The Martha Cook Building opened its doors for the first time in September 1915. During its eventful years, Martha Cook -- described as the most beautiful college dormitory in the United States -- has been home to several thousand women.
The building was a gift to the University from one of its most enterprising and loyal alumni, William W. Cook. After obtaining his law degree in 1882, Cook embarked on a strikingly successful career as a corporation layer on Wall Street, where he built a fortune through shrewd investments. Sixteen million dollars of Cook's bounty went to the University of Michigan, most of it expended in construction of the Law Quadrangle or four magnificent stone buildings, erected during the decade 1923 to 1933.
In 1990, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the building, Martha Cook was designated a historic site by the State of Michigan.
Architecture. The Martha Cook Building, a memorial to the donor's mother, was the first of Cook's gifts, and the first structure on campus to be designed in the popular Collegiate Gothic mode, in this instance, an adaptation of English domestic Gothic. The exterior is faced in patterned brick, with traceried windows and deep buttresses, capped by a crenelated turrret. The work of designers York & Sawyer of New York reflected a widespread impulse to model academic buildings after the ancient colleges of Europe, whose Gothic architecture has expressed scholarship's religious and monastic roots. A statue of Portia, a character in The Merchant of Venice who has been described as "Shakespeare's most intellectual woman," guards the building's magnificent stone portico.
Mr. Cook hoped to provide an atmosphere of beauty and harmonious living that would nurture "the charm and grace and principles of cultured American womanhood." While Mr. Cook was raised on these principles and hoped to nurture them, he was a man of vision and foresaw the future of women's education at the University of Michigan. Prior to 1915, women were expected to find their own housing off campus.
The Interior. Designed by the Hayden Company of New York, the rooms on the ground floor recall interior details of Gothic and early Renaissance times, with furnishings extending to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Straight ahead is an airy, sundappled corridor, paved with marble and red flagging, paneled in oak and canopied by a majestic groined Gothic ceiling. Focal point of the corridor is a marble statue of the Venus de Milo, a full-sized replica of the original in the Louvre.
The Red Room, located at the front of the building, as an elaborate vaulted "wagon head ceiling," which combines English rose and French fleur-de-lis motifs. The woodwork in this room is of butternut with molding and details reproduced from measured drawings of antique designs. The Flemish verdure tapestry above the fireplace dates from the latter seventeenth century and depicts a hunting scene. Some of the furniture in the Red Room and Gold Room once graced Mr. Cook's New York home. Furniture in the room emulates Jacobean designs. The portrait of Martha Wolford Cook (1828 - 1909) was painted by Henry Caro-Delvaille.
Through the small "Sparking Room," a paneled alcove, one glimpses the Gold Room (formerly the Blue Room), with elaborately-carved paneling of Burma teakwood and a plaster ceiling modeled on that in Sir Paul Pindar's house at Bishopsgate, England. A bust of Mr. Cook rests above the Angell fireplace, and Mr. Cook's own Steinway piano attracts the eye as well as the ear. It was specially commissioned in 1913 and given to the building after the donor's death. It has an inlaid case of Caucasian walnut with Italian Renaissance designs. A piano of this style, as well as most of the furnishings on the first floor, cannot be replaced today.
Paneled in oak, the dining hall has a beamed furred ceiling of fifteenth-century design. Here, a stone-mantled fireplace bears a motto chosen by Mr. Cook, "Home, the Nation's Safety." The round tables are of oak, as are the large buffet and mullioned doors. The Dining Room chairs are hand caned. Much care has been given throughout the years by residents and staff to maintaining and preserving the extensive wood paneling and furnishings, most of which are original.
The Garden. It was designed in 1921 by the prominent landscape architect and long-time superintendent of Central Park, Samuel Parsons. Paul Suttman's statue of "Eve" was a fiftieth-anniversary gift from the building's alumnae. Above the spreading lawn, Martha Cook's long garden terrace is a delightful spot for outdoor dining during the warmer months.
Activities & Traditions. The Martha Cook Building, conveniently located on central campus, houses 145 women, ranging from freshwomen to graduate students. The Martha Cook Student Organization coordinates various social events throughout the year.
There are several traditional social events that bring residents together. In September and January, women new to the building are welcomed with a special dinner and roses. Several faculty dinners are served each semester to which residents may invite their favorite professors. Also traditional are the weekly Friday afternoon teas in the Gold Room. Sometimes other groups are invited, but usually residents just bring their friends.
The holiday season is a very busy time. At the annual Holiday Decorating Party, residents and their friends decorate the entire first floor, including three Christmas trees. The annual Messiah Dinner honors the guest soloists after the final performance of Handel's oratorio in Hill Auditorium. University officials, deans, and other guests are escorted by residents throughout the evening. A short musical program immediately follows dinner. The following week, on the morning of the first study day, the Holiday Breakfast caps a candlelight procession of residents who carol through dim corridors before dawn. December graduates are recognized at this event.
On April 1, the Birthday Dinner honors Martha Cook's birthday and is a celebration for all those residents whose birthdays are in the summer. At the Dinner for Graduates in April, each graduating student receives a gift and a rose. This is the last scheduled function of the year.
In addition to a full round of social activities, the Martha Cook Building provides a variety of facilities for residents including a computer room, kitchenettes, TV room, tennis court, and laundry facilities. Two grand pianos are kept in tune for musicians.
Employment within the building as a waitress or office assistant is available to residents. The Martha Cook Building also has active alumnae groups, who award scholarships on the basis of need and service to the building.
Nineteen meals are served weekly. Sit-down dinners are served by waitresses four nights a week.
Tours given by residents are available.
Administration. The Martha Cook Building is a self-supporting unit which operates independently of the Housing Division. The day-to-day administration consists of a Director, Assistant Resident Director, Housekeeping Manager, and Food Service Manager. General oversight of the building is provided by a Board of Governors, whose members are appointed by the University Regents and are usually Martha Cook alumnae.