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Penn State History Lesson: The Ladies Cottage

by and on April 04, 2015 1:45 PM

Today, 46 percent of Penn State students are women.

There are countless women’s organizations, a large Panhellenic council, and an entire department dedicated to studying women’s history.

But women didn’t always have such a large presence on campus.

The first women enrolled at Penn State in 1871. There were only six of them, compared to the 150 male students and professors at the university.

Because there were so few coeds, the female students lived in Old Main, like everyone did back in that day. The decision to have men and women living in the same building wasn’t necessarily a popular one.

According to an 1871 statement from the school, the men and women were strictly forbidden from communicating with one another. That, however, didn’t stop them from banging on the building’s pipes in a coded language. But since the number of female Penn Staters kept growing every year, the school couldn’t keep housing them in the same place.

So in 1889, construction began on Penn State’s first all-female dorm. The building, called the Ladies Cottage, was constructed near Pollock Road along the mall. According to the Woman’s Building Dedication Program, the Ladies Cottage cost $12,016, the equivalent to $311,809 today.

It sat north of Old Main, close to the current location of the Burrowes Building. Construction was completed in 1890, and the first female residents moved into the Ladies Cottage at the beginning of the school year.


 Penn State University Photo Archives

The predecessor of the Collegian, the Free Lance, called the building “a neat and enchanting structure from the exterior.” Inside, the Ladies Cottage had electrical lighting, fully-furnished dorm rooms, reception rooms, a dining room, and a gymnasium. The dining room was the only one on campus until 1904, when the coed McAllister Hall opened.

Initially, the Ladies Cottage wasn’t a crowded place. According to the February 1889 issue of the Free Lance, only six women were living in the cottage in the winter of 1891.

These women naturally had male visitors from time to time. Remember, this was back when a male student had to ask the dean’s permission to court a lady on campus, so to be a gentleman caller to one of the Ladies Cottage girls was a pretty big deal.

Except, of course, for the vast majority of the men who didn’t have a belle living in the cottage.

Whether compelled by jealousy or just a fierce brotherhood, these excluded men formed an organization. They called themselves “The 400,” and were devoted to enacting reforms on the strict rules of the Ladies Cottage. In fact, their motto was Dans Societie Jamais Dans Cottage, which roughly translates to “In Society; Never In The Cottage.”

According to the February 1889 issue of the Free Lance, no member of The 400 was allowed to enter the cottage. If a 400 man was to enter, he would face expulsion from the group, and that's how The 400 lost many of its members.

But the members of The 400 were more than just the anti-Ladies Cottage police on campus. They furthered their crusade against the cottage by creating the first mask ball ever at Penn State. However, there was a catch: Nobody even remotely connected with the Ladies Cottage was allowed to attend.

The ball was held for the first time at The Armory on February 20, 1891. The mask ball soon became a yearly tradition. It was known as “The 400 Ball,” and benefited Penn State’s Athletic Association and baseball team. Although the recipient of the ball's proceeds changed over the years, one aspect of the dance never did: The residents and gentlemen callers of the Ladies Cottage were barred from attending.


A page from the 1892 La Vie Yearbook. The cartoon shows three of The 400 men being barred from entering the Ladies Cottage.

In 1908, the building was expanded. It added more suites and single rooms, as well as lab rooms for Domestic Science classes. (Yes, there were classes called “domestic science courses” in the early twentieth century.) With these new additions, the Ladies Cottage was renamed the Women’s Building.

For the next 50 years, little changed about the Women’s Building. In 1913, plans were drawn up to build an addition on the east side of the building, but the plans were recalled in 1949 due to disagreements about the architectural design. During this time, the Dean of Women lived in the building, along with the sororities Alpha Chi Omega and Gamma Phi Beta.

In 1958, a Penn State Alumni Newsletter announced that the Women’s Building would no longer be a female-only residence hall. That year, the board of trustees approved plans to house both men and women graduate students in the 69-year old building. According to the Alumni Newsletter, 45 unmarried men were slated to live in the building’s east wing, while 34 unmarried women would live in the west wing.

Due to the addition of male residents, the building’s name changed yet again, to the Graduate Residence Hall. The Graduate Residence Hall offered the first opportunity for graduate students to live on campus at Penn State. However, this graduate living option was short lived. In 1961, the building was converted to office space.

But, as the old saying goes, some things happen for a reason. Perhaps it is best that no students were living in Graduate Hall on August 20, 1962. That night, lightning struck the roof of the building. Graduate Hall caught fire, and the blaze destroyed the top floor’s east wing and badly damaged the center portion of the building.

According to a Sayre Times article, the replacement value of everything the fire destroyed was $1 million. Due to the significant damage, the university considered demolishing the building, but limited repairs were made, and Graduate Hall continued to be used as temporary office space. The west wing, which remained relatively intact, was home to Penn State’s Department of Counseling.

Womens_Building (1)

Penn State University Photo Archives

The Graduate Building doesn’t exist today. In 1970, work began to dismantle the 81-year old building to make room for the Burrowes Building. The former Ladies Cottage was torn down in 1971.

Even though the building is gone today, its history stands as a testament to how much has changed for women at Penn State since the nineteenth century. Six women started out at Penn State, and today there are over 18,000 women attending at University Park alone. To put that into perspective, it would take over 1,100 Ladies Cottages to house all of those lady Nittany Lions.


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This post was originally published by the staff at Onward State. Follow Onward State on Twitter @OnwardState.

Anna Foley is a Penn State junior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish and a reporter for Onward State. The North Carolina native sometimes sings and acts on stage with the Penn State Thespians and No Refund Theatre.
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