The Changing Commons
Plans for new gathering space recognize shift in student expectations
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

The Commons

To provide a communal gathering spot has always been the purpose of the Calvin College Commons, a building that was completed on the Knollcrest campus in 1967.

The "Commons" name was retained from the Franklin campus very intentionally, according to Phil Lucasse, dean of students at Calvin from 1956-1969.

"A more common name for buildings like this one was 'student union,'" he said, "but we wanted this to be thought of as a common space where people-students, but also professors and administrators-would come to meet."

In fact, in one of the first meetings of the student union committee, which was appointed to "mold the functions of the student union building constructed on the Knollcrest campus according to the purpose of the college," it was decided that the building would keep the name "Commons" to emphasize the community aspect of the college.

Forty years ago the building housed a large dining hall, the bookstore (now the Campus Store), the snack shop (now Johnny's), as well as some additional meeting space, just as it does today.

Forty Years Ago

The cafeteria line at the Commons, 1969

Commons Cafeteria, 1969

Trivia Fact: From 1967 through the early 1970s, evening meals were served at the same time, family style to the entire student body, complete with tablecloths. Each Monday, the women were assigned a seat for the week, four to a table. After the women were seated, the men were allowed in to find a seat among the women.

Four decades ago though, student interests, student tastes and student experiences were very different, said Henry DeVries, Calvin vice president for administration and finance. "The Commons was built for its time," he said. "Food was served family style around six-foot-round tables. When I was a student, we compared the dining experience to home; students now compare it to a restaurant. Their expectations are completely different."

With changing expectations, options and facilities have to change. "Our students come to us with a wide range of culinary experiences," he said. "That's why our offerings-things like sushi night, Indian food, vegan chocolate cake-have expanded. We're serving very sophisticated consumers, and we need to be able to meet the needs of contemporary students."

Commons: A tract of land belonging to or used by a community as a whole.

In researching other institutions, Calvin administrators discovered that the dining experience is third on students' lists of college comparisons. Only their academic department and the residence halls outrank dining in terms of what prospective students consider important on a college campus.

With that in mind, an extensive remodeling and expansion of the Commons are in the planning stages.

A New Living Place

In addition to expanded dining options, the new Commons would provide space for student organizations, group study and commuter students.

Johnny's

Johnny's Café

"One of the things we have really come to understand is how much place matters," said Shirley Hoogstra, Calvin vice president for student life. "That was demonstrated so clearly in the renovation of Johnny's. Previously, it wasn't a very inviting place. Now it's intimate, warm, friendly and wireless, and it's busy. It gets used for meals and as a conversation and study place. The problem is there are very few places like that on campus."

An expanded Commons would incorporate a lot of "sticky spaces," Hoogstra said. Conversation, meeting and resting alcoves along the "main street" of campus, where students and visitors would feel comfortable, is one of the key components of the new space.

"We would like to provide places for continued conversation about concepts from the classroom," Hoogstra said. "By providing space, we extend the life of that conversation."

Another key element is space for student organizations. In the 1960s, there were seven student organizations. Today, there are 61 student groups, among them the Environmental Stewardship Coalition, Students for Compassionate Living, the American Institute of Architecture Students, the Calvin Climbing Club, the Rowing Club and, of course, media organizations such as Chimes, Prism and Calvin Video Network (CVN).

"Students like to affiliate around common goals and projects, and we encourage students to do that," Hoogstra said. "It's like a laboratory for the ideas and concepts they're learning in the classroom. But our space is outdated to accommodate these groups."

The new Commons would include flexible space that the various student organizations could share.

Senior Brunch

Seniors fill the Commons for Senior Brunch 2007

The Plans

Going from the current 91,000 square feet (58,000 in the Commons and 23,000 in the Commons Annex), to the planned 134,000 square feet should provide plenty of options, according to architect Larry Payne of WTW Architects, the Pittsburgh, Pa., firm contracted to design the new structure.

"We are planning for many lounges and other spaces that are conducive to interaction between students, faculty and the administration," he said. "One of the new 'social anchors' of the proposed Commons will be a large, multistory fireplace that we foresee becoming very popular as a gathering spot for many activities, including acoustic performances and listening to spoken word."

The building's design will strive to enhance the existing Prairie-style architecture.

More Online

Browse a list of student organizations

Creative Dining Services posts menus, dining hall hours, and other info on their web site

The recently-remodeled Campus Store will keep its space in the Commons, while Campus Safety has moved to a new location

"Student unions built during the '60s and '70s have generally been considered to be 'inflexible' and 'dark' by the individuals who now use them," Payne said. "Today's structures not only need to align with the culture of the institution, but also the values of the current and future generations of students who will be attending higher-education institutions."

"I think it's important that the building reflect Calvin values," Hoogstra added. "Creation, friendships, integration of student life and the academic division-these are all values that should have a place in this building."

Construction for the new facility is expected to begin in 2009.

"What I hope for this space," said Hoogstra, "is that students can find it to be a place where they can attach, where they find friends, where they feel like they belong."

— Lynn Rosendale is the managing editor of Spark .

*   *   *   *   *

The Commons Annex

The preservation of green space has become an important element in urban design, particularly in the last decade or so. But some Calvin students in the late 1970s were ahead of their time in considering this very issue during the development of Calvin's campus.

A group of students, many of them affiliated with the Calvin Ecology Club, spoke out against the proposed addition, now called the Commons Annex. In fact, more than 500 students signed a petition urging the administration to seek an alternative solution.

"We came along at the tail end of students who took a kind of adversarial stance about things," said Steve Timmermans '79. "It was at a time when adopting a protest mentality was more accepted."

The students were opposed to the building plan that was originally supposed to span from the Commons to the Hekman Library. Their opposition drew attention from several media sources.

"I think we thought of it like the Berlin Wall," Timmermans said of the annex. "To have all that building blocking off the middle of campus didn't seem like a great plan."

There was also the space usage issue, which Timmermans studied independently during interim of 1979. He presented his findings in a report: "Is the Proposed 'Commons Expansion' Really Needed?" His conclusion was that "the proposed building would indeed be extravagant and unnecessary, and that present facilities are satisfactory for students and for conferences."

The administration was willing to listen to the opinion of Timmermans and other student protesters. "The administration was very responsive," recalled Timmermans, now president of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights , Ill. "At the time I know that we were impressed with the fact that the administration listened to us as students who had valid opinions and needed to be heard. Our conversations helped recast the building."

In fact, the building was scaled down from its original 30,000 square feet to 22,000 square feet by eliminating the lounge for commuters. This allowed for the open space between the Commons Annex and the Hekman Library, which still exists today and will be maintained in the new plan.