Arizona State College at Flagstaff opened Dorm F as a female residence hall in 1964 as part of President J. Lawrence Walkup's expansion of the campus. In 1966, Northern Arizona University (NAU) renamed it after Phoenix businessman James Steele Cowden, who donated land to the campus. NAU designed Cowden Hall in the International style, consisting of a simple brick and glass design that lacks ornamentation.
Over the years, Cowden Learning Community has housed prominent university initiatives, including a three-year baccalaureate degree program. It is currently home to the University Honors Program, providing offices, two classrooms, and first-year Honors' housing. It also is a first-year residence hall for both men and women.