Barnes Hall started life as the dormitory wing of the newly constructed student union building, known then as Keeler Union, and which today is named Powers Hall. Groundbreaking for the new student union occurred on October 31, 1938, when President Warriner turned the first shovel of earth. The building was funded through a Public Works Administration grant, one of the programs of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. The architect was C. William Palmer of Detroit. The cornerstone was laid in February 1939.
The dorm wing opened in September of 1939, but the Union section was not ready until November. When it opened, it was the first men's residence hall on campus. Despite being the only men's residence, its 90 beds remained partially empty that first year. It was difficult for the college to convince men, who were used to living off campus, to conform to the regulations of on-campus living. For those who did move in, room and board was $45 per semester.
Like Ronan Hall, portions of this building were turned over to United States Navy to house V-12 cadets during World War II. The building housed 125 Navy cadets, 35 more than the facility was designed to sleep, from 1942 until July 1, 1944. During this time, the hall was also used as a rallying point for the Red Cross. In November of 1944, the hall was turned over to women residents for the first time. They remained until after the end of the War. Men returned to the residence hall in March 1946. Soaring campus enrollment after World War II made housing a major problem. In 1949, Keeler was at double capacity with 180 residents.
In 1951, a new residence hall wing was added. The addition was designed by Roger Allen and Associates of Grand Rapids, the architect responsible for many of the buildings on CMU's campus. On October 25, 1952, the entire residence hall area was renamed Charles C. Barnes Hall, thus ending the connection with Keeler. A third and final wing was added in 1957, known as the "new section." This wing contained rooms with individual bathrooms instead of the community baths found in the other sections.
In the 1970s, the Department of Music moved into the lobby of Barnes Hall as it outgrew the facilities in Powers Hall. A 1977 renovation of Barnes returned the lobby to the residents and freed up some additional space for use by the Department of Music. Barnes received new carpeting and furniture as part of a larger campus-wide renovation of student housing in 1995.
Charles C. Barnes was born in Leslie, Michigan on August 7, 1886. He graduated from the local school system and spent four years teaching before going to the Ferris Institute in Big Rapids. In 1911, he received a finance and commerce degree. That same year, on June 10, he married Josephine Clickner. In 1912, he became a faculty member of Ferris and served as principal of the school of business until 1920, when he resigned to become the assistant treasurer of a Detroit life insurance company. Unenthused with this decision, he soon reentered the education field when the president of Central, E. C. Warriner, offered him a post as head of the Commerce Department in September of 1920. The following year, Barnes was promoted to Registrar and made the first Dean of Men. In addition to these responsibilities, the new dean sought to continue his own education as well. He earned an AB degree from Central in 1925 and an AM degree from the University of Michigan in 1932. A heart condition forced him to retire in July of 1946 and caused his death on December 17, 1950. He was survived by his wife Josephine and their two daughters.