GVSU History

The Physical Grand Valley: Environment & Architecture

In 1836, John Ball, one of the most influential figures in the settlement of the Grand River Valley by people of European descent, made his first visit to the area. After an arduous journey from his home in Troy, New York, he began exploring the western reaches of the Grand River, looking for likely land and lumber resources. One night, he and a fellow traveler arrived after dark near what would become Blendon Landing, the contemporary site of Grand Valley State University, then a wilderness.

Ball described the night in a memoir he wrote for the "Old Settlers Association," published in 1878 in "Memorials of the Grand River Valley" by Franklin Everett. "During the night, we heard the deer tramping about us in the leaves, attracted, probably, by the fire," he wrote, "and the wolves, as usual, howling in the distance ... on waking in the morning, we found our blankets covered with snow."


The Arts At Grand Valley

The Physical Grand Valley: Environment & Architecture

The Sporty Side of Grand Valley

Student Life at Grand Valley

Anyone who has spent time on Grand Valley's Allendale campus in winter may recognize the sensation, trekking from the parking lots in a raging snowstorm, of expecting to hear wolves howling in the distance. The zoo and park that are the legacy of John Ball are prominent landmarks when traveling between the Allendale and Grand Rapids campuses.

John Ball appreciated, as many would in subsequent years, the incredible beauty and riches of the original Grand Valley site. In "Autobiography of John Ball," published in 1925, years after his death, he described a particular tree he spotted on that journey: "One oak tree was seven feet in diameter with a clear body say of seventy feet high and fine spreading top, the largest tree I ever saw in Michigan."

The physical environment of Grand Valley has shaped its character from its earliest days, and continues to influence the most basic principles that underlie the institution.

Grand Valley's Allendale campus is built around a system of ravines cut into moraines left by glaciers as they advanced and retreated 10,000-15,000 years ago. The shores of what would become Lake Michigan are thought to have reached Allendale at one time, and the main channel of the much larger Grand River spilled into the lake there, creating the delta on which Grand Valley is located. During other periods, as the waters receded, short tributaries of the Grand River cut into the glacial drift, leaving the pattern of plateaus dissected by deep ravines that defines the campus.

Student, staff and faculty interest in the physical and cultural history of the dramatic Allendale campus has been strong since Grand Valley's beginnings. In a 1972 Grand Rapids Press article, anthropology professor Dr. Richard Flanders explained the value of using the nearby river as a site for scientific investigation into the early history of the region. He had been exploring early Native American cultural sites in the area since the inception of the college, and in his current project he and 25 students were excavating a field across the river from the campus that was proving rich in artifacts. He estimated the area had been inhabited around 500 A.D., and found pottery closely related to that uncovered in the Norton Mounds site near Grand Rapids. He and his students determined that a village covered four acres, and probably housed 50-200 people. The dig was one of many educational projects Dr. Flanders and future Grand Valley faculty would initiate to take advantage of the rich physical resources of the campus, accomplishing work valuable both academically and scientifically. "My group is nearly unique in the country," noted Dr. Flanders in the Press article. "Most universities with archeology programs use graduate students. I have only undergraduates but I'm extremely pleased with the way they have worked."

The influence and history of Native Americans in the Grand Valley area is important to many on the Grand Valley campus. Amy Vega Boyd, teacher/advisor in the GVSU TRiO Educational Talent Search Program and Staff Advisor for the GVSU Native American Student Association, wrote in a 2009 communication with the author that, "This area was inhabited by Odawa and Potawatomi Indians, among them the White Pigeon and Midewis families, who still live in this area. Mrs. White Pigeon was a very talented maker of black ash baskets and the Pigeon/White Pigeon families are still some of the best known black ash basket making families of this area today." In a 1958 book published by Mayhew Press in Grand Rapids, Carl L. Adams quotes from an interview with an aging Allendale resident who still remembered those families living at Blendon Landing, and recounts a wonderful tale of the heroic efforts of Chief White Pigeon, who gave his life to save the residents of a small settlement in southwestern Michigan which bears his name. "River Landings and the People Who Made Them" is available in the Grand Valley library.

Many in the Grand Valley community may have read the story of Blendon Landing on the historical marker erected just west of Lake Michigan Hall in 1990, commemorating its listing in the State Register of Historic Sites. Grand Valley Professors Carl J. Bajema and Janet G. Brashler wrote extensively about it in the June-September 1997 issue of  The Michigan Archaeologist. "Blendon Landing: A Middle Nineteenth Century Logging Railroad, Sawmill and Shipyard Village in West Michigan" traces the history from the John Ball incident cited above, through its heyday as one of the largest sawmills on the Grand River, the first in the U.S. to employ a steam locomotive to haul logs. Interestingly, they note that this technological innovation had dire environmental consequences for the region. "Logging railroads accelerated the rate at which forests were destroyed," they explained, which "played a major role in the shift from selective cutting of just the larger pine trees to clear cutting." Later they concluded, "Blendon Landing is a very early (if not the earliest) example of extensive clear cutting." The march of progress with unintended environmental consequences continues to this day, as discussed later in this section.

A shipyard and repair yard were also constructed at Blendon Landing adjacent to the sawmill, providing transport that moved logs from the remote riverside settlement all over the world. A fire in 1864 destroyed the sawmill and by 1912, commercial activities at the site were completely abandoned.

Dr. Flanders began excavating the site with his archaeology students in 1965, at the very inception of Grand Valley State College. Just before that, excavation of a very different type had completely changed the bucolic landscape forever.

The events leading to the choice of Allendale for Grand Valley's first campus are recounted in Section One, Part IV, "A Place for Us" of the narrative history on this web site. When the site was selected, the land was mostly in agricultural use, and several memoirs exist in the Grand Valley archives recounting life in rural Allendale before the college was founded. A Press clip that is a glimpse of that life on the occasion of the first land purchase for the new college can be seen in Section One, Part VIII, "Breaking Ground."

In 1961, the Board of Trustees for the nascent college hired the site planning firm of Johnson, Johnson & Roy of Ann Arbor. The firm's principals included a landscape architecture professor at the University of Michigan, William Johnson; his brother Carl, and Clarence Roy, both practicing landscape architects. In a 2003 monograph about the firm, which became JJR, author Fiona Gruber quoted William Johnson in a statement of the firm's philosophy that still resonates on the Grand Valley campus today. "In most cases, the leading element shaping community is thought to be architecture, while open space is relegated to a secondary role. Properly understood and crafted, open space can often assume a primary position, well before building programs are defined. Open space can form the basis for a development strategy."

The firm proposed a site plan that emphasized the deep wooded ravines and narrow plateaus of the campus overlooking the Grand River. James Zumberge, Grand Valley's first president, wrote in a 1964 report on the formation of Grand Valley that the firm had just one directive: that the planned academic program would be best served by groups of small general purpose buildings. "The site planners used a distinctive feature of the campus terrain to achieve the ... objective," he explained. "Each plateau is ideally suited for the building of two clusters of general purpose academic structures constituting one of the collegiate units of the master plan." (More about the earliest academic programs at Grand Valley can be found in the main narrative, Sections One and Two, on this site.)

Other environmental considerations in the early planning included keeping wires and other utility infrastructure underground in concrete tunnels. One of the ravine heads was dammed to capture runoff and slow the rate of water flowing into the ravine. How many people walking between Zumberge Library and Cook-DeWitt Center realize that the pond is part of a ravine, and that the path is an earthen dam?

James Zumberge, Grand Valley's first president, came to West Michigan from the University of Michigan, where he was a professor of geology. More about him, and a link to his writings available on-line in the GV Archives, can be found in Section One of the narrative on this site, Part VII. "The Right People; The Right Program."

In November 1961, the Board selected architects Meathe, Kessler & Associates of Grosse Pointe to design the college's first buildings. William Kessler and Carl Johnson set up a design shop in one of the old farmhouses on the Allendale site, spending hours walking the land and staying in a nearby motel. (A photo of Kessler & Johnson at work can be seen in Section One, Part VIII. "Breaking Ground.")

It was an exciting time for architecture, mirroring the enthusiasm and drive of the era of President John F. Kennedy and the post-war confidence of America. William Kessler had been a student of Bauhaus icon Walter Gropius at Harvard, and had been attracted to Michigan, along with Philip Meathe, to join the firm of noted Detroit iconoclast Minoru Yamasaki (architect for the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, built in 1972 and destroyed in 2001). They were a part of a movement to transcend the international modernist style that had produced a popular backlash against mathematical, sterile exercises in concrete and glass. Their designs for Grand Valley's first buildings reflected new concepts about flexible space, interaction with the environment, and innovative use of materials and technology.

Grand Valley's first buildings earned national attention with a November 1964 Fortune Magazine article featuring Grand Valley as one of five new campuses in the U.S. with superior architecture and design. In January 1965 an article in Architectural Record praised the cluster concept, and in November 1966 it featured the innovative oxidized metal and glass construction of Loutit Hall. In August 1968, another major article highlighted the Great Lakes Group (Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron Halls), as well as the "collegiate commons" (Seidman House), as "shaped by site and function, reinforcing the master plan." The unusual dormitories curving along the ravines also were noted.

Grand Valley is fortunate to possess a portfolio of work by internationally renowned architectural photographer Balthazar Korab, documenting the design of its first academic buildings.

Seidman House watercolor

Seidman House, as illustrated in a watercolor by the architectural firm of Meathe Kessler, ca. 1962.

The Great Lakes Group incorporated upright arched supporting columns made of cast concrete that came to be known as "concrete trees." Masonry walls between the columns were faced with split fieldstone, adding to the impression of living structures growing from the ravine-edge landscape. Many who walk by those buildings every day may not realize that this stone is the real thing, hand-split from Michigan fieldstones and individually hand-set by Chet Thiessen of Battle Creek, a third generation stonemason, aided by his cousin and another helper who lived on-site in a trailer. They cruised the roads between Sparta and Newaygo, the "stone belt" of Michigan, to locate and gather large rocks for the project. In a Grand Rapids Press story about the project in June 1963, split-stone facing is called "a dying art," a prediction confirmed by a look at any stone facing project undertaken today. Most use cultured or manufactured stone, the cost of labor and materials precluding the artistry of the 1960s.

Labor and material costs would play an important part in Grand Valley's architectural development after 1970. The second group of buildings constructed on the Allendale campus, the Islands Complex (Mackinac 1967 and Manitou 1968) also won awards for its architects, Trapata, MacMahon, Paulsen Associates of Bloomfield Hills, and Zumberge Library was selected as a model college structure by College and University Business magazine. The Library also won a Detroit AIA Award of Honor. An innovative dome design for the Grand Valley Fieldhouse was less successful, plagued by problems until its demolition in 1980. But as the 1970s progressed, finances were as tight as space to accommodate the burgeoning student body.

The predicament is stated bluntly in a report for the NCA accreditation process in 1979. "Since 1974, Grand Valley's growth has exceeded construction ... the state's economic recession significantly reduced capital outlay spending during a period in which our enrollment and academic programs continued to grow." Grand Valley's second president, Arend D. Lubbers, explained the changes of the era in a 2009 interview. "Early GV architecture represents a period," he said. "The original style was very expensive, so cost figured into not continuing with it."

The financial struggles of the college through the 1980s are detailed in Section Three, Part VII. "Doom and Gloom," of the narrative history on this site. But, while buildings and other construction development lagged, the academic community was making the best of assets offered by Grand Valley's physical resources.

In 1970, new degree programs in earth science and environmental science were approved. A new Environmental Studies Institute was launched, and was quickly at work on a study of the Grand River Basin. In June 1970, former president James Zumberge, then director of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Arizona, returned to Grand Valley to give the commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate. He called for revamping programs to produce "a new breed of environmental scientists." He told the audience that traditional boundaries separating academic subject matter would have to "undergo radical change" to do that. "The environment is so exceedingly complex that no single individual can hope to become an expert in all aspects of it," he concluded.

Students in Grand Valley's radical cluster college experiment were putting his thoughts into action throughout the 1970s, with varied success and sometimes skeptical attention from the surrounding community. (More about the Cluster College era in the main narrative, Section III, Part I. "The Cluster Concept.") As this history is being written in 2009, however, some of their efforts seem wonderfully prescient.

One of the best known examples of the forward-thinking curriculum was the William James College "Omnistructure," designed by a class in 1974 taught by Professor Rodney Bailey and constructed in 1975 by a class taught by architect Robert Van Dyke. The 500 s.f., three-sided building was funded by the Ford Foundation as a test site for solar heating and cooling.

Thomas Jefferson College students were engaged in 1975 with the Pear Orchard Project, an interdisciplinary program focusing on homesteading, gardening and construction skills. A 26-ft. windmill was constructed in the orchard by TJC students and Professor Jere VanSyoc. An organic gardening project led by Professors Dan Andersen and Bill Bobier featured small gardens ringing the campus, each with its own compost pile.

In 1979, when Thomas Jefferson College was attracting sharp criticism from media and legislature for its experimental curriculum, Grand Rapids Press writer Gerald Elliott wrote a story titled "TJC Victim of Bad Press." He refuted some of the wilder anecdotes currently in circulation, including one story questioning a class "frittering away time studying grasses." The students found around 70 different grasses on the Grand Valley campus, wrote Elliott. "In time, I suspect we shall be looking to some of the heavier, sturdier grasses as a source of alcohol to take the place of dwindling gasoline supplies," he concluded, as nearly always, astutely correct.


Pear Orchard

Innovative projects by Thomas Jefferson College, above, and William James College, top, inspired early environmental awareness at Grand Valley.

The college constructed its first Nature Trail in 1973 on the north side of the campus, organized by Professor Ken Thomasma of the Educational Studies Institute as a resource for students going into K-12 teaching (a Fitness Trail was created a few years later on the south side of campus, including 20 stops for exercise). In 1975 a recycling program, Waste Not, was launched, a first on area campuses. Developed by the Urban and Environmental Studies Institute, it was coordinated by a student majoring in Business Administration.

By 1976, Grand Valley's leadership in environmental activity was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which invited the college to become part of the United Nations Environmental Programs International Referral System.

The state of Michigan began to come out of its economic doldrums by the end of the 1980s, and in 1988 Grand Valley opened its first building in downtown Grand Rapids, the L.V. Eberhard Center and adjacent Meijer Public Broadcast Center. (See narrative history Section Four, Part IV. "Building a Presence".) Also located on the banks of the Grand River, as it flowed through the center of the city, the new site shared some of Allendale's rich cultural and natural resources.

Much of this heritage would be uncovered some ten years later when a major highway project to replace the U.S. 131 bridge over the river revealed a cache of ancient artifacts. GVSU anthropology professor Janet Brashler was part of a team put together to excavate the site, centered on what became a Grand Valley parking lot across Fulton Street from the Eberhard Center. The artifacts were determined to indicate occupation by humans dating back 3000 years, as well as an 18th and 19th century Native American presence. Read more about the project, and other historical aspects of the downtown site, in an article by Nancy Willey in Grand Valley Magazine, Winter 2003, available in the GV Archives. An area was designated Baw-wa-ting Park, dedicated to the Ottawa Indian village that once existed there, whose natives called the rapids by that name. In 2004, it was registered as a Michigan Historic Site and a marker erected, visible today from Fulton Street. The marker explains the story in English and in the Ottawa language.

In 1995, a new complex housing the Padnos Hall of Science, Henry Hall and Student Services was constructed in the middle of the Allendale campus, signaling a new look in Grand Valley architecture and a new attitude toward the function of academic buildings. James R. Moyer, Assistant Vice President, Facilities Planning, came to Grand Valley in 1996, after the project was completed. But he credits that project for defining architectural goals that still drive the University's facilities planning. "The University had become something else," he explained in a 2010 interview. "Students who stayed on campus seven days a week were increasing in number, they weren't getting in their cars and leaving at 2:00." Comparing the new building to the Lakes Group, he points out that those buildings have "very little space for students to gather in groups, to study in the building. We had changed from a commuter campus to a residential campus."

That became clear during the next ten years, when there was an explosion of residential building on campus that has continued well into the 21st century. But it wasn't just residential needs that drove the change in perspective. In 1997, when the new DeVos Center in downtown Grand Rapids was built on what became the Pew Campus, the style of buildings followed the concepts developed in the Padnos/Henry Hall complex. Vern Ohlman of the Grand Rapids firm Design Plus, architects for both projects, explained in a 2001 lecture that the design was focused on "key physical factors that enhance campus as community: context, scale, neighborhoods, connections, definition of place." The buildings on both campuses are designed to support a community, whether students live there or not. (More about DeVos Center and the Pew Campus in the narrative history, Section Four, Part VII. "Good News, Bad News.")

Grand Valley's decision to build on the west side also helped to revitalize an area filled with crumbling, boarded-up industrial facilities. Shaped by the urban environment and bounded by expressways, railroads, and the city's grid of streets, the downtown campus also echoes the eclectic architectural mix of Grand Rapids. Ohlman recalled the inspiration of the little Richardsonian railroad station just off Fulton Street, "the church towers on the west side, the scale and masonry of the old furniture factories."

While the environmental impact of architecture was taking center stage at Grand Valley, another academic department at the college had been making its own impact on the environmental well-being of the entire West Michigan area. The Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute was founded in 1985 as part of the biology department, and focused much of its off-campus activities on the D.J. Angus, a Lake Michigan vessel donated to the college in the 1960s. Integrating research, education and outreach to enhance and preserve freshwater resources, the WRI got a boost in 1996 with a major gift from Dr. William Jackson, a long-time advocate for water quality issues in Muskegon. A second vessel was purchased and named in his honor and the stage was set for a permanent home for the new vessel and the Institute, which had experienced rapid growth in the 1990s and outgrown several homes on the Allendale campus. The Lake Michigan Center opened in June 2001, housing education, research, conferencing, docking and vessel support operations in Muskegon. More about Annis Water Resources Institute can be found at www.gvsu.edu/wri, and in the main narrative, Section Four, Part VI. "25 Years and Still Growing."

Just a few years later, Muskegon and the Great Lakes were again the focus for another dramatic progression in the evolution of architecture and environment at Grand Valley. The Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center was dedicated in April 2004, becoming Grand Valley's first building certified in the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The Center has become a leader in promoting economic development opportunities through advancement and commercialization of alternative and renewable energy technologies. (For more about MAREC, see the main narrative, Section Five, Part IV. "Among the Best" or www.gvsu.edu/marec.)

By the summer of 2004, it was clear that activities that were beginning to be defined under the broad term "sustainability" were becoming an important part of the Grand Valley mission. A committee was formed to examine the University in terms of the "triple bottom line," which takes into account perspectives of environmental impact, social issues and economic performance. That fall, the first Sustainability Initiative was introduced through the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, and in the winter semester, a director was hired. In April 2005 the Sustainability Council, with representatives from each academic college, Facilities and Planning, Student Services, and Finance, met for the first time. "This project had a lot of roots," said Norman Christopher, Executive Director of Grand Valley's Sustainable Community Development Initiative, in a 2010 interview. "I found that when I first came in 2004."

Since then Grand Valley has been nationally recognized as among the most "cutting-edge green" colleges in the country, cited in 2009 as exactly that by Kaplan College Guide. The U.S. Green Building Council gave the University a Recognition Award in 2008, and in 2009, the "Green House on Watson," a pilot project in the USGBC's LEED for Homes rating system, won the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award for Campus-Community Collaboration for Grand Valley's School of Engineering, Westown Jubilee Housing, and Heartland Builders.

"Sustainability has been a journey," mused Christopher. "The roots were there before our time - financial, environmental roots. You don't make national prominence in five years without roots." More about the University's ongoing projects and recognition can be found at www.gvsu.edu/sustainability.


Photography by Grand Valley Professor Dellas Henke, Department of Art and Design.

Geology and biology students continue to tromp Grand Valley's ravines, measuring, observing, monitoring and reporting on the progress of the University's efforts to protect the fragile ecosystem. In 2005, Professor Dellas Henke of the School of Art & Design organized the Ravines Archives Project "to spark discussion and to gather the wisdom of many I know who work in and love this place." In a statement accompanying an exhibition of his ravine photographs, he wrote, "I would like to see meaningful awards given ... for teaching progressive thinking, for a deeper blending of our ecosystem with our living and working, teaching-learning, thinking and meditating spaces." Art work, collected data, research papers, writing, memoirs and other materials gathered are available in the Library's Special Collections and Archives in Seidman House.

"More and more students are realizing what we realized in the 1960s and '70s," said James Moyer. "Things aren't free." A plan to address one of the Allendale campus's biggest environmental problems has been developed with the assistance of student groups including the Grand Valley Summer Scholars program. After years of damaging the ravines with stormwater runoff, the University is working to change the drainage of the entire Allendale campus. Each new construction project must contribute toward an almost unimaginable goal: return runoff to 1960 levels. "It's going to take a lot of time," said Moyer, but with the help of rain gardens, green roofs, underground collection systems, porous parking pavement, and other steps, progress is being made.

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us," Winston Churchill famously said. Architecture and the environment have entwined for 50 years at GVSU, each shaping the other to become a crucial factor in shaping the lives of students, as well as deeply touching those of faculty, staff, board members and donors, and millions of people throughout the surrounding communities.

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50th Anniversary Banners

Banners for Grand Valley's 50th anniversary celebration are both recycled and recyclable, creating an endless cycle that keeps materials out of landfills. Banners are manufactured from 100% post-consumer recycled soda pop bottles and printed with water-based inks. After the celebration, retired banners are recycled and again manufactured into fabric that will be printed and later recycled.