Covenant Fine Arts Center opens its doors

Auditorium renovation, new art gallery, recital hall unveiled


Winter 2010

The pianos have moved in. The art has arrived. Staff members from the office of conferences and campus events are making themselves at home. Folks from music have taken up residence. The Covenant Fine Arts Center (CFAC), under renovation since May 2009, is open.

“We’re pretty excited,” said music department chair Bert Polman. “There’s sort of an adrenaline level.”

The $15 million renovation added 40,000 square feet of space to the original 84,000-square-foot Fine Arts Center. The expanded west lobby, whose long stretch of windows looks out on the Commons, opens in one direction to a new 240-seat recital hall and in the other to the new 3,800-square-foot Center Art Gallery.

The expanded east lobby, a student lounge that fronts the East Beltline, is surrounded by classrooms, practice and teaching suites, instrument storage, a musical library, and the English and music department offices. And the entire facility is anchored by the renovated CFAC auditorium, complete with new HVAC and lighting, fabrics and acoustical panels. 

CFAC

“The pride and joy, I think, is going to be the new recital hall,” said Polman, who praised the beauty and intimacy of the new performance space. Paneled in wide bands of wood (for acoustical purposes), the new hall will welcome chamber ensembles, solo artists, lecturers and other performers. Polman is enthused about the teaching and practice suites, which, he said, will eliminate the “proverbial practicing in stairwells.”

“I think our students will be so excited,” Polman said. “I mean, we do this for them. We don’t just do it to bring the building up-to-date.”

Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart is equally enthusiastic about the new Center Art Gallery. The exhibition space houses two galleries for displaying a rotating selection from Calvin’s 1,500-strong permanent collection as well as a larger gallery for temporary exhibitions. Zwart is pleased that the new location in the CFAC will improve the Center Art Gallery’s visibility: “It’s almost double the size of our former space (in the lower level of the Spoelhof Center), but much more flexible,” he said.

The enhanced west lobby is a much-needed improvement to the building, said Polman: “When you look at the big concert halls in the world … one-third of their space is lobby space. You need that space to be human … . At intermission, you need mingling space, you need gab space, you need reception space.” The lobby was redesigned with a hospitable eye, Polman said, which will encourage guests to visit the gallery, recital hall or auditorium.

“We’re all excited with the collaborations that will come and the synergy that will develop because we’re housed more closely together … ,” agreed English department co-chair Elizabeth Vander Lei, who will be moving with the department to the CFAC in January. “I could see English 101 teachers using pieces in the art gallery as a springboard for writing assignments.”

The building was designed to allow the recital hall, gallery and auditorium to flow together on the first floor, while academic enterprise continues uninterrupted on the second floor. “There are entrances on the upper level on both sides so that faculty and staff can enter without going through the west lobby if there’s a big event going on there,” said Calvin director of physical plant Phil Beezhold.

And the CFAC’s exterior was designed to flow well with Calvin’s original Prairie School look. “One of the things that was really important … was to make the building fit the campus,” said Beezhold of the building’s characteristic arches, brickwork, overhanging eaves, large windows and limestone decoration.

Beezhold also answered the architectural question that will likely be asked many times in the future: “They don’t mean anything. It’s just decoration,” he said of the Arts and Crafts-style limestone reliefs on the CFAC’s north and south façades.

The architect who oversaw the renovation of the CFAC, Rob Den Besten, is a 1996 Calvin grad who works with GMB Architects+Engineers in Holland, Mich. Den Besten, who remembers taking his English classes in the original FAC, was a bit daunted about restoring the building that he—and the committee—regarded as the “front door” of the campus. “We wanted to modernize it but respect its heritage and respect its nostalgic appeal to everybody on campus,” he said.