Recall your experience of living in the residence halls. During this rite of passage, you might have encountered one or more of the following: nasty dorm food, a run-in with a drunken (and possibly vomiting) roommate, getting sexiled (or sexiling someone else) and adjusting to the awkward concept of community bathrooms. You probably trudged through it, counting down the days until you could adopt a living situation that afforded you a little dignity.
But there is a residence hall that doesn’t inspire that same repulsion to on-campus living. It’s a place where the residents take pride in their residence hall experience and form a community of unique morals and traditions. It’s also a place that, for many students on campus, remains shrouded in mystery and confusion. The place is Martha Cook — a bastion of single-sex housing that evokes a time in the University’s history when men and women students slept on separate sides of the Engineering Arch.
Laura Hahn, an LSA freshman who lives in Martha Cook, agreed to act as my guide to campus’s most enigmatic dorm. It’s true that men cannot enter the dorm without a resident escort, but the same goes for outside women. Only with Hahn’s help could I gain admittance to the hallowed hall.
After attempting to get in the doors twice and failing, I opted to wait outside for my escort to return from class. There were just a few people around me, looking about as unsure of themselves as I felt — a couple awkward-looking boys fidgeting in their tennis shoes and a girl with fiery red hair.
As I finally followed Hahn inside to the dorm’s lobby, I was amazed by the tall ceilings, long hallways, tapestries and wood-engraved walls. It was as if we had jumped out of Ann Arbor and into a Charlotte Brontë novel.
People were talking in small groups all around me — we had come just in time for Martha Cook’s Friday night teatime. I was surrounded by some of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever seen — fresh cookies, rice crispy treats and beautiful cakes — all made by the Martha Cook chef, whose specialty is desserts.
Teatime takes place in one of the large lobbies, called the Gold Room for its dazzling floors, walls and furniture. The picturesque room was teeming with residents and their guests, mostly young women and visiting family members. Despite the formal-looking room, I didn’t feel out of place in my brown Converse and thermal shirt. The room was so full of tea timers that it took Hahn a couple minutes to find us a quiet place where we could sit and talk.
I figured the best way to break the ice was to immediately address the “Martha Cook” stereotype: a “cookie-cutter, prim and proper girl,” as described by Hahn. She said the girls are aware of the stigma that surrounds their living situation, and she thinks that a lot of Martha Cook’s mystique stems from the moment students step onto campus for their orientation tour.
“I remember Martha Cook being a part of the tours, but not a lot of the tour guides even know much about it,” Hahn said. “So it’s kind of like they instill that mystery into new students and it kind of just continues on.”
Martha Cook has a different meal plan from other dorms, meaning non-residents can’t use their M-Cards to eat in the hall. Lauren Humphrey, Assistant Resident Director for Martha Cook, said that fact might give students the impression that the dorm is odd overall.
“You can’t just wander in and eat here if you don’t live here, which creates more of a mystery and makes people assume that we are snobby,” Humphrey said.
Although there is a stricter set of rules in place at Martha Cook — mandatory house meetings, set hours for receiving male visitors and required work duty — it’s not as oppressive as many people think.
“I know there a lot of false misconceptions,” Hahn said. “Like the whole curfew thing—that’s a huge one. Most people are like, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ ”
Martha Cook residents are not required to be home at any set time. But there are visitation hours for men — 11:00 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and until 2:00 a.m. on weekends. Another rule stipulates that each resident does one hour of tea service each semester. Breaking the rules can lead to being kicked out, but Humphrey, who deals with most resident issues, said that such a measure has rarely been taken.
Teatime, the main buzz on campus surrounding Martha Cook, is every Friday and is one of the major traditions. But the women do a lot more than just drink tea. Residents are given a detailed event calendar at the beginning of each semester, complete with the special teatimes, dinners, dances and other events. Amongst other traditions, there are “sit-downs” every Wednesday, which can be formal — no jeans allowed — or informal.
“We all gather outside the dining hall doors that open at 5:15, and then we would stand behind our chairs,” Hahn said, “Then, we all would sing a song, and then sit down at the same time and eat together.”
There is also a historical relationship with the Lawyer’s Club, which Hahn explains is from having the same founder — William Cook. Once a year, Martha Cook invites the lawyers over for lunch and ask that they do not bring friends. In the past, the strange coupling of young undergraduate women and older law students may have helped young ladies in attaining their Mrs. degrees — in other words, a fine lawyer husband. But Hahn said that the groups now associate out of tradition, not to make matches.
“It doesn’t have the same connotation as it did in the past,” she said. “This isn’t the ’70s and they aren’t trying to pair us up.”
Hahn enjoys having the opportunity to attend events put on by Martha Cook, all of which are optional.
“It has a little bit more of a community because they do have the events set up for us,” she said. “I don’t want to make a comparison to a sorority because it’s not. But we do have Marion Law who is our resident director, who does live here with us, and we have compared her to like a ‘house mother,’ as well as our own cooking staff separate from the university.”
When compared to walking through my whitewashed wall hallway in Oxford with every single door closed, accounts of Martha Cook made me realize that my residence hall experience is nowhere near as enriching.
“It’s just a really strong community,” Humphrey said. “I have made so many good friends. It happens a lot that girls will live here all four years, so it just really adds to the community aspect.”
Although Martha Cook has been fulfilling for both Hahn and Humphrey, they both stressed that the lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
“We’ll get a lot of freshmen who will move out because they want to join a sorority or decide the lifestyle isn’t for them,” Humphrey said. “But we also get a lot of girls who really love it.”