Racine College

Also known as: The DeKoven Center, DeKoven Foundation for Church Work
600 21st St., Racine, Wisconsin

Historic Campus, now serving as a community resource


The East Building

This was constructed to connect Park Hall (to the right) to Kemper Hall (to the left.)

Photo taken by J.R. Manning in April 2013



Dr. James DeKoven and the Significance of Racine College 

Written by J.R. Manning

In 1852, a group of Episcopalian clergymen agreed to open a much needed school in Wisconsin.

To determine the location, a competition was proposed to see what community could secure a minimum of six acres for the site, along with at least $6,000 to build such a school. Milwaukee and Racine took up the challenge. Racine won with a subscription of $10,000 and a donation of a ten-acre lakeside site.

Racine College, named after the city, was incorporated in 1852 by a State of Wisconsin charter and was scheduled to open on November 15, 1852.

The first schoolmaster was Rev. Roswell Park. Although a cornerstone was laid in May for a building designed by the Chicago architect, Lucas Bradley, the first classes met in a rented room in Racine. Dr. Park was the president of the college and the sole instructor at first. Staff was added and the student body began to grow.

In 1859, St. John's Hall in Delafield moved to Racine and merged with Racine College. The St. John's headmaster was Rev. James DeKoven, and he became the president of the merged school and expanded the school to both grammar and college curricula. Later, when the Grammar School and College of Saint James in Maryland was forced to close because of the Civil War, several members of the faculty came to Racine College, an important addition.

Dr. DeKoven believed in an educational model that was in use in England, known as a "family" experience. Instructors and students lived and worshipped together, a concept that was very popular at the school. The campus was laid out in a quadrangle, following the English model of a collge campus. Kemper Hall was added to the south end of the campus, using the same plan that had been used to build Park Hall.

In 1864, a fire raged through Park Hall, destroying the library, classroom equipment and a chapel on the third floor. Friends of the school put up the funds to rebuild Park Hall but also built a separate chapel, also designed by Bradley, in the center of the quadrangle.

In 1867, Isaac Taylor bequeathed a large portion of his estate to build Taylor Hall on campus. It added a dormitory, a library and classrooms. There was sufficient funds in the grant to construct a dining hall and recreation hall that connected Kemper Hall to Park Hall. The "East Building" included a tunnel that opened the courtyard to Lake Michigan.

In 1871, fire destroyed Taylor Hall, but once again, friends of the school made up the shortfall for damage above the insurance limit, and Taylor Hall was rebuilt. Donations were above the rebuilding requirements, so a gymnasium was constructed.

Dr. DeKoven died in 1879, and much of the school's energy seems to have perished with him. The school continued for another fifty years, but as enrollments dropped, eventually, the school was forced to close.

The announcement was made in August of 1933 that Racine College would close forever.

The Community of St. Mary, an order of the Episcopal Church in Chicago, operated St. Mary's Home for Children, and the order was invited to bring needy children to the former Racine College campus for a summer retreat. They held summer camps in 1934 and 1935, and saw the enormous potential offered by the established campus.

In 1935, the DeKoven Foundation for Church Work was incorporated and acquired the campus.

Today, the old Racine College operates as The DeKoven Center, available for retreats and conferences, and halls are available for receptions.

Racine College had some distiguishing firsts and significant alumni. Racine College inaugurated college football in the midwest, in a game against the University of Michigan on May 30, 1879. (Michigan won. Michigan would go on to be a founding member of the Big Ten conference in 1896.)

Students of note at Racine College included Tad Lincoln, the son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Also at Racine College was Rev. Sidney T. Smythe who would to on to found St. John's Military Academy at Delafield, Wisconsin. Alfred Lunt graduated from Racine College. His son, Alfred, and his daughter-in-law Lynn Fontanne, would go on to fame as the greatest acting couple that ever lived. Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, the "Father of the Air Force," was a graduate of Racine College.

Both Dr. Park and Dr. DeKoven are entombed next to the chapel, on the campus of the college they both so dearly loved. Dr. DeKoven died in 1879 at the age of 49.

National Register information 

Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on December 12, 1976
Reference number
Architectural style
Victorian: Gothic
Areas of significance
Education; Architecture
Level of significance
Evaluation criteria
A - Event; C - Design/Construction
Property type
Historic function
Current function
Religious structure
Periods of significance
1875-1899; 1850-1874
Significant years
1852; 1876
Number of properties
Contributing buildings: 5


19th Century (37,705)
Brick (42,462)
Built 1852 (290)
Built during 1850s (4,683)
Gothic (1,438)
Jackson Kemper (3)
Lucas Bradley (5)
Private owner (54,398)
Racine County, Wisconsin (61)
Racine, Wisconsin (39)
School (5,054)
Stone (26,160)
Victorian (19,697)
Wisconsin (2,612)

Update Log 

  • April 5, 2014: Updated by J.R. Manning: Updated Status and Added Photos
  • April 5, 2014: Essay added by J.R. Manning
  • June 17, 2013: Updated by J.R. Manning: Updated Status