NEWS

Cook Group co-founder Gayle Cook honored for preservation leadership

Award recognizes more than 40 years of advocacy and direct work to save important historic places.

In recognition of more than 40 years of advocacy and direct work to save important historic places, Gayle Cook is the recipient of Indiana Landmarks’ 2021 Williamson Prize for outstanding leadership in historic preservation.

Gayle, a native of Evansville, and her family have restored more than 60 structures, most in Indiana and a few in her late husband Bill’s hometown of Canton, Illinois.

“I can think of no other family in the world who has done more for historic preservation,” says Indiana Landmarks’ President Marsh Davis. “Beyond the sheer number of properties they’ve restored, Gayle and her family have elevated preservation in a very public way as both a social good and a practical economic activity.”

When the Monroe County Courthouse was threatened in the 1970s in Bloomington, where the Cook family lives and maintains headquarters of their international medical device company Cook Group, Gayle and a small band organized to defeat the demolition proposal. The courthouse was restored, and Gayle researched and underwrote restoration of the landmark’s long-hidden murals.

Since then, Gayle, Bill, and their son Carl have restored many buildings in Bloomington to make the city a vibrant place that attracts working people, professionals, students, and tourists. She envisioned the Taylor building, a historic downtown warehouse, as an anchor attraction, repurposing it as the Bloomington Antique Mall. Other Cook restorations followed: a railroad depot, an eight-story former hotel, the vacant J.C. Penney building, and the linked buildings that comprise the south side of the courthouse square.

Seeing the need for a community history center, Gayle helped raise money to repurpose the city’s historic Carnegie library, designing and building a sensitive addition to create the Monroe County History Center. Along with raising money for the cause, Gayle donates her time, working throughout the year to sort, repair, and price items donated for the center’s annual garage sale. Staged every June, the event raises hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the center’s operation.

In the 1990s, the Cooks began restoring West Baden Springs Hotel, a collapsing National Historic Landmark in southern Indiana, then added the even larger National Register-listed French Lick Springs Hotel a mile away. They invested $560 million, transforming the two turn-of the-century hotels and reviving the economy of the entire region.

Beyond Bloomington, Gayle and Bill partnered to restore sites with significant history and architecture, including one of their earliest restorations, the 1834 Colonel Williams Jones House in Gentryville, built for Abraham Lincoln’s merchant employer. Elsewhere in the state, they supported preservation of Salem’s Beck’s Mill and Spencer’s Tivoli Theatre, among other sites.

Since the 1970s, Gayle has given hundreds of talks to promote preservation and highlighting historic places in Indiana, including her popular “Mystique of Domes” talk, sharing history and engineering lessons learned at West Baden and from other domes of the world. Inspired by her interest in domes, she formed a partnership to underwrite restoration of the stained-glass dome at Indiana State University’s Normal Hall in Terre Haute.

In 2009, her affinity brought Gayle to Indianapolis, where she and Bill undertook their last preservation project together before his death: restoring the former Central Avenue Methodist Church, a vacant domed landmark in the city’s historic Old Northside neighborhood. The Cooks spent $16 million to convert the church into a state-of-the-art headquarters for Indiana Landmarks.

Indiana Landmarks’ President Marsh Davis presented the Williamson Prize, a sculpture modeled after a tower at the former church—now Indiana Landmarks Center–to Gayle at the Monroe County History Center on May 20.

Gayle will also be honored as part of Indiana Landmarks’ virtual annual meeting on Sept. 11.

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MEDIA CONTACT: 

Mindi Woolman, Indiana Landmarks, 317-639-4534, 317-417-1204 (cell), mwoolman@indianalandmarks.org

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About the Williamson Prize:

In naming this individual award, Indiana Landmarks honors the impactful career of J. Reid Williamson, Jr., president of Indiana Landmarks from 1973 to 2005. A change agent for the organization and the state, Reid Williamson advanced the preservation movement by stressing the importance of local preservation organizations and by using restoration as a tool to revitalize entire neighborhoods and towns. Under his leadership, Indiana Landmarks created regional offices to serve the entire state, and grew in membership, staff and endowment. The Williamson Prize includes a $1,000 cash award and the Williamson Prize sculpture by Evansville artist John McNaughton.

Indiana Landmarks revitalizes communities, reconnects us to our heritage, and saves meaningful places. With nine offices located throughout the state, Indiana Landmarks helps people rescue endangered landmarks and restore historic neighborhoods and downtowns. People who join Indiana Landmarks receive its bimonthly magazine, Indiana Preservation. For more information on the not-for-profit organization, call 317-639-4534, 800-450-4534, or visit www.indianalandmarks.org.

 

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