A look inside Alice B. Cowles House and the history it holds
The Alice B. Cowles House, formerly known as Faculty Row House Number 7, sits on the south side of West Circle Drive and has since 1857. The exterior is surrounded by shrubbery and vines, no cars sit in the lengthy driveway and the door remains closed. It is speculated to be the oldest building on MSU’s campus, but many students do not know who lives there or what occurs daily.
Elementary education freshman Shannon White admits to her lack of knowledge about the house, even though she lives in nearby Campbell Hall.
“I live across the street from it, and I have no idea what it is,” she said. “I don’t know who lives there, I don’t know who funds it. I know nothing about it.”
The house was one of four original brick faculty cottages built on West Circle Drive. Throughout the years, the residence otherwise known as “the President’s house” has housed many of MSU’s well-known presidents, professors and trustees, including former presidents Theophilus C. Abbott, who held residence there for more than 20 years beginning in 1862, John A. Hannah, who lived there from 1941 until he resigned in 1969; and former botany professor Ernst A. Bessey, who lived there when a new president’s house was built in 1875 until the new house burnt down in 1915.
Although people do not live in the house currently, a tree does. The residence houses an American Beech tree which has been on the property for several generations. Donations from Frederick Cowles Jenison, a descendant of one of MSU’s original students, allowed renovations to the house in 1949 by enlarging the back porch and making it an indoor sitting area — but Hannah did not want to cut down a tree that would interfere with the construction. He solved the problem by having workers encase part of the trunk in glass and build around it.
Peter Lechler, who has worked as manager for Cowles House since 2006 said he always has found the tree amusing.
“We do have a lot of tree huggers on campus,” Lechler said. “It seemed fitting to keep the tree.”
Despite the many events hosted by student organizations held at the house, many students still have not seen the inside.
Whenever White looks out the window from her room in Campbell, no matter the time, she said she sees lights on in the windows of Cowles House and becomes a little uneasy.
“I can only see the house from one window in the whole building, and that light is always on,” she said. “It’s really kind of creepy.”
Supply chain sophomore Sam Wrinkle shared White’s curiosity when she applied for a job as an assistant to the house’s manager in the fall. Wrinkle said she was interested in the position because of the mystery surrounding the building.
“I wasn’t really sure what happened in the house,” she said. “Even when I went in for the interview, I got excited because I wanted to see what it looked like (inside).”
When Wrinkle comes to work as the Cowles House manager’s assistant every day, her hours revolve around planning to prepare the house for guests.
“I make arrangements for events, I make invitations — basically I help out with whatever they need me to do,” she said.
Although not open daily to the public, Cowles House coordinates nearly 100 events annually, which are hosted by Simon or various student clubs and organizations. The house also holds receptions for the Spring Commencement and has played host to President Barack Obama and several secret service agents.
In his six years as manager, Lechler said he has gotten nothing but praise from past visitors, many of which are alumni who attend Simon’s events.
“We still get surprise visits from people who said they visited the house as long as 50 years ago,” he said. “We like to leave a good memory.”
Despite the busy schedule the job entails, he said he takes pride in working at the house.
“This place is very special,” he said. “It’s a moving target where new things pop up every day. You meet a lot of fun folks — important owners and dignitaries. The house shows well, and we are always proud.”