Decoding the Martha myth

BY JENNI GLENN
Tea Time
Published April 11, 2001

On South University, right between the Law Quad and the Social Work Building, sits one of the University"s many residence halls. Despite the proximity of its enticing garden to one of the campus" main thoroughfares, only a small portion of students have ever darkened the halls of this particular building, although it is often referred to as the jewel of the campus. The ivy-covered brick walls and the historical building placard intimidate many of the passersby, even if they aren"t aware that the inhabitants are 145 women.

Paul Wong
Tea Time<br><br>Jenni Glen

Yet this same building, veiled in mystery to so many, has been my residence since I came to the University three years ago. The Belgian tapestry, Ming vases, Steinway grand piano and life-sized replica of the Venus de Milo decorating the various rooms are a part of my routine. These luxurious Victorian furnishings form a pleasant background to my daily activities, where once they struck me as foreign. Now, traversing the main corridor, its chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling, I"m more likely to wonder how Martha Cook ever felt like anything but home.

Still, I often find myself explaining my lifestyle choice to people I meet in the University community. Everyone seems to have a mistaken impression of the infamous "Virgin Vault." This reputation isn"t helped by the whispers of campus tour guides to their charges as they carefully study Martha Cook"s facades from a position safely across the street. "Oh, that"s one of those all-girls buildings," I hear said as I pass them on my way home from class. "I think they have curfews."

In light of the ridiculous misinformation, I am taking it upon myself to debunk the myth. For all of those people who haven"t enjoyed a cup of tea under the warm lights of the Gold Room, here"s the real inside scoop on the Martha Cook Building and the ladies who call it home, commonly known as the Cookies.

Myth No. 1: Curfew

People often question me about whether the building imposes a curfew on the residents, as though we"re all safely locked away in our rooms at 9 p.m. by an old-fashioned house mother. In actuality, the Cookies are permitted to, and frequently do, stay out until all hours.

The building"s escort policy, however, is frequently mistaken for a curfew. Like other female residences such as Betsy Barbour and Helen Newberry, the women of Martha Cook must remain with their guests while they are inside the building. But the policy is a bit different for Martha Cook, where men must leave the upper floors by midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends. Banning co-ed sleepovers sounds archaic to some people, but most Cookies remain grateful that they can walk around without combing their hair first thing in the morning and avoid running into any members of the opposite sex.

Myth No. 2: Meals

A sorority girl asked me once whether the Cookies really wore matching outfits to dinner. After biting back a comment about the ubiquitous black pants, I explained to her that the phenomenon she was probably referring to was our practice of having sit-down dinners.

At 5:30 p.m. three days a week, the residents enter the dining room for the evening meal. After singing the traditional grace, we sit down to a three course dinner. Waitresses bring the food to the table via platters, and then we serve each other, moving clockwise around the table.

These sit-down dinners serve as a revival of the traditional family meal. The practice offers the residents a chance to enjoy each other"s company for at least 30 minutes before scrambling back to their studies. And normally we linger over coffee and tea, sometimes chatting until the kitchen staff politely asks us to leave so they can clear the tables.

Myth No. 3: Crumpets

Much like sit-down dinners, tea is a staple of the Martha Cook traditions. William Cook, the building"s benefactor, wanted the building to feel like an English country house, and some of that tone remains in the custom of tea time. Virtually any Friday afternoon during the school year finds dozens of residents and their friends munching on goodies and sipping punch in the Gold Room.

But, contrary to expectations, this practice remains different from high tea at Harrod"s. Crumpets never have been served, at least not in my recollection, and scones with a side of clotted cream make only infrequent appearances, usually at the annual International Tea. Most of the Cookies prefer chocolate fondue to accompany their Earl Gray.

Myth No. 4: The Make-out Room

OK, it"s not entirely a myth. The building does have a tiny alcove called the Sparking Room, which is indeed "40s slang for make-out room. The story goes that women of the building brought men into the Sparking Room and drew the curtains when they wanted a few moments of private time. This, of course, only happened in the days before men were permitted to venture upstairs. Today residents tend to host study groups around the alcove"s table rather than indulging in other pursuits in that space, but the Sparking Room"s prior use remains a favorite joke among the Cookies.

Now that you"re armed with the truth, consider stopping by 906 S. University for a cup of tea or a quick tour. As long as it"s not 4 a.m., one of the Cookies will probably be happy to oblige.

To set up your personal tour of the Martha Cook Building, contact Jenni Glenn at jaglenn@umich.edu. You can enter the building through the double doors under the Portia statue.