A Symphony of Design
Longevity of Fine Arts Center attributed to attention to detail; renovation planned
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

Thousands of concerts, hundreds of lectures, countless drama productions, student recitals, worship services and chapels all add up to 40 years’ worth of events that have seen hundreds of thousands of people find their place in the velvety seats of the Fine Arts Center auditorium.

“When you think about it, that building has performed almost miraculously,” said Henry DeVries, Calvin vice president for administration and finance. “It just keeps on running with so much happening in there.”

But four decades after its opening in 1966, the Fine Arts Center (FAC) is in need of a renovation.

“The buildings on this campus are built to last for 100 years,” said DeVries, “but at about 35 years they need some major renovating. The FAC has not been touched in 40 years; it’s just time.”

Auditorium-music-speech building
As early as 1942, a board of trustees committee recommended an addition to the administration building on the Franklin campus for the growing music department, for no special provision for music, speech or art was made in the early development of that campus.

The pressing needs of the music department were brought before Synod in 1950, and in 1952, some accommodations were incorporated into the “Needs of Today” campaign. But in 1954, Synod banned the development of any new facilities on the Franklin campus while future needs of the college were being explored.

When the Knollcrest campus was purchased in 1956, plans were shifted to the new campus.

“Facilities were pretty limited on the Franklin campus,” said John Hamersma, Calvin music professor emeritus, who taught at Calvin from 1955 to 2005. “Choirs used the seminary chapel for rehearsal, and the rest of the classes took place in the administration building.”

When the seminary moved to the Knollcrest campus in 1960, the music department moved to the former seminary into “decent accommodations compared to what we’d had in the past,” Hamersma said. Yet, a dedicated performing arts auditorium—then known as the auditorium-music-speech building—was the long-range goal of the department and the college.

Planning begins
Planning began in the early 1960s by the college auditorium committee for the development of the new facility. Flexibility in design—because the auditorium was being considered for so many uses—was central to the plans, as was attention to acoustics. Harold Geerdes, Calvin music professor emeritus and an acoustician himself, headed up the committee.

“Very painstaking attention was paid to the acoustics,” said Howard Slenk, Calvin music professor emeritus. A Boston firm specializing in acoustics—Bolt, Baranek and Newman—was brought in for this purpose.

Every detail was accounted for: “The acoustical absorbency of the floor was tested, along with the seating and the lighting,” Hamersma said. “The ventilation system was tested so that it couldn’t be heard when it went on.”

Adjustable acoustical curtains, housed behind grates, were mounted on the sides of the auditorium walls, so that the facility could be fine-tuned for uses ranging from drama and lectures to choirs and bands.

“The auditorium was also tested so that the acoustical environment would be the same whether the room was empty or full,” Hamersma said. “The carpet and an unoccupied seat was to equal a person.”

Thus seats that folded up with precisely drilled holes underneath to absorb sound were suggested.

All of this attention to detail, which in the end provided one of the best venues of its kind in the United States, also very nearly caused the project to be scrapped. On Jan. 21, 1965, bids for the auditorium and surrounding building came in at more than $2 million, some $500,000 above budget.

Rather then postpone the building’s construction or return to the drawing board, the planning committee decided to make drastic cuts. Copper grillwork that was to adorn the building was eliminated; cinder block in some areas was substituted for brick; carpeting in the halls was replaced with cheaper tile. (It was later determined that the tile was difficult to maintain, so in true stewardly fashion, when Wurzburg’s Department Store closed its downtown Grand Rapids location in the late 1960s, Calvin bought the used carpet and carpeted the halls of the Fine Arts Center.)

In all, $350,000 worth of expenses was slashed “without intruding on the functional aspect of the building,” according to Chimes (Feb. 10, 1965).

Construction complete
The result in the fall of 1966 was met with rave reviews. “Members of the fine arts departments are ecstatic about the unlimited potential of the new facilities. The building marks the first time in its history that Calvin has adequate facilities for the programs varying from Thespian performances to concerts and recitals,” reported Chimes (Sept. 9, 1966).

“The acoustics were marvelous,” Slenk said. “Groups that came here in the 1960s—orchestras and choirs from Europe—they raved about the space.”

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“Locally, it was certainly a favorable venue,” added Hamersma. “Both the Grand Rapids opera and symphony have performed here.”

One of the more notable characteristics of the building is its lighting, which was described as a “ceiling of stars” by then-college architect Bill Fyfe.

Because of the needed cubic yards of space for the acoustics, a high ceiling was required. “Bill felt that the human person should not be dwarfed by as high a ceiling as was going to be needed, so he wanted to add a visual piece,” Hamersma said. Thus, the development of a series of grids suspending individual lights at various heights.

The FAC organ—officially dedicated as the Bernard D. Zondervan Memorial Pipe Organ, after its donor—is the centerpiece of the auditorium stage. Schlicker Organ Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., built the 30-stop organ.

“Some work has yet to be completed on the organ by the installers, but it was clearly evident at the recital that it is an instrument of unusual tonal beauty and variety, responsive in remarkable degree to the organist’s wishes and admirably suited to the size of the auditorium and its acoustical properties,” wrote the Grand Rapids Press in a 1967 review.

In addition to the auditorium itself, of course, the music, art and speech departments had a home, complete with classrooms, offices, rehearsal rooms and practice facilities.

A necessary face-lift
Because of its many fine characteristics, the Fine Arts Center has always been met with heavy demand. Since its opening in 1966, an estimated 18,000–20,000 events have occurred there, with many of those events open to the public. During the last school year alone, the center hosted 451 events; 102 were considered community-wide events.

While major interior renovation decisions have not been made, upgrading the infrastructure will begin this summer.

“We haven’t had much time to focus on plans for this building because we have two other big projects we’re working on [the athletic complex and the commons], but we know that we need to get the building up to speed aesthetically; we also need to work on the ability to serve people in terms of handicapped access and possibly a hearing loop,” DeVries said.

Beyond the auditorium itself though, there are space issues regarding the rest of the building. While art moved out in 1973, the English department moved in that same year. Speech—now communication arts and sciences—moved to the DeVos Communication Center in 2002. The music department remains in the building.

“For the growth patterns we’ve seen in the department, the building doesn’t comply any more,” said Bert Polman, chairman of the music department. “Every year about 500 Calvin students come through our department in one way or another. We have between 60 and 70 majors, but many of our talented musicians are not music majors. We give 100 concerts a year, and the great majority of people you see performing are not music majors. My point is there are lots of students that come through this department.”

The number of ensemble groups as well as the number of students involved in each one has grown, Polman said.

“The band and orchestra room was made for 75 people, and we have over 100 in that room at times,” he said. “The Swets Choral Room is a nice rehearsal room, but it only seats 75 and our Gospel Choir is over 100 students now.”

Practice rooms are also a problem, with more students wanting private lessons, he said. “My office also functions as a flute studio, and trombone lessons are given in offices when faculty members are at lunch. The bottom line is we need more space.”

Whatever happens in the future, DeVries wants to be careful to honor the hard work done by the building’s original designers.

“This is one of the premier facilities that people identify with Calvin,” he said. “We are cognizant of the hard work put into all of the buildings in the past, and for the FAC, we are going to be particularly careful to honor the acoustical integrity of the auditorium.”