Art history professor Craig Hanson conducted summer research exploring the history and influence of Calvin’s Knollcrest campus architecture with three McGregor Student Fellows. The project was one of eight conducted this past summer through the McGregor Undergraduate Research Program, which has funded student-faculty research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences since 1999.
“We were exploring the architecture, the architect, and the student experience when the campus was first created,” said Gabrielle Freshly ’23, one of the student researchers. Freshly and the other students spent the summer digging through Calvin’s archives, researching the campus’ architects and conducting interviews with current and past Calvin community members. What they found points to a connection between identity and design.
When Calvin first moved to the Knollcrest campus in the ’60s and ’70s, the student body predominantly comprised a tightly- knit Reformed community. Both the physical campus and the Calvin community have changed since then, and while the school’s legacy remains potent, more expansive visions of Calvin’s future are also playing a role in the campus’ evolution.
In 1956, Calvin College purchased a large plot of land known as Knollcrest farm. Calvin’s campus at the time was located on Franklin Street, in the heart of Grand Rapids. But after World War II, the college experienced a period of intense growth that the Franklin campus couldn’t accommodate.
Then-President William Spoelhof turned to architecture firm Perkins and Will, which Hanson described as “the most progressive architects for education,” to design and build the new campus. The firm assigned architect William Fyfe, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, to the project.
Fyfe was a proponent of Prairie style architecture—a style focused on the integration of buildings and landscape via elements such as flat roofs and natural colors.
The design and construction of the Knollcrest campus took place in a period when the Christian Reformed Church in North America was beginning to think more intentionally about preserving the unity of its community. It made sense for campus architecture to reflect and reinforce that desire, but this has often been interpreted as campus having a “closed-in” feel.
When the campus was constructed, it was “pretty isolated,” Freshly said. “At the time, it was at the edge of town.”
The campus faces inward, too. “Entrances are not typically located outside the commons,” Hanson said. This design aligned Calvin with classical European universities like Oxford; officials also hoped that an inward orientation would prevent campus from disturbing the privacy of any surround- ing neighborhoods, according to Hanson.
Calvin at the time was largely composed of the Dutch-American community. “The overwhelming majority on campus in the ’70s were insiders,” Hanson said. Campus buildings didn’t have signs; if you were part of the community, you’d just know where to go.
“We experience that as snooty inhospitality,” Hanson said—but, in reality, it was intended to be hospitable. “Fyfe had this vision that if you showed up on campus and you didn’t know where you were going, you would ask somebody. It was a vision of hospitality that depended upon an insider community.”
But Prairie style also has advantages, according to Hanson. “Buildings at the University of Chicago, buildings at Yale— they want to impress you,” he said. Calvin’s campus, on the other hand, “doesn’t suggest a kind of mastery of the surrounding landscape,” Hanson said.
“It’s not hierarchical. It’s a very peaceful, coexisting form of architecture.”
The various master planning projects currently in the works aim to preserve this feature of Calvin’s campus while trying to mitigate the feeling of being closed-off.
One example is a new residential master plan, which aims to make small tweaks with big impacts to residence hall designs. The goal is to add light and openness without sacrificing the integrity of the Prairie style.
Adjustments like these keep Calvin’s architecture from stagnating, according to Hanson, who gained a newfound appreciation for the dynamism of Calvin’s design through his research. Hanson said, “I now think of Calvin’s campus—even the parts I’m not in love with—as a sort of ongoing investment. Campus has to be a living, organic thing.”
This dynamism has been key throughout Calvin’s history. The original vision for campus was defined by paradoxes: both closed-off and welcoming, both American and Dutch, both—in Hanson’s words— “embracing cultural engagement” in its architecture and “shrinking away from community engagement” in its location. Now, it’s even more complex: updates to campus face the need to preserve Calvin’s historical integrity while recognizing that the school’s student body composition and reach have changed.
Now, as Calvin designs the next wave of renovations, changes to the physical campus will balance preserving Calvin’s historical legacy with visions of a more diverse and innovative community.