Life in The Garden

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, August 9, 2014

JANESVILLE—In the first floor lounge of the Garden Court apartments, it is quiet enough to hear the whoosh of an air ventilator at the top of the building's open-air atrium, seven floors up.

A dozen residents sat in the lounge Friday, visiting on Naugahyde and paisley-upholstered couches. The only other noise audible came from a custodian whose backpack-style vacuum cleaner whirred in a hallway.

You can't quantify culture, and in the case of Garden Court, the ages and backgrounds of the residents are all over the map at the 165-unit high-rise apartment complex at 208 N. Main St.     

There's Jordan Lopez, the 22-year-old cafeteria worker at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center. He wears a black, pork pie hat when he's got special guests at the building.

There are Karen and Jeannie Morgan, who are not related. Jeannie hails from the Ozark Mountain community of Mountain View, Mo. (which she pronounces Muh-ZUR-uh). Karen has lived in Janesville since she was five years old.

Both Morgans are among an ad hoc group that functions as the apartments' social committee.

Then there's Bob Tiegs, a guitar-playing Vietnam War veteran who is a member of the Local VFW's honor guard. Tiegs has been at Garden Court seven years, long enough to have a reserved parking spot for his '93 Ford station wagon.

“It's not a mansion, but it's comfortable here,” Tiegs, 71, said with a glass of diet Pepsi in one hand and a cork-filtered cigarette in the other.

He showed off his 500-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor. The living room, which adjoins the small kitchen and dinette, had a couch, an electronic piano and a bulky steel office desk.

The walls were adorned with pictures of he and his former wife, Marlisse Chamberlin, who also lives in Garden Court. A Fender Stratocaster guitar leaned in its case against a large amplifier.

Tiegs says he's a retired Janesville Fire Department medic, sometimes truck driver and flight instructor. He said he likes Garden Court because for someone like himself, a man with a Social Security income less than $1,000 a month, it's affordable.

The apartments, which are owned by Milwaukee resident Todd Miller, are managed under subsidized rent-control through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That means rental costs are based in part on residents' income.

“For a lot of us that live here, we've ended up without a big, fat, retirement. It's good to be able to live someplace that's kept up nice without a big pension,” Tiegs said.

A short jaunt from Tiegs' room, tucked back in a wing that's removed from the apartments' open, seven-story-tall atrium, lives Susan Burke.

Burke, 60, a Janesville native, has been in Garden Court as long as Tiegs.

From the windows of her clean, brightly decorated apartment, Burke and her cat Phoenix have a view of the Rock County Courthouse and part of downtown. Burke likes to peer from her living room window, where she can watch students at St. Mary's School tussle on the playground.

Burke, a former worker at Hardee's who lost her daughter, Julie, to a chronic illness in 2008, said she likes to visit in the first floor lounge at Garden Court. She knows most Garden Court residents at least by their faces.

She said she enjoys the quiet of Garden Court the most. 

“It's very quiet here. Nice and quiet,” Burke said.

Like Tiegs, Burke is glad for the affordability of her 500-square-foot unit. Rents average $550 a month in Janesville. A flat rate at Garden Court is around $630, according to FindTheBest.com, a website that tracks data on privately held companies.

Yet Burke, who is on Social Security disability for back problems, pays less than $200 a month after her rent subsidy. She can get anywhere she needs using local ride services, and she likes to walk downtown and get her nails done at a salon on Main Street. 

Right now, residents say, there are about a half-dozen apartments vacant at Garden Court.

“That's rare,” Burke said.

Garden Court was built in the 1970s, originally intended as a retirement home for people who were mobile or needed moderate physical assistance. 

It's still staffed with full-time management onsite and a full-time maintenance man, but in recent years it's become a melting pot for residents.

“We're all different,” Tiegs said. "You have old folks, here, plus a lot of young folks with disabilities, a lot of these younger kids. You just get to know them."

Jeannie and Karen Morgan in July held an auction event to raise money for apartment activities. They're having another raffle soon, they said.

The idea: to get residents to know each other better. The auction came after one Garden Court resident, Mary Coulthard, was found drowned in the Rock River near the Monterey Dam.

Coulthard went missing from the apartments May 2, and was found dead in the river eight days later. Her death is being reviewed at the state crime lab.

Lopez, the Mercy Hospital cafeteria worker, talked about his friendship with Coulthard. He said he and Coulthard would go to worship together on Thursdays.

He tipped his pork pie hat and looked up through the atrium above the lounge. The sun streamed down from big skylights. He said he's glad the Morgans' group at Garden Court is trying to help residents get to know each other better.

“They're trying to make it feel normal again,” Lopez said. “But it's still nice here.”

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