By Rusty Bradshaw
When he read about the pending closure of The Carillons in the Sun City Independent, resident Jan Gajer got a lump in his throat and a tug at his heart.
Mr. Gajer was the construction manager and then facility manager when The Carillons were built in 1979. It was under his direction that Sun City’s second senior care living facility was formed. His vision also helped shape the care facility whose officials will be tearing down The Carillons to make way for its own expansion.
“I had never overseen a construction project before,” Mr. Gajer said. “I didn’t even know how to read blueprints. A friend of mine taught me in about two hours.”
The experience he did have that made him the top choice for the job, and later facility manager, was in food management. He oversaw several restaurants in the Sun Cities area built by Del Webb.
The Carillons current manager, Jill Parsons, said she was told The Carillons was originally built as a hotel for Del Webb Corp. employees, a claim made about more than one building in the community. Mr. Gajer said that was not the case.
“From the start this was to be a senior care facility,” he explained.
As the campus was being developed, he rented some of the model units. The Carillons opened March 1979 and was filled by July that same year.
“We had a waiting list that stretched to about a year-and-a-half,” Mr. Gajer said.
Care was taken to make The Carillons very special. Mr. Gajer focused on the dining facilities. Ms. Parsons related The Carillons staff continues to have people ask about the restaurant located there with the delicious garlic rolls. Mr. Gajer said it was not a restaurant but the facility’s dining room people remember.
“Those were our rolls they talk about,” he said.
The Carillons had an extensive menu, garnered from various sources, according to Mr. Gajer. The facility also had daily activities for residents. Mr. Gajer remembers Halloween parties in which residents dressed in costume, and the time belly dancers were brought in for entertainment.
“We thought we were going to have to call the paramedics for those guys lined up to see them,” he laughed.
The building itself was designed with a luxurious feel in mind. Mr. Gajer said the lobby was designed to resemble a ritzy hotel and the main building’s tower had bells that, on an automatic timer, chimed at non and 6 p.m. daily. He also purchased a baby grand piano for the facility. A smaller structure on The Carillons campus used to be a greenhouse, built in response to a resident’s request to have a place for a garden, according to Mr. Gajer.
“We really catered to our residents,” he said.
The Carillons also included a soda fountain, he added. There were also atrium windows in the lobby, but designers underestimated the Arizona heat. The windows melted the countertops that came in contact with the sun until management got special glass from Puerto Rico for them.
Mr. Gajer created a western theme for the facility’s grand opening, including a corral with live animals. He was advised against it, so instead talked with area car dealers to have automobiles with animal names onsite during the grand opening. In an odd twist of irony, 36 years later The Carillons officials did host a petting zoo at the facility. However, two llamas escaped and ran amuck on Sun City streets for more than two hours before being captured.
“Maybe they were right way back then all along,” Mr. Gajer joked.
In another ironic twist, when Royal Oaks officials began designing their facility, they turned to Mr. Gajer and The Carillons staff for guidance.
“We gave recommendations to Royal Oaks when they were getting started,” Mr. Gajer said.
Mr. Gajer, who came to Arizona from New York in 1978, managed The Carillons for 3.5 years before moving on to oversee construction of another care facility in Phoenix. Prior to coming to Arizona he was a troubleshooter for Marriott and was dietary manager at a 350-bed hospital in upstate New York. Following the Phoenix care facility, Mr. Gajer drove buses for 18 years. He still volunteers as a driver for Benevilla.
He and his wife have lived in Sun City about nine years.
“The Carillons was a labor of love for me,” Mr. Gajer said. “It will always be in my memory because it was so outstanding.”
He recalled that about one year ago he found in his home an ornate glass engraved plate, similar to ones given to each Carillons resident in the early years.
“I decided to give that to The Carillons manager,” he said.