The idea of a student hostel germinated in 1953. Charles Tudor Leber, General Secretary for the Board of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church USA, felt that there was a need for such a place in Calvin’s city.
A big Swiss-like chalet was acquired in the area of Champel near the World Council of Churches. It had to be remodeled to house the director Rev. Ray Teeuwissen (1954 – 1958) and his family, 11 residents and six beds for visitors.
The official inauguration took place on the 6th and 7th of June 1955.
The hostel rapidly became a privileged place to stay for visitors to “Malagnou”. A little bee-hive buzzing with transient visitors and resident students exchanging their travel experiences, sharing their meals and prayers, studying the Scriptures with professionals from the WCC, confronting their ideologies, discovering new friends.
Under the direction of Paul Frelick (1958 – 1966), the first annual seminars where organized. First for students from Africa and Asia, then for students from Latin America. Slowly but surely, the Center started to be surrounded by buildings and also the demand was increasing. It was then decided to follow the WCC and cross over to Grand-Saconnex in 1962. 13’500 m2 of land where bought and a new building was built. It expressed the vision of the director and its architect Dominique Gampert, in a symbolic manner by having all the corridors lead to the center of the building, the area of community and sharing. The first guests took up residency in April 1963. The majority of them were following courses at the University Institute for Higher International Studies. A large meeting hall was built in 1969 under the direction of Charles Harper (1967 – 1974).
In 1973 the PCUSA had restructured and like a clap of thunder the generosity of COEMAR disappeared as the income declined. Ladies and Gentlemen: its closing time !!! Thanks to the initiative of Rev. Edmond Perret, General Secretary of the WARC, the hostel was placed under its auspices… for one year, possibly renewable, but without responsibility for any debts, salaries or administrative costs. The hostel became a financially independent association, a non profit organization, with the status of NGO under the name of International Reformed Center John Knox. M. Michel Cluzel (1974 – 1981) was appointed director, the personnel and the budget where reduced to a strict minimum.
In order to balance the budget, the Center started accommodating groups for short periods. Office space was rented out to other NGO’s. The income generated by this new policy enabled to continue hosting low revenue people. In order to respond to the demand, its was decided to upgrade the rooms in one wing of the Center to hotel standards. In 1980, the renovation was finished. Many students and groups stayed at the Center totaling more than 80 nationalities. In 1981, the Rev. Jean-Jacques Bauswein (1981 – 1996) was called to become the new director. The Center opened-up little by little, largely to religious, humanitarian, universities and international organizations in Geneva and from abroad. More than 180 groups use the services of the Center each year for their meetings, consultations, working groups and continuous training sessions. From 1980 the Center renewed some specific activities organized by its program commission.
Rev. Jean-Jacques Bauswein left the Center end of 1996. During these 15 years, the Center acquired a considerable reputation. After a year and a half, period during which the management was done by an interim team, the Rev. Marc Appel was called to become the new Director of the Center on July 1st 1998. With his arrival, a new spirit started. In 2003 the Center has undertaken a major renovation project which makes it more attractive and more pleasant for its visitors.