MSU’s Whitehouse: A history of the residence of the president

19 04 2012

The Cowles House has become one of those staples of the MSU landscape. This beautiful farm cottage adorns the south side of West Circle Dr. and stands as one of the landmarks of MSU. Not many people, however, know the history behind this intriguing building…

With bricks molded from the mud of the banks of the Red Cedar, this house is currently the oldest existing building on our campus. It was one of four original residences built for faculty and and initially served as the house for the serving president of MSU. It was constructed in 1857 and housed past presidents until 1874. It was then converted into a faculty residence, the offices for the College of Education, and a female dormitory. The college eventually realized the need for a house specifically to serve as the residence of the president as the farm cottage had turned to other uses.

In 1873, a house designed by E.E. Meyer was constructed on the current site of Gilchrist Hall. This house would provide the home for Abbot, Willits, Clute, Gorton, and Snyder during their terms until 1915 when it was converted into a dormitory for women. It would serve this purpose for 10 years until it was then turned into a hospital in 1925. In 1939 the building was demolished as a way to make room for the new West Circle dormitories.

Over time, the farm cottage began being identified on maps as the residence of the professor of Botany. We can attribute this title to Dr. William Beal for he lived in the residence for 38 years from 1874 – 1941! In 1941, President John Hannah moved in postponing a much needed renovation. After World War II, the house underwent remodeling. This project, headed by alumnus Fredrick Cowles Jenison, turned the farm cottage into the structure that it is known as today. The project became very dear to Jenison as his grandfather, Albert Cowles, was a student of the first class of 1857 and helped gather material for the original foundations of the house. Jenison named the house after his grandmother, Alice B. Cowles, and we refer to the house as such today.

In 1986, the Michigan Historical Commission declared the Cowles House as a state historic site. Students can now, on the exceptional chance, have the opportunity to visit the house for a special dinner, graduation reception, or any other special gathering. If you walk inside, you will find three levels, all adorned with beautiful furniture. The first level is primarily used for gatherings and receptions. The two upper levels are home to a total of 6 bedrooms and the office of the president. It was tradition for the president of MSU to live in that house, however, our current president Lou Anna K. Simon does not reside at the Cowles House.

The Cowles House is a beautiful piece of architecture that defines the beauty of our MSU campus. I encourage you all to stop by soon and appreciate the splendor of the oldest building at MSU.

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