ITHACA, N.Y. — When most people think of Cornell Heights, the tony neighborhood just north of the Big Red’s campus, they think students and wealthy college professors. So to have a senior care facility mixed in the collegiate atmosphere seems a little unusual.

But not only is it there, it’s thriving. The facility is Bridges Cornell Heights, which occupies three houses on a small, curvy block bounded by Wyckoff Avenue, Dearborn Place and Kelvin Place. Two of the homes were existing houses in the historic district and renovated to suit the needs of Bridges, while the house at 407 Wyckoff Avenue was purpose-built back in 2005, one of only a few buildings built in the neighborhood since its designation as a historic district back in 1989.

1989 is also the year Bridges founder Elizabeth Classen Ambrose started her work in healthcare, forming a home health aide service with her sister. After similar ventures in Ithaca, Jacksonville, and Rochester, she opened Bridges in 2001.

“The inter-generational opportunities that Cornell provides is amazing. When I started Bridges in 2001, I wondered ‘Gee, how is this going to be’, being next to fraternities, sororities and the campus, but I think it’s turned out to be one of the drawing points for residents, our proximity to the campus. The students enrich the lives of our residents, they bring youth and vitality into our lives. We’re so much better off here than at a remote chunk of land, people love being a part of the neighborhood, close to campus. We feel a connection to our neighbors across the street, we’ve made friends with the neighbors, even the fraternities.”

The three houses that Bridges maintains each have less than 16 residents, and operate as their own ‘communities’. According to Classen Ambrose, this is by design. “We’re purposely small. I’ve had opportunities in my career to go on a larger scale, 120 beds, and I just cant get excited about it, there’s no fire in my belly to do something that’s been already done. I just don’t know how to do it well and serve that many people at one time…we can let residents live on their own terms, it’s more like a family, home-cooked meals, it’s something that excites all of us, to provide a living environment that’s not institutional in any way, and a nice way to provide long-term care.”

With full occupancy and a waiting list in hand, Bridges has decided to move forward with plans for a fourth house in Cornell Heights, and the second all-new home. The property would be located on the southeast corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Dearborn Place, a small vacant field recently sub-divided from the former Palentological Research Institute next door (which is separately being renovated into a two-family home by Classen Ambrose’s husband).

Given that Cornell Heights’ century-old architecture is defined by high-end, visually unique homes, the new property is seeking the same qualifications. Rochester-based Bero Architecture, which specializes in historic design, has been retained and early drawings show an imposing stone and cedar-shingle Craftsman-style home with 12 bedrooms. The landscaping will be similarly fitting and designed by Cornell landscape architecture professor Paula Horrigan.

Since Cornell Heights is a historic district, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission must sign off on any new construction visible from the outside. How this typically works is that a project will go before the commission, which is a group of appointed citizens with relevant experience, for “Design Guidance” to get feedback on what the ILPC likes, doesn’t like, or wants to see. Those features are included or removed before a formal application is sent to the board for review and consideration of a “Certificate of Appropriateness”.

Classen Ambrose says that the house will programmatic be a little different from the existing trio of homes in that it will be independent living vs. enhanced assisted living. That means a lower level of care – residents may receive assistance in housekeeping and cooking, but they are otherwise capable of managing their day-to-day activities. “{I}t will be nice for folks who have some connection to Cornell, maybe they have an office there, but they don’t want to manage a home and make meals. It’s really exciting, something that will round out our community very, very nicely.”

Bridges employs a staff totaling “in the low to mid 40s”, and the new addition would lead to a few more full-time positions. The organization was previously certified a living-wage employer, although it is not at the moment. Classen Ambrose says they are working to get re-accredited.

In the long run, the presence of Bridges may not be limited to just Cornell Heights. “I think the Bridges concept is starting to be something that people are looking for, a smaller community. I feel there is definitely a need to be at university campuses, perhaps also positioning ourselves downtown would be something that we would do in the future, access to the Commons downtown. I’d love to do that.”

But for now, they’ll be focused on their latest home proposal among the manors and chateaus of professors and student groups. The Bridges residents can enjoy the youth and vitality of the students, and perhaps the students can take a little maturity and grace from their venerable neighbors.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at