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Hallowed Haven: Tradition is alive and well at the U-M's Martha Cook dormitory

Mark Thompson-Kolar
The Ann Arbor News

University of Michigan senior Valerie Bullerdick often gets a surprised reaction when she mentions her campus home.

"When I tell people I live in Martha Cook building, some say, 'Isn't that the place where you have to wear long, white gloves to dinner?' And they're serious," she says.

Although white gloves are not required dress in the stately dormitory at the corner of South University and Tappan streets, they would fit well with the decor of the Gothic-style brick facades, high ceilings, marble statues, hardwood dining tables and wicker chairs.

It was this elegance and an uncommon architectural style—as well as the building's significance as one of the first university-owned dormitories for women—that recently persuaded the Michigan Historical Commission to list the building as a state historical site.

"It was listed because of its Collegiate Gothic architecture and its importance to the University of Michigan," said Laura Ashlee, a coordinator for the Michigan Bureau of History in Lansing. "The building hasn't been altered for years, and the interior is really intact. That is significant."

The 103-room residence hall was built in 1914 as a gift to the university of U-M alumnus and Wall Street lawyer William Cook in memory of his mother, Martha. (Cook's other noteworthy gift to the university was the group of four stone buildings that form the Law Quadrangle.) It operates independently of the university's other dormitories, providing its own food, supplies and waitstaff, in accord with Cook's requirements.

"There are a lot of traditions here," Bullerdick says. "At first it's a little intimidating, but after a while, it becomes a home." She lived in another campus dormitory, Couzens Hall, for two years before moving to Martha Cook.

Some traditions, which are rare or nonexistent at other dorms, include special dinners for faculty and friends, annual Halloween decorations in the ornate living room, ice cream socials and Friday afternoon tea parties.

Rules governing visits by men also follow old traditions. Men must be escorted by dorm a dorm resident or staff member at all times, and may spend time in residents' rooms only from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to midnight Sunday. Before the more liberal 1970s, men were not allowed in the dormitory at all.

Tea is served in the living room at 3:30 p.m. every Friday, with groups of 10 to 20 men from places such as the Law Quad, fraternities or the Business School as guests, says Lan Chen Pao, a graduate student resident. "It was conceived as a way to meet respectable men," she says.

Evening sit-down dinners on weekday nights are another tradition. The meals are cooked and served by an in-house staff, and feature main courses such as filet mignon. Dinner begins promptly at 5:30 p.m. as the women sing grace. An after-dinner coffee service follows the meal.

Residents follow a dress code during the sit-down dinners that forbids the women to wear jeans or sweats, says live-in building director Rosalie Moore, who has been in charge of Martha Cook for nine years.

Moore, a U-M alumna, says the women who live in Martha Cook take a great deal of pride in their home and their activities.

"In general, the residents are more studious, somewhat conservative, and interested in traditional values," she says. "It's a community of people with various backgrounds, unlike an apartment, but it's small. Residents know each other here."

Moore is responsible for the dormitory's daily operations and for selecting new residents. All applicants must fill out entrance application forms and write personal essays, which Moore reads. Later, she interviews all applicants in person or by phone.

This differs dramatically from the university's standard residence hall application procedure. Students seeking to live in other dorms need only fill out a housing application. The university housing office places the students by dormitory and room-size preferences.

"The reason for the interview is to tell them about life at Martha Cook," Moore says. "We have more rules than other dorms." She stresses the limited male visitation hours and the dinner dress code to applicants.

"It's self-selective," Moore says, although the 152-woman dorm now has a waiting list of eight. "If after they've heard my spiel, they still want to live here, that's fine. We're glad to have them."

Residents pay $4,117 to live and eat in the hall for eight months, regardless of whether they occupy a single or double room. Other dormitories cost $4,325 for singles and $3,640 for doubles. Martha Cook is able to keep its rates comparable to other dorms' rates because the university pays its heat and light bills, as specified by William Cook in the original deed.

Ed Salowitz, a U-M housing director, says the housing division has a high opinion of Martha Cook.

"It's a lovely place to live. They do a very nice job of maintaining the camaraderie and ambience that isn't so much a part of regular residence hall life," he says. "It's the difference between dinner at a fast-food place and a nice restaurant."

Besides catered dinners, the dormitory offers a variety of other amenities not found at other residence halls, such as private tennis courts and clean linens supplied by the staff each day.

Residents say there are plenty of reasons to appreciate the place.

Pao likes the building's quiet atmosphere, which helps her study. "The rooms are soundproof. Your neighbor can blast rock music on her stereo and you can't hear it," she says.

Bullerdick stressed the cooperativeness of the residents. "There's just a general, overall, pleasant feeling to this place. It's not so much the building—it's the women here," she says. "Everybody applies to get in, and they really like it here."

But residents have some dislikes about Martha Cook, too.

The limited visiting hours for men can cause inconveniences for male friends, according to Bullerdick and Pao, and the Monday through Thursday dinners have their down side.

"Sit downs are a drag," says Pao. "Meals are the most pompous part of this place. I only wear jeans to class, so I have to come home and change before I can eat."

Another Cook resident, Whitney Alderson, says insects infest six rooms on the mezzanine level each year. "Spiders live in the ivy outside and come into the moldings at the top of (my) room," she says. "I had spiders in my bed. I would wake up with bites all the time."

Alderson says an exterminator sprayed her room in early November, and that she has been told another will come during the term break to take care of the bugs.

Moore says the insects are only a minor problem. She attributes their presence in the rooms to the building's age and the old-style windows, which she says are not airtight after years of use.

"Any old building has spiders," she says. "They come in through the window frame when it gets cold and we call an exterminator. We have dealt with this for years."

For years, too, residents have hosted a formal Messiah Dinner, the dorm's most lavish event, on the first Sunday in December.

The women of the dormitory invite the musicians in the University Musical Society's annual production of Handel's oratorio in Hill Auditorium, as well as the university president, regents and college deans, to eat at Martha Cook after the final performance.

"The residents do everything but cook the food," Moore says. "It's kind of a kickoff to the holiday season."

In all, residents say they enjoy their environment, but they would enjoy it more if they could rid themselves of the dorm's pretentious reputation, Pao says.

"People have the impression that this place is very elitist or arrogant, but it's not like that," she says. "You would just have to live here to understand."

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