Bill Cook bought the old Brown School building in Washington Township in the winter of 1984. It was to be the headquarters for the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps, to which he had donated $1 million to help found that year.
Inside the gym of the school, murals representing four “special facets” of Bloomington and Monroe County were found rolled up. These were the missing pieces to one of the first renovation projects he and his wife, Gayle, had taken on, and they had spent years trying to track down the paintings.
“We never knew what we were getting into,” Gayle said on a recent afternoon last month.
Gayle was called for jury duty a decade before Bill bought the old school building. When she walked into the Monroe County Courthouse in the mid-1970s, she saw a building on the verge of being torn down. She has a special affinity for the building’s dome, but at that time the architectural element was not visible, and the murals were in bad shape.
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Gayle led the effort to restore the murals, which were on 16-foot-wide canvases. After nearly 10 more years and $70,000 spent, the once-forgotten works were reinstalled in 1993, and work on the building was finally complete — but Gayle’s work in preservation was far from over.
While Gayle and Bill were building one of the world’s largest medical device companies, Cook Medical, they also worked to preserve more than 60 buildings in Indiana and Illinois, many of which are in Bloomington. In May, Gayle received Indiana Landmarks’ Williamson Prize for her work in leadership in historic preservation.
“The business started out in our bedroom, but we were way past that by the time we were restoring,” she said.
The Cook Group’s real estate arm, CFC Properties, owns many of the properties that Gayle and Bill restored together. CFC president Jim Murphy said he’s grown to love historic preservation while working with the couple, and both he and Gayle’s assistant, Teresa Hull, emphasized how much time she put into researching the buildings they restored.
“She was Google before Google existed,” Hull said.
The trophy Gayle received as part of the recent award was modeled after the tower at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis. Gayle and Bill spent $16 million on the headquarters to restore and repurpose the Central Avenue Methodist Church — the couple’s final project before Bill’s death in 2011.
Since its opening, Indiana Landmarks has used the space as an event space. Every restoration project the Cooks took on had a purpose — they wouldn’t save things for the sake of being saved.
Their first finished restoration project in Bloomington was the James Cochran House, which was built in 1850 and was on the verge of demolition after being declared uninhabitable. Once restoration was completed, the building housed office space for the Monroe Guaranty Insurance Co., a subsidiary of Cook Group Inc.
Amid warnings that it couldn’t be done, Gayle and Bill elicited the help of the Pritchett Brothers construction company, which worked with the Cooks on a number of projects.
The building was structurally sound thanks to a solid foundation and thick brick walls, but the rundown house nonetheless needed a lot of work. Restoration on everything from a leaky tin roof to unstable floors began in June 1976, and in December of the same year, the insurance company moved into the rejuvenated, nearly-finished facility.
Located on North Rogers Street, today the building is owned by CFC and is still home to commercial office space.
It’s one of about 40 properties CFC owns, many of which also were restoration projects Gayle and Bill carried out in Bloomington, such as Fountain Square Mall on the south side of the courthouse square and Graham Plaza on North College Avenue.
Murphy mentioned job creation as a positive result from Gayle’s work in preservation, but the Cooks’ eye for restoring rundown buildings and ability to create something fresh and new out of them elevate Bill and Gayle into a different category than other property owners, he said.
“It’s a wonderful life,” Murphy said. “If Bill and Gayle had not decided to move to Bloomington, Indiana, Bloomington, Indiana, would not be what it is today.”
Murphy, who was hired at CFC in 1987, said his favorite projects to work on with the Cooks were the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels in Orange County, the couple’s first project with Indiana Landmarks.
The Cooks were familiar with West Baden. When their son, Carl, was a child, they took him there to visit, and Gayle’s parents had visited shortly after they were married. A picture from the couple’s visit now hangs there. Plus, in the 1930s the French Lick Springs Hotel developed a reputation as the Democratic Party’s unofficial headquarters, and in 1931 Franklin D. Roosevelt rounded up support for the party’s presidential run, according to the French Lick Resort’s history page, which he would eventually win.
“It’s been a part of southern Indiana history for ages,” Gayle said of the Springs Valley area. “It was the place to go.”
Indiana Landmarks reached out to the Cooks, looking for assistance in restoring the West Baden Springs Hotel, and the couple agreed to help so someone could come along and find a use for the properties. J. Reid Williamson Jr., after whom Gayle’s recent Williamson Prize was named, was president of Indiana Landmarks at the time.
Originally, the Cooks agreed to help secure a wall that had fallen in the building and restore the dome and interior, but to leave the rooms until after the hotel was sold.
“So that was the original agreement and it was done on a handshake,” Hull said. “And as per normal, nothing went as planned.”
Work focused on the atrium and the dome, with hopes of showing potential buyers what the building could be. But no potential buyers came, so they decided to carry on with restoration. Still no one came, so they opened the hotel for the time being.
Eventually they got involved with the deteriorating French Lick Springs Hotel about a mile down the road, and the Cooks led restoration work there, too.
It was decided the only way these two hotels would be viable was with a casino, so they started the process to seek approval. To receive a casino license, they had to put in bids to the state, but Donald Trump, before his presidential days, was the first to acquire the license.
Trump’s companies were undergoing consolidation at the time, and he was forced to give up the license. The Cooks were able to take it once they secured a partner.
Restoration continued and the project grew, which was never the intent for the Cooks, but the importance of it being done well enough that the hotels could sustain themselves inspired the couple to continue.
All together, the Cooks helped restore the two hotels and three golf courses and added the casino, and $600 million later, the French Lick Resort was fully opened in 2007. Gayle still visits about once a month.
“Restoration never stops,” Hull said. “And that’s the thing about CFC with Cook and Gayle’s vision … they’re willing to continue the effort even after the original restoration.”
Hull said people in French Lick always thank Gayle for what she’s done for the community, and that she’s always gracious and says, “You’re welcome,” but she also thanks them for being a part of it as well.
Restoration with purpose
Sustainability was always the key for the Cooks’ restoration projects, and they didn’t take on projects that wouldn’t have a purpose. One project that has troubled Gayle is the Col. William Jones House in Spencer County, as she said having a defined purpose is especially important to her.
Jones was a merchant in his early years, and when his store and post office began to prosper, it prompted him in 1834 to build the brick house that the Cooks would go on to help preserve.
Jones employed Abraham Lincoln as a helper until he left for Illinois in 1930, and Jones is mentioned in Lincoln literature as one of his influential employers. Lincoln visited again in 1844 while making speeches for Kentucky politician Henry Clay’s presidential campaign. Jones also served as a Whig Party representative in the Indiana Legislature from 1838 to 1841, and was a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army until he was killed in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864.
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The house is part of what’s now Lincoln State Park, but it is detached from the rest of the park and isn’t used for much. At one point, though, there was a group hosting guided tours of the house and using the connection to Abraham Lincoln to bring people in.
“It kind of goes up and down, depending upon who’s in charge, you know?” Gayle said.
Amid the Cooks’ 60-building catalog of historic preservation projects, Gayle did only one without her husband: what’s now the Monroe County History Center, which opened in 1980.
Instead of working together on this project, they had a competition going to see who could raise funds quicker because Bill was trying to build Bloomington’s first YMCA. The building at East Sixth and Washington streets that now houses the history center was built in 1917 and originally was Monroe County’s only Carnegie library. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Gayle said it was difficult to raise the funds because she and Bill would run into a lot of the same people to ask for donations. “We had this feeling that everybody knew if we were coming, we were going to say, ‘How about a donation?’” Gayle said.
Bill ended up winning by about three weeks, but that’s partially because of how they decided to go about the task.
Though Bill hired people directly, Gayle hired people through the government’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973 to help people who had been deemed unhireable find jobs. The act was later repealed and replaced with the Job Training Partnership Act in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Still, the Monroe County History Center was opened in 1980 thanks to Gayle’s fundraising help. She’s still active with the center today, particularly helping with its yearly garage sale. To put on the sale, Cook provides warehouse space in Bloomington to collect donations year-round, and that has been a successful way to keep the center going.
“Meanwhile, the business goes on with medical products, and we get to use the warehouse for our garage sales for the museum,” Gayle said. “So there’s still overlap.”
Art and restoration
Still, none of these was Gayle’s biggest thrill. Her favorite restoration project was Cedar Farm, an old antebellum-style plantation on the Ohio River in Harrison County near Louisville, Kentucky. The Cooks bought the property from the great-grandsons of the original builders, Jacob Lamb Kintner and Elizabeth Shields Kintner.
The main house is Classic Revival in design, and it’s surrounded by more than 20 other structures on the 2,700-acre piece of land. It’s supported by six 33-inch-wide columns that held the trunks of cedar trees in their core and remained structurally sound throughout the years, but the side walls and other parts of the house had fallen into disrepair.
The main home, along with the cookhouse, schoolhouse and the rest of the buildings on the land were restored, and today it houses Gayle’s art collection of paintings by William J. Forsyth. He was part of the “Hoosier Group” of Indiana artists and helped found the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis.
Forsyth spent the summers of 1897 and 1898 painting at Cedar Farm, and he took his wife, Alice Atkinson, on their honeymoon there in October 1897. Atkinson was an artist as well, and the two met at the Indiana School of Art after she did a brief stint teaching art at Vincennes College.
Since restoration, the building has been open to the public only one time, and in 2006 more than 10,000 showed up to tour the plantation.
Gayle’s eye for beauty and love for historical preservation are qualities she and Bill passed on to their son, Carl. In 1976, Carl’s first job was scraping wallpaper at the Graham Plaza in Bloomington for $2 an hour.
Since then, he’s taken over as CEO at Cook, and has worked on a number of restoration projects alongside his parents. The day after Bill died, Carl made it to the grand opening of the Indiana Landmarks Center.
Gayle’s work continues at many of the places she’s helped restore, and after more than 40 years of work, she has been recognized by Indiana Landmarks as a leading advocate for historic preservation. In addition to the award, Gayle will be recognized at Indiana Landmark’s annual meeting on Sept. 11.