Calvin to list Ladies Literary Club venue for sale

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At their October session, the Board of Trustees approved a recommendation by the college to put the Ladies Literary Club building up for sale.

The historic downtown building, which frequently hosts SAO concerts, has not made a profit in the seven years Calvin has owned it.

“We took in about $7,000 in revenue last year and the cost to keep it open was about $75,000,” said president Michael Le Roy. “The difference between $7,000 in revenue and $75,000 in expense is underwritten by student tuition. We take that seriously.”

The approval was made following a thorough examination by multiple parties at Calvin.

“Cabinet processed it and recommended to [the] Planning and Priorities [Committee] that it be sold,” said Le Roy. “Planning and Priorities did a similar review of everything and also recommended the sale. It then went to the Board of Trustees who reviewed everything and recommended it be sold.”

The listing of the property follows previous decisions to sell the Glen Oaks East apartments, the Weyhill building and the Lake Drive building.

“We’ve been looking at which properties we might sell and which we should keep,” said Phil Beezhold, director of the Physical Plant. “There has been quite a bit of discussion about the financial viability of each property, and there was quite a bit of talk about how these properties fit in the core mission of the college.”

Constructed in 1887, the property on 61 Sheldon was originally home to the Ladies Literary Club, one of the oldest all-women’s clubs in the United States. Over its lifetime, the property has hosted talks by numerous U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

In February 2007, the club, which disbanded in 2005, voted to donate the historic property to Calvin College. Since then, the college has invested in improving the historic building.

“When they gave it to us, it had some work that had to be done on it,” said Beezhold. “For instance, it wasn’t handicap accessible … We remodeled the basement, the green rooms, the stage; we added a new heating ventilation and we put new doors and windows in. Most of it was paid for by grants that we got.”

Beezhold explained that the building’s age has required constant maintenance.

“We have to go there often to make sure it’s in good shape, to make sure the sidewalks are plowed and that the grass is cut. It’s also not in the best neighborhood in Grand Rapids so there is some vandalism.”

Beezhold also cited the lengthy approval process that came with making improvements to the property.

“It is both a national historic site and a state historic site but that brings with it lots of problems,” explained Beezhold. “Because it’s a historic site, you can’t make any changes without a lot of approvals from preservation groups, from the state and from the city. Everything we have done to the place other than ongoing maintenance requires approval.”

Calvin has used the building to host intimate concerts with artists like Kishi Bashi and Grizzly Bear, but various issues associated with the property have prevented a strong revenue source.

“It’s not air-conditioned so it’s pretty hot in there,” said Beezhold. “There’s no parking, so it’s difficult to attend, and it’s also not in the best neighborhood so people don’t like to walk there. For those reasons, we don’t have a lot of interest in it.”

“One of the things we needed was about a quarter of a million dollars more to get air conditioning,” added Le Roy.

Ultimately, the lack of revenue and emerging new issues led the college to recommend the listing of the property.

“After analyzing the financials, it doesn’t make sense to continue to keep the building,” said Beezhold. “That’s why we recommended to cabinet and planning and priorities that it be sold.”

However, a sale of the property would also limit Calvin’s presence in downtown Grand Rapids.

“We don’t want to completely get out of downtown Grand Rapids,” said Beezhold. We’re thinking maybe we ought to sell this and then investigate something different that would make more sense for Calvin College and its presence downtown.”

“I think it’s a great historic place,” said Beezhold. “It’s just too expensive for the college to own.”

Some students feel the sale of the building will be a loss for the Calvin community.

“It has this history but it’s also off-campus, so it’s engaging with the exterior community,” said fifth-year John Muyskens. “It doesn’t feel like it’s just for Calvin students; it feels like it’s also a part of the greater community.”

Update: The Chimes editor in chief addresses the objections to the sale in her latest editorial which can be found here