Olivet College Collegiate Center

People: William Kessler

Date: 1963

City: Olivet

Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, photo by Rob Yallop.

The Olivet College Collegiate Center is located in the center of a city block bounded by Shipherd, Cottage, South Main and College Streets in the town of Olivet. No other buildings occupy the block, which comprises open lawn areas and clusters of mature trees.

A long walkway extends from the sidewalk on South Main Street to the building’s main entrance on the east elevation. A small stair extends from grade to the first floor level, which is elevated approximately eighteen inches above grade. The first floor slab cantilevers beyond the foundation wall giving the impression that the building is floating above the landscape. Secondary entrances are found on the north and south elevations. The building is symmetrical in design with each elevation containing five identical bays containing floor to ceiling glazed curtain walls. The roof slabs of the one-story structure are supported by a grid of thin, equally spaced, cruciform-shaped concrete columns. The top of the columns flare out in each direction to capture the loads. The design of the columns mimic the site’s trees supporting their canopies of foliage. Exterior light fixtures with round globes are mounted to each of the columns. The transparent walls of the structure allow dramatic views from the interior to the surrounding landscape during the day and views of the building’s interior at night.

In 1959, after a fire destroyed Shipherd Hall in the center of Olivet College’s campus, the institution began looking to its future by initiating a master planning effort to expand its facilities. The plan that was developed called for a complex of three new buildings to be constructed in the center of campus that when completed would create a “mall-type” arrangement. The focus of the plan would be a new student center constructed on the site of Shipherd Hall.

A $400,000 gift from the D. M. Ferry Jr. Trustee Corporation in July 1960 provided approximately one-half of the funds necessary for construction of the new building. Additional funding was secured from several other sources (including A. W. Kutsche and Company who would eventually become the general contractors for the project) and ground was broken in November 1961. The college’s president wanted the design of the new structure to not only satisfy the stated functional requirements, but also to provide an inspiring environment for students, faculty and staff to learn, work, and interact. Further, he wanted the new structure to evoke the twenty-first century, despite it being set within a context of existing nineteenth and early-twentieth century buildings. Known for their innovative designs, the architectural firm of Meathe, Kessler & Associates of Grosse Pointe was selected for the commission.

The program for the new student center included dining facilities, a lounge, bowling alley, meeting rooms, a kitchen, and a snack bar. The architects selected a unique building method employing custom fiberglass formwork, developed by a Detroit firm in the automotive industry, to create massive concrete slab roof panels supported by integral flared concrete columns. The Collegiate Center was dedicated on Sunday, September 15, 1963. In 1972 the building was renamed in honor of Lester K. Kirk, chair of the Olivet College Board of Trustees and CEO of Whirlpool. The structural engineers were R. H. McClurg & Associates and the electrical engineers were Hyde & Bobbio, Inc.