Described by the Grand Rapids Press in 1956 as “one of the most beautiful residential properties in Michigan,” Knollcrest Farm seemed to many the ideal place for a college.
Located on the then-outskirts of Grand Rapids, the property boasted 225 varieties of trees, 4,300 different botanical specimens and more than 40 identified bird species.
“Oh, it was a beautiful estate,” recalled William Spoelhof, Calvin president emeritus. “Just driving by it, you knew that it was a wealthy man’s estate.”
Owned by Grand Rapids industrialist J.C. Miller, the property had been carefully tended by Miller and his hired gardener, Henry Koopman. Miller originally acquired an apple orchard in 1931 and added several small farms and a nine-hole golf course to his holdings to complete his 166-acre paradise, abutting Burton Street on the south, Lake Drive on the north and East Beltline on the east.
This “good spot of earth,” as Edward Ericson, then Calvin professor of English, refers to it in his 1986 Commencement address, became home to Calvin College 50 years ago due to the vision and foresight of the college’s leadership more than a half-century ago.
Franklin Campus History
In the mid-1940s, Calvin saw an enrollment jump of 247 percent. The end of World War II found soldiers returning to the United States and enrolling in colleges in droves.
“The veterans returned to Calvin in the fall of 1946,” said Spoelhof, “so the girls came back to Calvin as well.” Enrollment jumped from 503 to 1,245 in just one year.
Enrollment rose to nearly 1,500 in 1948 and then dropped off a bit until the mid-1950s. By 1955, enrollment had topped 1,500, and all estimates saw those numbers continuing to rise at a rate of more than 100 students per year.
The 10-acre Franklin campus was intended to accommodate no more than 1,500 students, and even at that mark, more facilities were needed. Two new buildings—a science building and student commons—had recently been erected, and more were in the planning stages.
With enrollment increasing in record numbers and the Franklin campus landlocked in the heart of Grand Rapids, the Christian Reformed Church Synod of 1955 approved the action of the board of trustees, which temporarily halted all new construction pending a thorough study of the college and seminary’s needs.
Minutes from an April 1955 meeting of Calvin’s long-range planning committee first mention the possibility of a move: “A motion prevailed that it is conceivable that this institution, Calvin College and Seminary, will move to another location.”
During the yearlong study, several land acquisition options were discussed. The first was to buy additional land adjacent to the Franklin campus. Research soon revealed that this plan would cost the college at least $1 million for 10 additional acres due to the need to purchase 52 homes on the desired property. Responses also indicated that some homeowners would hold out indefinitely regardless of price.
A second suggested alternative was to operate a split campus by purchasing additional land on which to build new facilities while continuing to operate the Franklin campus. But investigation into this plan predicted that operating two campuses would be costly, and transportation issues would be difficult to resolve.
A third plan—the development of a new campus—won the support of the long-range planning committee and was ultimately backed by the board of trustees in January 1956.
“I can recall quite a bit of opposition to this plan,” Spoelhof said. “It was not an easy decision. The science building had just been built. That was our first $1 million building, and we had just added the commons.”
Several parcels of land were considered for relocation. Those held in option by the college included Knollcrest Farm; Ridgemoor Golf Course, a 116-acre plot at the corner of Burton and Breton streets; and the 150-acre Feenstra farm, fronting Burton Street near what is now Plymouth Street.
“Knollcrest Farm, owned by industrialist J.C. Miller, is considered one of the choicest sites,” reported the Grand Rapids Press.
Originally purchased in 1931 by Miller as a diversion from his work running the J.C. Miller Co., which produced buffing material for the metal finishing industry, Knollcrest soon became a “playground” for the tycoon.
“I started work here in the Depression,” gardener Koopman said in a 1972 Grand Rapids Press interview. “J.C. Miller was the only one who had any money then.”
“I could make a lot of money by having this place cut up into lots,but I’d like to sell it to someone who will take good care of it.” — J.C. Miller, owner of Knollcrest Farm
The English-style manor, which existed as the orchard owner’s home, became central to the property. Over the years, he added a barn, a guest cottage, a riding ring and quarters for workmen on the premises.
Koopman’s first assignment was to help plant 4,000 trees gathered from the Michigan cities of Cadillac, Lansing and Jackson. Rows of beautiful spruces were planted to line the drive from Burton Street to the stately manor.
The work crew also dug a 1½-acre basin, lined it with clay and sunk a 125-foot well to fill the artificial lake (now known as the Sem Pond), located just behind the manor.
“J.C. never wanted anything small,” Koopman said in the Press interview. “He always said, ‘I don’t care how much it costs.’”
That attitude was reflected in the elaborate gatherings he hosted for hundreds of friends on his grand estate. All-day affairs would include eating, horseback riding, vaudeville shows imported from across the country, and boxing matches featuring amateur pugilists who trained in Miller’s white barn. Boxing great Jack Dempsey even appeared once for an exhibition.
“I don’t think there was another man in the state of Michigan who spent money like he did,” reported Koopman. “He told me once he’d spent $30,000 on one day like that.”
Miller also had eccentric taste in his choice of animals for the grounds: Peacocks strutted on the manor house lawn, and alligators were brought up from Louisiana to inhabit the pond, according to Koopman.
At the age of 68 and in failing health, Miller was urged to sell the property by his wife, who wanted to move south and didn’t have his same allegiance to the farm. “I’m not in the best of health anymore,” explained Miller, in a 1956 interview for the Press. “I can’t take the winter weather like I used to, so I’m going to move to Florida.”
Miller reportedly had two stipulations for the property: that it retain the name Knollcrest and that it not be subdivided.
“I could make a lot of money by having this place cut up into lots,” he said to the Press, “but I’d like to sell it to someone who will take good care of it.”
A detailed report on the costs involved in building a new campus was submitted to Synod in 1956. The report encouraged the delegates to approve the purchase: “The acquisition of a 10-acre site ‘out in the country’ in 1909 and the erection of a college building at the cost of $150,000 in 1915 [the start of the Franklin campus] before the Madison Avenue property had been disposed of—moving out before selling out—display the courage and daring of our early long range campus-planning. … We must plan for what we are and what we must become.”
Knollcrest Farm was the long-range planning committee’s unanimous choice based on size, topography, existing improvements, access to the site and attractive purchase price.
Miller’s price tag for the property was $400,000, or a little more than $2,400 an acre. Purchase price of the Feenstra farm was $408,000, or $2,720 an acre. Ridgemoor Golf Course carried a tab of $525,000, or $4,525 an acre.
On June 22, 1956, after strolling the grounds, Synod delegates were called to vote on the purchase. Opposition arose when delegates feared that such a purchase would commit the denomination to relocation of the college and an expansion plan of several million dollars. Several speakers during the debate asked and received assurance that the adoption of the recommendation for purchase would not “irrevocably commit” the Synod to the plan of relocating the college and seminary on a new campus.
Speakers favoring the purchase said it would be possible to sell the site if after further study a decision should be made against moving the campus. Synod ultimately approved the purchase with the understanding that no building plans be proposed for at least one year.
“No forward move was ever made without the boldness of faith,” read the committee’s report to Synod. “Using the talents of judgment which God had given us, resorting much to prayer, and enjoying the confidence of our constituency, we can and must be daring.”
The purchase was completed with J.C. Miller on June 29, 1956. Reflecting on the sale at the time, Miller said, “This will be a wonderful place for a college.”
Building at Knollcrest
Anxious to make use of their new property, college administrators found ways around the one-year building ban.
In the fall of 1956, a cross country course was mapped out on the campus-to-be, and an intercollegiate contest was held. A baseball diamond was seeded, and Miller’s horse track was converted to a running track for training purposes. The manor house was used for meetings and music recitals, and botany classes met on the grounds.
Without much further debate, Synod officially approved of selling the Franklin campus and moving to Knollcrest in June 1957; the development of a master plan began in earnest.
The Chicago architectural firm of Perkins & Will, which had experience in campus planning, was selected to spearhead the project.
“There was there a bright, young architect, who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, by the name of Bill Fyfe,” Spoelhof said. “He came out with a uniform plan for the whole campus.”
A key theme to the plan was the integration of all knowledge. “The essence of the plan revolves about this concept—the academic campus as a single court, centrally located on high land and embracing all of the academic buildings, including Chapel and library,” Spoelhof wrote in a report to the long-range planning committee.
As the master plan unfolded, architectural design, said Spoelhof, was less important than that the building fit the curriculum of each facility.
For the Science Building for instance, “We asked, ‘What is the relationship of laboratories to the formal teaching? How essential is it? What is its place?’ After we put this together in one simple folder for each building, we’d hand it on to our architect, Bill Fyfe, and say, ‘Now, wrap the building around this.’ That is the way the campus was developed,” Spoelhof said in a 2000 interview with Spark.
In July 1958, as the college’s master plan was still being developed, ground was broken for the seminary building. It was selected as the initial building in the plan because students attending seminary would not depend to a great extent on the other campus services, such as housing and dining, and its existing building (on the Franklin campus) was badly needed for college operations.
In September 1960, the three-winged Centennial Memorial Building—as it was called in reference to the Christian Reformed Church’s 100-year anniversary gift, which funded the majority of the $650,000 project—was dedicated.
“Design of this first building is important because it will set the architecture for the other buildings we plan to have erected in the next several years,” said William VanRees, then president of the board of trustees, in a Press interview.
Indeed, the Frank Lloyd Wright influence on Fyfe was evident as other campus buildings emerged, all with the same Prairie School architectural style.
“Some of the Wright principles featured on this campus are the plain, ordinary front doors; no lights or poles outside the buildings; front doors are not in the middle of the buildings; and the buildings are not showcases,” Spoelhof said. “The open campus is purposely designed with nothing in the middle, so you can look through and see the whole thing.”
In fact, even the building locations speak to the vision of the college. “Everything in our academic center are a bringing together of the liberal arts,” explained current college architect Frank Gorman, who was hired in 1997.
Ground was broken for the first college buildings—two dormitories (Beets-Veenstra for women and Noordewier-VanderWerp for men) and a dining hall—in July 1961. In November, construction started on the library-classroom building (Hiemenga Hall and lower level of the Hekman Library).
In September 1962, a record enrollment of 2,501 overflowed onto the new Knollcrest campus. Freshman residents moved in and began classes in the still-being-completed library-classroom building.
“Almost overnight the new campus with its residence halls, dining hall, roadways, parking areas, driveway lighting and classroom building facilities has become a busy little village,” reported the Spark. “The beauty of the setting is truly breath-taking, for the structures do not appear to be imposed upon the landscape, but are really a part of it.”
Other building projects began on the heels of those just completed. “It’s exciting these days to go out to Knollcrest to see the progress being made,” reported the Spark.
The physical education building (Fieldhouse) was completed in 1965; the Fine Arts Center, Rooks-VanDellen and Schultze-Eldersveld residence halls in 1966; the Commons in 1967; and the Science Building in 1968. A four-story addition to the library was finished in 1970.
To help fund the newest projects, a denomination-wide, eight-year, $8.5 million campaign—the Calvin Centennial Crusade—was authorized in 1967.
“In structuring this Crusade we will rely on Calvin Alumni members to provide leadership and guidance in this mammoth enterprise,” stated Sydney Youngsma, campaign director. “We will seek out qualified members of the team that will strive to attain the greatest financial goal in the history of Calvin.”
In addition, government grants and loans were available at very low interest rates from the mid-1960s until 1973.
“I think it’s providential they started when they did,” said current Calvin President Gaylen Byker. “If they had started five years earlier, it would have been a huge struggle and five years later would have been too late. If the campus had been started at any other time, we would probably still have the Franklin campus, or at least we would have had two campuses for a long, long time.”
While growth continued at a feverish pace, careful planning is evident throughout the campus, Gorman said.
The continuity of the low-slung design, set into the contours of the land, with all buildings constructed of the same reddish-beige brick, creates a unified campus.
“It has been a real pleasure to work with the kind of structural architectural vocabulary that Bill Fyfe established,” Gorman said. “So many campuses do not have the continuity of material that Calvin has, and each building tries to jump out more than the last. When you have different architects, each wants their building to be more spectacular than the last.”
When Tony Diekema arrived as president in 1976, the campus had just been totally relocated to Knollcrest, after more than a decade of a split campus.
“Knollcrest was obviously a godsend, providing wonderful space for expansion and the luxury of a truly residential campus,” he said. “Because of expanding enrollments, we were immediately into the building of additional residence halls, several additions to the Commons, the addition of North Hall, a classroom addition to the library and the purchase of the apartments across the Beltline for student housing. The luxury of space to do these things was absolutely wonderful, and it allowed us to expand the curriculum extensively.”
In fact, the purchase of the apartments was the first venture on the east side of the East Beltline. Other land purchases to the east, including the Ecosystem Preserve, soon followed, leading to the 398 acres that the campus encompasses today.
All the while, the new growth stayed true to the original design for the campus and its buildings.
“I think that the designs splashed across the covers of magazines and journals will, years from now, be considered trendy,” Gorman said. “Calvin’s brick-form vocabulary is timeless.”
Vision for the Future
While the buildings are timeless, they are not ageless. “The efficiency and effectiveness with which these buildings were built and the care with which they are maintained is a model,” Byker said. “These structures will last for 100 years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be maintained and renovated. None of us live in houses or businesses that have been untouched for 40 years.”
Because the campus grew at such an astounding rate, all money was put into growing and building the campus. “No money was set aside for renovations or repairs; all disposable resources were put into growth,” Byker said.
This is an issue the college faces now with some aging buildings, which are unable to meet the needs of today’s technology.
In addition, Byker believes that the time to finish the campus is now. “The timing now is every bit as providential as it was in the early years of this campus,” he said. “We have alumni and friends of the college who are in position to help us construct a wellness center and full-fledged campus commons.”
Those two buildings are critical to the future of Calvin, according to Gorman.
“Two of the biggest things that students are looking for in choosing a college are the spectacular facilities that colleges have in these two areas,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the best way to pick a college, but that is what is happening. We’re not out in front in these two areas; in fact, we’re struggling to stay even.”
Crediting the visionary Christian leadership demonstrated in the past, Byker said, “It took tremendous foresight, confidence in the constituency and faith to take the risks that they did. They believed the college was a very strong asset for the community and the kingdom and there was justification in growing the college.”
Those beliefs are just as strong today as Calvin will continue to change and grow over the next 50 years.
“It’s hard to imagine Calvin would have grown as it has without this campus,” Byker said. “We are thankful to God and thankful to those who had a vision for Calvin that we have been able to prosper on the Knollcrest campus these last 50 years. And we hope to be here for many years to come.”
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