Holland history: From Pioneer School to seminary to Hope

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a 10-part series on the history of the Holland area.

Dale Wyngarden
In founding Holland, the community immediately implemented a public education system for kindergarten through grade 12.

The Reformed Church that Albertus van Raalte and his followers were a part of was firmly in support of the nation’s public education system, believing it to be a great unifying force for society.

But the population grew rapidly. About 2,600 Dutch immigrants settled in West Michigan the first year alone. By 1850, three years later, that number had doubled to about 5,000. Van Raalte saw a need for an additional education system with a Christian emphasis, in large part to prepare young men for ministry. In 1851, the Pioneer School was established, changing its name to The Holland Academy four years later. Van Vleck Hall, a stately three-story red brick Italianate structure in the center of the Hope campus was built originally as home for the Academy.

Growth continued, and by 1862 Van Raalte joined in the leadership of Phillip Phelps, Jr., who was then serving as principal of the Academy, in elevating the level of education, enrolling ten men in the first class of Hope College. Most were presumably destined for careers in Christian ministry. Four years later, in 1866, eight of those men graduated. Simultaneously, Hope received its official charter from the state of Michigan, and Phelps continued as the first president of Hope for an additional 12 years.

In 1878, the first women were admitted to Hope.
Hope College faculty, turn of the 20th century.

Western Theological Seminary

Students wishing to continue theological studies with the goal of ordination into ministry successfully petitioned the denomination to continue theological studies at Hope College in 1866. Western Theological Seminary traces its founding to that date.
Hope College’s Department of Theological Instruction was beset early by lower than expected enrollment, the Great Holland Fire of 1871, and a national financial panic in 1873.
Faculty and students of Hope College 1884.
College growth was steady but unspectacular for the first 80 years. Enrollment during World War II was around 550. But the end of the war brought home throngs of young people who had deferred education, and the GI Bill funded education for returning veterans. By 1847, Hope’s enrollment swelled to almost 1,400. Growth since then has been relatively slow and steady, reaching approximately 3,400 students today.

The college’s campus has no unifying architectural theme. The red brick dormitory at the corner of 10th and College was built in the Flemish/Dutch style. Graves Hall to the south is a Richardson Romanesque building made of Waverly sandstone from a now defunct local quarry. Next to that is the great Indiana limestone collegiate gothic Dimnent Memorial Chapel, completed in 1929, just months before the crash of Wall Street and the Great Depression. Built by visionaries, it was designed to seat 1,500 at a time the college enrollment was 434.

War ends

Some of the dormitories built to accommodate the rapid enrollment rise following WWII are pretty basic collegiate shoebox style, but newer buildings grace the community with some top-quality architecture. Several are not specifically imitative of European or Dutch styles, but incorporate design features that are evocative of old world buildings. The one building that defies any sort of categorization is the art department on Columbia Avenue bordering the railroad tracks. It is simply an adaptive reuse of an old furniture factory, the last remnant of several industries that bordered the railroad in past eras.
Birdseye view of Hope College campus undated.
While some colleges sit on campuses with a degree of detachment from the community, Hope has been implanted in the heart of Holland from the very start. The friction over the years has been minimal, but the mutual benefits bountiful. Some of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in Holland are on the Hope campus. More importantly, over the years the college venues have hosted community arts programs such as the Holland Symphony and Holland Chorale.

Mutually benefical

The presence of some 3,000 students a block from downtown, along with several hundred faculty and staff and their families, as well as families of students who visit Holland, has contributed to the renaissance of the downtown.

A healthy, safe, and vibrant downtown contributes to successful marketing of Hope to prospective students. Over the years, Hope, along with its neighboring Western Theological Seminary, have been an aesthetic, cultural and economic boon to the city, and we have been a better city for their presence.

Dale Wyngarden worked for the city of Holland for three decades, much of that time overseeing the Planning and Development Department during the revitalization of the downtown. Now happily retired, he spends his time writing and gardening.
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