The 1965 Calvin College catalog lists some interesting physical education class choices: handball, archery, field hockey and gymnastics. Paddleball and wrestling appear in the catalog listing for the first time in 1966.
Forty-one years later, the listing has changed—and more than doubled in size—to include offerings such as rock climbing, golf, Frisbee, canoeing, modern dance, creative dance, tap dance, karate and self-defense.
In the meantime, the venue for most of these activities—the Calvin College Fieldhouse—has changed very little.
With the exception of the Bergsma Memorial Natatorium addition in 1973 and an expansion on the building’s east side for office space in 1985, Calvin has made minimal changes to the facility in the past four decades.
Once celebrated as the largest indoor auditorium in Grand Rapids and “a dream come true,” according to the fall 1965 Spark, the fieldhouse now is “maxed out” and “dated,” according to Glen Van Andel, former chair of the health, physical education, recreation, dance and sports (HPERDS) department and co-chair of the facilities planning committee.
“This building has served us really well,” Van Andel said. “It’s been able to function as a multipurpose facility for the entire campus.” But programs, demands and expectations have changed since the 1960s.
Plans for a Physical Education Building
In 1943, Calvin President Henry Schultze called attention to the need for a physical education facility on the Franklin campus. The following year, the Christian Reformed Church Synod urged churches and individuals to support Calvin’s proposed expansion on the Franklin campus, which included the addition of Memorial Hall, an assembly hall and gymnasium.
Again in 1947 and 1952, a physical education building was named in various campaigns for Calvin College, but in 1954, before a new facility was started, Synod mandated that all new construction be halted pending a thorough study of the college’s future needs.
At the time, Calvin held its physical education classes in the basement of the dormitory, a small, dark, damp space, according to David Tuuk, Calvin physical education professor emeritus.
“We made do with what we had at that time,” Tuuk said. “The sidelines of the court were next to the wall, and the ceiling was so low; there were wooden timbers about 15 feet above the ground.”
The cramped facility was scheduled from morning to night, and classes were even held on Saturday during the highest enrollment years, he said.
“All we had was one locker room, so the guys used it for gym a few days of the week, and the girls would use it on the other days,” he said. “We had all kinds of conflicts of people walking in when they weren’t supposed to.”
By this time, Calvin was sponsoring intercollegiate athletic teams in men’s basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, track and field, and women’s basketball—most without adequate practice facilities, much less competition venues.
Move to the Knollcrest Campus
The Knollcrest campus purchase in 1956 brought renewed hope for a physical education facility. Despite the fact that Synod wanted one year to reflect on the purchase of the Knollcrest Farm before committing to any building projects, a cross country course was mapped out (and an intercollegiate contest was held in the fall of 1956), a baseball diamond was seeded and a primitive track was laid.
While a fieldhouse was in the master plan for the campus, physical education department members were anxious to get started with something immediately. In 1958, the Union Station train shed in downtown Grand Rapids became available after train travel had dwindled and the land had been purchased for the furthering of U.S. 131, a major highway.
Barney Steen, physical education professor emeritus and department chair, and Tuuk went downtown to look at the old train shed, which was 600 feet long and 110 feet wide.
The Grand Rapids Press reported that Calvin could potentially acquire the structure for the cost of dismantling and hauling it away.
Campus architects were asked to consider use of the structure, which could have been reassembled on the campus.
“At the time we were thinking that anything would be better than what we had, which was nothing,” Tuuk said. “It’s a good thing that never happened. To erect that monstrosity on the campus here would have been a mistake.”
Ultimately, the administration decided that the new campus buildings should be designed to harmonize with one another, and the steel, box-like train shed didn’t blend with the rest of the planned campus.
Thus, when first-year students moved onto campus in 1962, physical education classes were once again held in the residence halls’ basements.
“It was more or less calisthenics that we did in those days,” Tuuk said. “All we could do was keep looking forward to the really nice facilities. And, of course, that day came.”
The New Fieldhouse
The fall of 1965 was an exciting time on the Knollcrest campus. While new buildings were springing up all over the campus, the physical education building was of particular interest because Calvin had never had such a facility as this.
“For the first time we had a home-court advantage in basketball. We had this facility that we really thought was quite something.” —David Tuuk
The fall 1965 Spark reported: “This building incorporates the latest ideas for the proper care of a large number of participants. Each student, for example, is assigned a small storage locker. At the end of every activity period his uniform can be laundered in our own facilities and then with a clean towel be returned to the numbered locker. …
“Another innovation is the matter of folding bleachers,” Spark reported. “The bleachers on both balconies and ones on the north end of the main floor fold forward when not in use, thus providing walls that separate one teaching station from another. … No areas were added to the building to accommodate spectators. Nevertheless the building does provide excellent seating.”
The first home basketball game was held Dec. 2, 1965. Northern Michigan University spoiled the Knights’ home debut, winning the game 119-87, but the game was still celebrated.
“For the first time we had a home-court advantage in basketball,” Tuuk said. “We had this facility that we really thought was quite something.”
And it was. Space for weightlifting, courts for badminton and racquetball, an indoor walking/running track, sufficient locker room space with showers, physical education department offices—all of these were luxuries never afforded the department before.
“It was such a unique plan at the time with five stations for teaching and flexible space for intramurals as well as athletics,” Tuuk said. “It served us so well for so many years.”
Besides the opportunities it presented for Calvin students and staff, the fieldhouse was also considered among the premier venues in the city of Grand Rapids.
“We hosted two years of high school wrestling finals, a professional basketball exhibition, a professional tennis exhibition with John McEnroe, the NCAA III basketball finals and even a circus in the summer,” Tuuk said.
The Fieldhouse—40 Years Later
Even with all of its flexibility, the fieldhouse has become inadequate to meet the needs of expanding programs and growing expectations, Van Andel said. Athletic teams have expanded to 17, and all have longer seasons. Major and minor programs have grown. Club sports are seeking practice times. Intramural programming has increased. General recreation and fitness activities are expanding as more students develop healthy lifestyles. An emphasis has also been placed on employee wellness.
All of these demands have overstretched the current facilities, Van Andel said.
“We are maxed out,” he said. “For intramurals we need to limit the number of basketball, volleyball and soccer teams, and that’s with scheduling the facilities until 11 p.m. We have very little space available on campus for students to just go play. If, for instance, a group wants to get together and just play volleyball, they’d never be able to—certainly not between the middle of October and spring break, when demands are highest for this building.”
In addition, the facilities are more than 40 years old. “The infrastructure has to be addressed,” Van Andel said. “The pool has been condemned by the state because it’s too shallow, and the natatorium is the most energy-inefficient building on campus.”
Expectations among prospective students have been rising, too, he said. “Most students come from high school with better facilities than we have here. We offer a 1970s or ’80s version of a recreation and wellness facility to a much more sophisticated consumer.”
A New Athletic Complex
Planning for new facilities has been in the works for 10 years. “It’s ironic,” college architect Frank Gorman said. “Thirty-five years ago we were cutting edge, and now we’ve plateaued compared to other colleges.”
That’s all about to change as Calvin plans to break ground next spring on a $50 million expansion of its on-campus HPERDS facilities, the biggest building project in school history.
To meet the needs of the entire Calvin community, the upcoming expansion features a five-pronged plan, including:
1) a new arena.
2) a new indoor track and tennis center.
3) a new aquatic center, featuring a 50-meter by 25-yard pool.
4) a new student health center.
5) a significant renovation of the current Calvin Fieldhouse, resulting in a new health and recreation center.
The centerpiece of the newly approved project will be a $20 to $25 million arena, tentatively set for a seating capacity of between 4,500 and 5,000. It will measure 180,000 square feet and will replace the Calvin Fieldhouse as the home court for the school’s Division III women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball teams. That arena will be located east of the current fieldhouse on what is currently a small, multiuse athletic field (the location was chosen to minimize intrusion into a diverse woodlot that sits north and east of the current Calvin Fieldhouse).
The new arena will include four full-sized basketball and volleyball courts, a weight room, locker rooms for athletic teams and general use, an athletic training room more than double the size of the current room, a hospitality suite, a portable stage for concerts and other non-sports events, spacious lobby area, two concessions stands and even a climbing wall! The arena will host a wide array of events, everything from opening Convocation to Commencement.
“It will be a jewel as a home court for our teams, but it also will become a central hub for our student body, faculty and staff,” said Henry DeVries, Calvin vice president for administration and finance. “And for those who have suffered through hot Commencements in the past, yes, the new arena—as well as the existing fieldhouse—will be air conditioned.”
DeVries noted that the old fitness facility at Calvin is about 3,000 square feet and closes much of the day for scheduled Calvin classes. The new fitness facility will total almost 15,000 square feet.
The old Calvin Fieldhouse, meanwhile, will be converted into a multipurpose facility. The upper bleachers will be removed, as will the false ceiling, creating an open space with a multitude of playing courts. New offices and several new classrooms will be added to the facility, and a currently cramped human performance laboratory will be greatly expanded.
In addition, Calvin’s on-campus health center for students, now housed in a residence hall basement, will be significantly expanded and find a new home in the renovated fieldhouse. It will increase from an approximately 2,000-square-foot facility to an approximately 6,000-square-foot center, complete with numerous exam rooms, lab offices, a diet counsel room and various health center employee offices.
The renovated Calvin Fieldhouse will connect to the new arena, which in turn will connect to the new indoor tennis center, creating a complex of more than 350,000 square feet.
The indoor tennis center alone will measure 62,000 square feet and will include four competition tennis courts and a 200-meter indoor running track. The facility will be crafted as a multipurpose center with the space able to be used for recreational running, competition track and field, baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer, as well as basketball and volleyball.
The new aquatic center will also be a multiuse facility. It will feature a pool that will be 50 meters long and 25 yards wide. That size will give Calvin significant flexibility, as a moveable bulkhead in the water will create areas that can be used for a variety of simultaneous activities, everything from college, high school and age-group swim meets—including diving—to water polo matches, water aerobics classes, swim lessons and more.
“The addition will completely change the culture of the campus,” Van Andel said. “It’s going to be the kind of place where students will want to hang out. Students walking by are going to be able to look in and see other students working out, exercising and participating in play. It’s going to draw them in.”
Significant funds are still needed for the building, according to Dirk Pruis, vice president for advancement. Pruis said alumni will hear more about the project and have the opportunity to make gifts to the new facility in the coming months.
“A handful of very generous Calvin alumni and friends provided the leadership gifts for the new physical education and athletic facilities,” he said. “We are grateful for the investment these dedicated alumni and friends made to this campus facility, for without their initial gifts and commitment to Calvin, the project could not have been launched.”
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