The Many Faces of Cowles House, MSU’s Oldest Building

This summer, Cowles House, MSU’s oldest standing building, is due to get a facelift. As part of this remodeling, crews will remove a few trees from around and inside the building and expand the west wing.  In preparation for this work, I have been researching the history of this building, as well as what previous CAP excavations have recovered in the area.

Completed in 1857, Cowles House was one of four homes built to house the earliest faculty members and administrators of MSU.  Some of the most prominent individuals in MSU’s history, such as Williams, Abbot, Beal, Bessey, Hannah, and McPherson, all lived in this house during their tenure at the college (Brock 2009; Kuhn 1955).  From 1857-1874, Cowles House served as the residence of the college president.  After 1874, Cowles House, then known as Faculty Row No. 7, functioned as the home of the professor of Botany (Beal 1915:35, 267; http://archives.msu.edu/collections/buildings.php).

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920. Image Source.

During these early decades, Cowles house was not only a place of residence, but was also a hub of campus entertainment. Early on, no organized social life existed on MSU’s campus.  Students instead gravitated towards faculty homes, where faculty and staff would regularly host small get-togethers (Kuhn 1955:127). The Abbot’s, who lived in Cowles House during their time at the college, frequently invited students and guests into their home. As documented by Kuhn, Abbot had students come to his home weekly to read and discuss literature.  They also entertained on the weekends: “On Saturday nights the Abbot home was open to students; twenty or thirty would gather about the fire to eat apples and to talk of politics, of ethics, and of literature” (Kuhn 1955:90).

By the early 1900s, Cowles House had been repurposed to serve a broader function.  On a 1927 map of campus (MSU archives: http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-114F/map-of-msu-campus-and-buildings-1927/), Cowles House is labeled as “Secretary’s House,” indicating a switch from residential space to a more administrative one.  I have not been able to discover more about what this label entails, such as if the house was entirely office space during this time, but it is clear that the space was no longer reserved for faculty use.

In 1941, under the Hannah administration, Cowles House once again became the home of the president of the university.  As such, the building underwent major renovations after the end of World War II, during which much of the building was rebuilt and a new wing was added to the west end (Kuhn 1955:402).  Recently, Cowles House has functioned as an entertainment and banquet space, as recent presidents have decided to live off campus (Brock 2009).

A View of Cowles House Today

A View of Cowles House Today. Image source

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Cowles House has been of great interest to Campus Archaeology due to its location within the Sacred Space.  As little has changed in this part of campus, this area has the potential for preserving intact archaeological deposits from the earliest days of campus.  CAP has conducted numerous surveys around the building, including in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2014 (CAP Reports 7, 11, and 15), but we are yet to find any clear features or concentrations of materials. Instead, only a diffuse scatter of artifacts has been found around the building. Brick fragments, window glass, nails, and other construction debris are the most common objects found, while a few ceramic sherds, animal bones, bottle glass, and two golf balls have also been recovered. In general, this record is likely the result of construction and remodeling episodes, mixed in with trash from everyday life.  While CAP has tested extensively around the building, we have not investigated every area, and plan to survey and monitor intently as renovations take place this summer.  We are always on the look-out for that rare deposit that can provide us insights into the lives of the early MSU faculty and presidents!

References Cited

Beal, W.J.
1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors.  Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing

Brock, Terry
2009   “Survey Spot: Cowles House”  Blog posted on CAP website, Sept. 9, 2009.

CAP Report 7
2009   Music Building and Cowles House Survey.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 11
2011   Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 15
2012   West Circle Steam I Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

Kuhn, Madison
1955   Michigan State: The First Hundred Years.  The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:

Gone but Not Forgotten: Campus Buildings that No Longer Exist.  Online Exhibit. http://archives.msu.edu/collections/buildings.php

Map of MSU Campus and Buildings, 1927. http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-114F/map-of-msu-campus-and-buildings-1927/