had recently returned to Lexington after a sabbatical. David shared his ideas over lunch and Dianne was immediately on board. Together, they brainstormed names to serve on an exploratory planning committee and began reaching out. Everyone approached said yes, and within weeks, they were having their first meeting.

“When we thought about people [who] would be good to gather together, we wanted people who had different skills,” Dianne said. “At our very first meeting, we only met for 45 minutes because everyone at that table sat there and knew why they were there.”

Among the original committee members who also appeared alongside Dianne and David at the panel were Jon Ellestad, the former city manager of Lexington; Farris Hotchkiss, Director of Development at W&L at the time ; Matt Paxton, the former publisher of The News-Gazette; and Ned Henneman, a lawyer at the time. (Special note: 25 years later…Dianne, Matt and Ned are now current Kendal at Lexington residents).

Taking Action and Finding Solutions

With a team of diverse skillsets, the newly formed Lexington Retirement Community Board set out to explore the feasibility of their idea. At the time, there were big questions and concerns: Was Lexington too small to support a retirement community? How would they secure funding? And, most dauntingly, where did they even begin?

“We were a board that didn’t know a lot about retirement communities,” John Ellestad said. “In fact, we were pretty hopelessly naïve. We knew so little that we didn’t know we couldn’t do it.”

As interest began to grow, the board was able to secure donations to engage a marketing company to determine feasibility. From there, they held marketing meetings, acquired a 501(c)3 non-profit status and began hosting ice cream socials to encourage further investments.

“Rarely did you have a conversation with anyone who thought not moving in this direction was good,” Farris Hotchkiss said. “There was just a common, almost unanimous reaction that Lexington and Lexington’s people needed this.”

Yet, with small pieces falling into place, the board understood that this undertaking needed to be bigger than Lexington in order to truly be successful. “We knew if we relied on the Lexington/Rockbridge market alone, that was not going to work. It was crucial for us to reach out and reach beyond.”

That left them with two key remaining questions: 1) How could they secure an affiliation with a larger organization? and, 2) Where and how could they secure a location for the community?

A Case of Perfect Timing

After considering a few other location options but struggling to find a place that would meet all the necessary specifications — large, scenic, affordable — a fortuitous solution fell into the board’s lap.

Fred and Isabel Bartenstein had recently reacquired the historic Sunnyside Farm from Isabel’s siblings and were interested in using the property to add value to the Lexington community. “They were looking for some appropriate use for the old family place that had meant so much to them,” David said. “They wanted to do something that would be well received and contribute to the life of the community they’d been part of for generations.”

On June 27, 1995, roughly a year after David and Dianne first met to discuss the possibility of forming the committee, they met with the Bartensteins with the intention of offering to buy a portion of Sunnyside Farm. Then, to their great surprise, Fred and Isabel offered to donate Sunnyside House and 84 acres of the farm.

“We went to see them to see if we could buy the land. The fact that they said, ‘we want to give it to you’ was stunning, absolutely stunning,” Dianne said.

With a potential location secured, the board’s purpose gained credibility with investors — and with the Kendal Corporation. After originally being concerned that Lexington was too small of an area for one of their properties, Kendal was now interested in expanding into the south and allowing greater local control. Once again, timing was on the board’s side.

In fall of 1995, members of the board traveled to Pennsylvania for final negotiations with the Kendal Corporations and, on Nov. 16, 1995, Kendal at Lexington was approved. Five years later, the very first residents moved in.

And the Rest Was History

Even now, 25 years from their inception, members of the board look back on those early days of hard work and uncertainty with fondness and reverence.

“Once we got started, I never had any doubt that we would succeed,” David said. “I look back on things such as the timing of everything and the response of people, and I look back on that as one of the most providential experiences of my lifetime.”

And Dianne agrees: “It was such a pleasure to work with each and every one here. It really was exhilarating to have all of this happen,” she said.

Interested in learning more about Kendal at Lexington? Contact us today.