The Alexander Lodge and the “Crisis at Calvin”

The Alexander Lodge and the “Crisis at Calvin”

The 1946-1947 school year saw the opening of the “Alexander Lodge” as a dorm for Calvin College men. It was located at 1010 Alexander Street SE. Ninety men started out the year in the dorm. “Army cots, cold showers, bleak rooms, and workmen still on the job frightened the weak of heart to private homes,” as the Prism yearbook for 1947 put it. “Firty-six stout hearts, with the aid of Professor and Mrs. A.E. Broene, met the challenge.” When the students went home for the summer, “Alexander Lodge had survived the first year of its existence.”

The cost for rooming was $40-$50 a semester—a plus meals at $110-$145 a semester, depending on the plan. “Men living in Alexander Lodge must furnish their own towels, sheets, and pillow cases,” the Calvin College yearbook explained (the college course catalog, not Prism).

“Lodge” suggested “a retreat for millionaires,” English professor John Timmerman later wrote, then observing: it was actually “a bland euphemism for disaster.” The building was an old elementary school converted into a temporary dorm. It had been condemned as unsafe for children. It was a barracks more than a dorm.

The context was the number of students at Calvin shooting up from less than 500 in 1944 to almost 1500 by 1947. With World War II over, and the G.I. Bill paying their way, veterans were going to college in unprecedented numbers.

More generally, in the late 1940s and the decades that followed, federal and state funding transformed higher education by making it available to the masses. College was no longer only for the economic elite and a portion of the middle class. Calvin’s experience was not unusual. Universities and colleges were growing frantically across North America. And dozens of new ones were being founded every year.

The Alexander Lodge’s college-age denizens, many of them army veterans, had “double-decked bunks (war surplus),” allowing 12 men to be crowded into an old classroom, Timmerman reported in Promises to Keep, a history of Calvin College. No “closets, bureaus, drawers,” only two footlockers per person. Nails on the wall for coats. Showers in the dormitory gym a half mile away at the college campus. Not nearly enough toilets. Limited study space. A pool table and piano in a hallway for entertainment. The Broenes served as mentors, but the men mostly disciplined themselves.

Army veterans might find the primitive, crowded conditions familiar. The question was, having lived through the war, would they put up with it? Would any student?

The short answer is no. Those who could, because they were old enough and had enough money, left as soon as possible. A year later, in 1948, the college reported to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church that “use of the Alexander school was discontinued for lack of interest.”

Housing remained “a major problem” at Calvin in the late 1940s and early 1950s, however. Many students lived as boarders, some with “our people,” others having to go “outside our circles,” Calvin’s report to Synod noted. The college tried to inspect boarding places but could not “exercise control.”

Of 485 women in 1947-1948, for example, 80 lived in the college dormitory (it had been built for men) and 53 more in “college halls.” That left 43 in boarding in private homes, 90 working and boarding in private homes, 25 more in private homes but taking meals elsewhere, 43 in “secured apartments,” and 156 at home with their families.

Living space for students was not the only problem. Every aspect of life and learning at Calvin was crowded to a breaking point.

In November 1947, The Banner published a story entitled “Crisis at Calvin.” In a series of photos, the story portrayed crowding in dorms, classrooms, and labs. It concluded with a message from the president of the college and seminary’s board of trustees. He called on CRC church members to contribute to a million-dollar campaign to build facilities to serve the flood of new students, more than 90 percent of them Christian Reformed.

The college would spend the next 30 years raising money to put up new buildings or renovate existing ones, first on the existing Franklin campus, then on the new Knollcrest campus, and at some points on both.

The longer arc of this post-war expansion story overlaps with the story of the Baby Boom generation. It went to college from the early-1960s to the early-1980s and was even larger in number than the postwar generation. Subsequent generations—Generation X, Millennials (AKA Generation Y), Generation Z (AKA Zoomers), were smaller, leading to the opposite problem by the 2010s and 2020s. Too many schools and schools with too much capacity for the number of 18-year-olds starting college each year.

Perhaps tellingly, retirement communities have in recent decades been a new economic growth area, and a current challenge for many Boomers is inadequate savings to support their retirements.


William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.

The cover image is the school converted to “Alexander Lodge.” It and the other images in this blogpost are courtesy of Heritage Hall. This story draws on material from John J. Timmerman, Promises to Keep: A Centennial History of Calvin College (1975).

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