On a Saturday I sit in the Law library. I often do this, busy or not, wasting my time pretending I’m using my time wisely. If I’m sitting in the library, I’m working, right? Of course, when I say “work,” I’m saying that I’m simply sitting, and by sitting in the library, I’m sitting productively. The Law library does that. It makes me feel like these hours spent curating a Facebook feed I never even use are somehow hours well spent, hours moving me in a forward direction, hours put into learning. I can call anything learning next to these dimly-lit bookshelves, amid the rows of old editions of the Texas Reports on Law with dates that feel strangely distant and somehow very present.
The era when the Law library was built feels the same. This stretch between the 1920s and ’30s was the lifespan of prohibition, the playground era for flappers and followers of the green light — cultural phenomena that students at the University might have been forced to endure in a high school literature class.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” Fitzgerald writes, and a roar of amen rises from North Campus as they throw their copies of “The Great Gatsby” into a well-funded new recycling machine.
To the students today who do sit within the Law Library, that era of prohibition likely feels ridiculous. The failed campaign, an attempt at masquerading public sobriety as public morality, feels especially removed when considering modern lives and modern laptops. Many sitting around me might have rolled out of Meijer with several blue 24-packs just earlier today. Most will endure no jail time for it.
But the Law Library, built in such a seemingly archaic time, is hardly a regressive stalwart against technological progress. Despite its buttressed ceilings, wooden walls and stained glass, the English Gothic architecture has not managed to keep modernity at bay. Gradient, cool mountains behind the white “Patagonia” label sticker Mac computers and pear-shaped Swell water bottles. Other students have stickers that advertise coffee, or the Wolverine Support Network, or have a cute design inspired by the 2009 Pixar animation film “Up.”
The donor of this library was William W. Cook. Cook came from a time at the University when suits were the uniform and sleevelessness a sin; when women were barred from the Michigan Union without a man by their side, and when North Campus did not exist.
So Cook would probably gawk at the attire of the students sitting within his Law Library. Across the table from me, a boy wears a white t-shirt that reads “Saturdays / New York City.” I think it’s a brand but I don’t know it. His hair looks vaguely like a ’80s movie star’s; brown, pushed back, but not aggressively.
Or the girl, sitting a few seats down from myself, scrolling for lingerie on LoversLane.com.
No comprehensive account exists of the construction of the University of Michigan Legal Research Library, more colloquially known as the Law Library. Rarely in the early 20th century did builders keep detailed notes of the day-to-day process, unless significant design changes were made on the ground; even then, those changes are more likely documented in letters — say, between builder and architect, or architect and patron.
This absence comes as a bit odd, even striking, when thinking about the ubiquity of the building. The Law Library is one of the first that comes to mind when describing the University’s campus, a glimmering piece of a classic, collegiate architecture on a campus with an often incongruous style. The Law Library stands apart from the Victorian storefronts downtown, the mixed style of the Michigan Union and the harsh brutalism of the Hatcher Graduate Library’s south stacks.
The prominence the library would play on campus was not unknown when it was built. In October of 1930, The Michigan Daily raved about the building, seeing it as a great moment for the University:
“The crying need for formulation, statement and improvement of all branches of the law into a form intelligible, not only to law students and lawyers, but to the layman as well, is at present being nowhere more adequately met than at this University, where, with the completion in a very few months of the Legal Research building, the latest addition to the Lawyers’ Club quadrangle, unprecedented facilities fors (sic) legal study will be available.”
For the writer, the facilities for the study of law and the actual study of law go hand-in-hand. One cannot occur without the other; it’s as if this gothic building, designed in a tradition that is especially collegiate, is meant to impart a studious excellence. You might think the effect goes the other way; that students, not the buildings, should bring the atmosphere of scholarship to the University.
But great collegiate architecture, especially the older, more gothic inspired buildings, can sometimes affect a desire for study in itself. The chandeliers, the long tables, the wooden bookshelves — these all have a way of tuning a student into the academic register. The building’s donor, William W. Cook, held this sense, that the facilities are necessary for good study.
Cook, born in Hillsdale, Mich., in 1858, donated the Law Library and most of the Law Quadrangle. After earning his undergraduate and legal degrees in 1880 and 1882 respectively, he went on to practice corporate law in New York City, on which he eventually wrote a widely circulated book, “Cook on Corporations.”
The book became a seminal work for corporate law, widely cited and reissued several times. Cook’s writings would help shape American corporate law just as it was becoming increasingly relevant, with the second industrial revolution ushering in the first large national companies. One of Cook’s other writings, “Trusts,” would help lay the foundation for Ohio’s famous anti-monopoly case to break up John D. Rockefeller’s corporation, Standard Oil Company.
He became one of the most prominent donors to the University, eventually giving a total of nearly $16 million (worth over $200 million in today’s money), which he says was in part to memorialize his father and in part a reflection of his strong desire to make the University one of the foremost leaders in legal study. He operated at first under a condition of strict anonymity with his donation, and he navigated publicity carefully. He once stated he wanted no buildings named after him, but after his death, the Law Quad and its buildings were renamed, and they all now bear his name.
Cook’s hand was heavy in the construction of the buildings, having requested plans for the library as early as 1924, without prior consultation with the law faculty. He contracted the New York-based architectural firm York & Sawyer, whose work he was familiar with, as the firm designed Cook’s own brownstone apartment in the Upper West Side of New York City.
As construction of the Law Quad commenced, Cook showed an increasing concern with the specifics of design. Though Cook had some prior stipulations, it was during the planning of the Law Library when animosity and willfulness began to show their colors.
“I know nothing about architecture but have had more experience in legal research than any of them,” Cook wrote in one letter, and he indeed imposed this will, requesting specific alterations in the location of bookcases, carrels, tables and so forth.
Though he concerned himself with the aesthetics, he above all believed in fostering the best possible place for “the scientific study of law, in all its aspects — social, political and economic,” at the University. His donations more than anything aimed to accomplish this. The faculty, though, grew irate with Cook during the construction of the Law Library.
“Cook’s manner is arrogant and he is, of course, wholly ignorant of local conditions,” Henry Bates wrote, the dean of the Law School at the time.
Cook was also growing unhappy, and the Law Library became the battleground between Cook and the University. Cook increasingly saw the University — besides a few select individuals — as inept, and began to take an even stronger role in working with the architects on study carrel arrangement, brick choice, bookshelf placement and so forth. At one point, Cook wrote of “serious differences between Bates and (President Clarence Cook) Little and myself as to the proposed new library building,” to the point where he threatened to remove funding. Soon after, he wrote to York, one of the architects: “I don’t believe I shall ever like the present design. It looks for all the world like a cathedral.” The building was completed in 1933.
The student with that confounding “Saturdays / New York City” t-shirt, studying in the William W. Cook Law Library, has gotten up. Behind he leaves a Starbucks cup and a laptop. The Starbucks cup is the festive all red one, which recalls Christmas and, if you will it, Satan. He returns about 10 minutes later and charges his laptop.
I go down the stairs of the Law Library into the basement, where Saturdays T-shirt just returned. Next to the green-carpeted extension, which was completed in 1981, are the men’s and women’s restrooms and vending machines. The men’s bathroom in the basement of the Law Library is a dark and sickly gray color, particularly fitting for an austere Gothic design.
On my campus tour, my guide enthusiastically compared the Law Quad to Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s Gothic, magical school of wizardry. The comparison seemed a bit cheesy, sort of forced at the time. The buildings are nice but I can’t fly on a broomstick or conjure frogs out of spiders, despite how much I’ve tried. But the comparison works in this bathroom. The cracked tiles and well worn urinals, as grimy as they are, give the place a sense of magic—because they’re real. Not that I think magic is real. But Hogwarts and Harry Potter wasn’t just some prim and proper Disney ride, omitting the grit of the wizarding world. There were ups and downs. There were murders. And I can see “Moaning Myrtle,” that poor girl killed by an enormous, bloodthirsty snake in book two, sitting in the last stall on the right in the men’s restroom.
I walk in that stall and don’t find Myrtle. Rather, a phrase sticks out, scribbled on the left divider: “This is the best place on campus to shit.” They — whoever they are — might be right, and this was likely meant to be fraternal, but instead, it has an oddly violating, sort of voyeuristic sense to it, and Harry Potter and his broomstick-flying friends disappear, leaving one-ply toilet paper in their place.
William Cook died in 1930 at the age of 72, before his library and the Law Quad were completed. He never, so much as we know, paid a visit to see the buildings as they were constructed. The Michigan Daily wrote of a rumor that he feared actually observing the buildings might result in disillusionment with the grand project he set out to create. He did, though, ask for monthly statistics and reports on the usages of the facilities. He did the same for the all-female Martha Cook Residence Hall, which he also donated and had named for his mother. The same architectural firm Cook hired for the Law Quad, York & Sawyer, designed Martha Cook.
Cook’s reputation with the University is complicated — not nearly as simplistic as the benevolent donor narrative that $16 million is bound to make for you. Cook had large strings attached to some of his donations, even outlining the specific terms for eligibility into the Lawyer’s Club, which was built just before the Law Library. Arguments over those conditions are at least part of the reason President Clarence Cook Little — who is known today for his eugenicist views — was forced to resign in 1929, pushed by the regents because they felt he lacked diplomacy in the matter.
Cook’s legacy remains nonetheless vital to the University. Today, the Law Quad, and the Law Library especially, represent the utmost in architectural beauty at the University. Cook’s donations also helped, as he hoped they would, to solidify the University as a place for legal excellence, which it has remained since the erection of these facilities.
I’m thinking about legal excellence, looking at the table across Saturdays T-shirt, as a boy puts his forehead flat down on the wooden table. The patterns in the wood on which he lies are mesmerizing, and if stared at long enough, induce a kind of psychedelic experience. Near the boy’s resting head sits a sign that reads, “Food Forbidden — Noncompliance will result in removal from the premises.”
Next to the boy with his head down on the table, a girl in a Delta Delta Delta sweater reads a psychology textbook, open to a page about the brain, looking at a section about the amygdala, a little almond shaped nucleus in the temporal lobe. Two girls whisper to each other at the table next to her, and she glares at them, then grabs a handful of nuts from her trail mix.
I leave the Law Library, walking out the heavy doors and into the bitter cold, head numb from dull democratic theory. There comes a point after exiting the library when the synapses stop firing, when you disconnect entirely from the collective groupthink, the brain that sits beneath the floor corked for added silence, and suddenly that paper on de Tocqueville seems absurd as your friend regales you of the endowment of their most recent fling.
Of everything Cook concerned himself about regarding the exterior of the Law Library, it was the minarets, as he called them, on the four corners of the building that occupied him most. He was adamant about these, and he got his wish.
“At any rate kindly raise the corners 20 or 30 or 40 feet and let us see how the whole building will look,” he wrote to York and so they did. It’s unclear why these corners were of such specific interest to Cook, who seemed far more concerned with function and practicality than aesthetics.
But these pillars stand tall now, defining features of the Law Library. For those who live on South Campus, walking home from Ashley’s will pass these unmistakable pillars. I’ve made this walk many times and never fail to look left on State Street with a prideful sense of awe at the spires leaping into the sky. Those minarets give setting to the flocks of crows which often occupy a few nearby trees, and in the evening it’s not uncommon for a few of those black birds to swirl and shriek around the pillars.
On this particular evening, the sky is strangely red, sort of frightening, like a scene from an old horror film about werewolves and vampires, shot in grainy blacks and grays. Looking at those pillars, I thank Cook for the extra 20 or 30 or 40 feet. Inside, a girl with the phrase “The Lodge” on her red T-shirt sits in the seat where Saturdays T-shirt sat before. She locks eyes with the Tri-Delt eating almonds from her trail mix and takes a deep breath.