When Heads Rolled
By James Tobin
...let the gargoyles stand headless.– William Wilson Cook
Chapter 1 What Donald Smith Knew
In the 1920s, the job of secretary of the University of Michigan was held by a man named Shirley Wheeler Smith. His title may have sounded pedestrian, but the job itself was actually a position of considerable power.
Smith was the school’s chief financial officer, chief liaison between the administration and the board of regents, and chief troubleshooter. He was an expert on the University’s history, and he knew which closets held skeletons from the Medical School to the homes of Ann Arbor’s finest families. In short, he probably knew more about the University than anyone alive.
But one evening in July 1924, as Smith sat down to dinner at his home on South University, he learned an alarming fact that had entirely escaped his notice.
It was his teenage son, Donald, who clued him in.
Chapter 3 Dreamer and Dictator
Shirley Smith was one of the few people in Ann Arbor who knew William Cook at all. Cook professed to love his alma mater but he refused every invitation to return. No one knew why.
It was only one of his peculiarities. Years later, Smith would describe Cook as “a strange composite of the urbane and the tyrannical, the generous and the suspicious, the dreamer and the dictator.”
Born to a prominent family in Hillsdale, Michigan, in 1858, Cook had earned his bachelor’s and law degrees in Ann Arbor, then hastened to New York to make his career. He helped to shape the field of corporate law just when U.S. corporations were ascending to great power. With his fees, his investments, and wealth inherited from his father, Cook by the 1920s was a millionaire many times over.
He was a workaholic and a loner. After his only marriage ended in divorce—rare for a man of his social position in that era—he divided his time between his sumptuous townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (next door to the “robber baron” Henry Clay Frick), his office, his clubs, and a country estate. “His acquaintance at the bar was limited,” said a contemporary, “and his intimate friendships few.”
In the early 1910s, Cook agreed to pay for a fine women’s dormitory at U-M. He had it named for his mother, Martha Cook. After the dormitory opened in 1915, Cook began to consider where to leave the rest of his money. Michigan’s president, Harry Burns Hutchins, a former dean of the Law School, began to woo the New Yorker for the largest gift in the University’s history.
Chapter 4 “The Reason I Am Doing All This”
Cook liked and respected President Hutchins, and he quickly gravitated to the idea of a gift that might transform the Law School. But he had his own ideas about what the Law School should be, and his manner with U-M officials was downright impossible.
When Hutchins retired in 1920, the job of nailing down Cook’s millions fell to the new president, Marion LeRoy Burton, and Dean Bates of the Law School. Those two began to regard their distant benefactor in New York like wayward schoolboys fearing the wrath of a tyrannical principal.
Cook believed he had good reason to be highly particular. To him, the stakes were enormous. He was donating his millions to save a republic in danger.
He was in the midst of writing a dense and thorny book entitled American Institutions. Those institutions, he said, were under siege from a sinister combination of concentrated wealth, organized labor, and the emigration of “millions of impossible people from southern and eastern Europe.” (Cook’s xenophobia was not uncommon among the WASP elites of his era, though not many elaborated their ideas as extensively as he did.)
To safeguard the nation, he counted on higher education and the nation’s lawyers, its natural leaders. His example was ancient Rome. “The American Republic will fall apart or a new Caesar will seize the power and rule by force unless the American Bar holds the Republic together…”
In this mood, Cook began to sketch plans for “a great center of legal education and of jurisprudence for the common good of the people.”
Unabashedly elitist, he imagined a setting so beautiful it would lure the nation’s brightest students to study law in Ann Arbor. It would be a place where they could mingle with professors, senior lawyers, and jurists—in effect, a fine gentlemen’s club with its own splendid clubhouse.
Cook shared Dean Bates’s hopes for expanded faculty research, and he thought the first goal could nurture the second. That is, a Lawyers Club for the brightest students of the Law School and the literary college might generate an endowment; then the endowment could pay for faculty to do more research. Other buildings, including a great law library and a classroom building, would follow—or so Cook promised, vaguely—but he said the Lawyers Club must be built first. In his mind, it was the key to the whole project.
“[T]he character of the legal profession depends largely on the law schools,” he wrote President Burton. “Hence in my opinion nothing is more important than those schools and anything that tends to elevate them tends to perpetuate American institutions. That is the reason I am doing all this.”
For his architects, Cook chose Edward York and Philip Sawyer, leaders of a respected New York firm. Following Cook’s orders, they drew breathtaking blueprints in the style known as “College Gothic,” with strong echoes of medieval cathedrals and the great English universities at Oxford and Cambridge. Soon, the old houses sitting on what Cook called “the finest seven acres in Ann Arbor” were being torn down and the Lawyers Club was rising in their place.
But none of this was happening quickly enough for Dean Henry Bates. He was watching the whole business of transforming his Law School with an uneasy mixture of ambition, irritation, and ill will toward practically everyone involved.
Unabashedly elitist, William W. Cook imagined a setting so beautiful it would lure the nation’s brightest students to study law in Ann Arbor.
Chapter 5 The Dean’s Disposition
Restlessly ambitious, Bates had been appointed dean in 1910. Ever since, he had been complaining about the cramped old Law Building at the northwest corner of the Diag. He wanted a new building and a big expansion of the Law School’s mission. But when he failed to get the state legislature’s backing, he fell back on waiting for “some generous alumnus” to step forward.
William Cook was just that man, of course. But the two disliked each other from the first.
Bates had his strengths, but an easy-going temperament wasn’t one of them. After one meeting with Bates, Regent James Murfin wrote President Burton: “Much as I deplore my own disposition, which goodness knows is bad enough, I thank heavens I do not possess his.”
Everything about Bates irritated Cook. He grew tired of the dean’s needling pressure to promise more funds for the Law Quadrangle. It was rumored that Cook once refused to see Bates when the latter arrived for a conference in New York. And in letters Cook began to address Bates as he might a hapless junior law partner.
Once, when the dean was slow to send Cook a promised document, Cook informed Bates that in Wall Street law firms, “instructions are obeyed or off comes his head. [The Michigan law faculty] remind me of the lawyers in my native town when I was a boy. They would hibernate most of the year and sit around and put their feet on the table and tell stories and smoke bad seegars.… What I am trying to do is to wake you people up.”
Bates steamed. He griped about “Mr. Cook’s little pleasantries…his digs…the abject humility which he seems to like in others.” After the latest dressing-down, he wrote to President Burton: “All of his arguments could be easily demolished; but where a man is proposing to give 20 or more millions – and won’t listen to your arguments—all you can do…is to lie down and be rolled over, as gracefully as possible…”
But grace was not Bates’s strong suit, and his behavior toward Cook began to cause serious concern.
Chapter 6 “Going to Pieces…”
Bates had wanted to be named president of the University. When the Regents chose the president of Smith College, Marion LeRoy Burton, for the job instead, the dean nursed a cold resentment of the Regents and Burton alike.
In a private letter to the dean of the Harvard Law School, Bates went so far as to call President Burton a “platitudinous mountebank” whose “intellectual and moral standards are disgusting,” whatever that might mean.
If Bates said something like that to William Cook, administrators feared, the donor might just give his money to someone else.
So Regent Walter Sawyer, a boyhood friend of Cook’s who practiced medicine in their home town of Hillsdale, made it his mission to soothe Cook whenever Dean Bates was acting out.
“Don’t let Bates annoy you,” Sawyer advised Cook at one point. “He is so childish about a lot of things… I have feared he would make a nuisance of himself….It is unfortunate but so often true that men of distinguished ability have decided handicaps in disposition or character.”
Then, in the spring of 1923, Bates’s disposition apparently went right off the rails. At a meeting with the Lawyers Club architects in New York, he broke out in a full-scale rant, shouting: “When these buildings are done I am going to have my way. … I don’t want to harm the University but I could do it in either of two ways: I could resign or I could write a letter to Mr. Cook which would keep him from giving the buildings.” (What Bates meant by that is anyone’s guess, but it’s possible that Bates was tempted to uncork his venom about President Burton’s allegedly “disgusting moral standards.”)
When President Burton heard about this, he became genuinely concerned about Bates’s mental health.
“I urged the Dean strongly to get some real rest,” Burton wrote one of the regents. “He admitted that his nerves were ‘raw’…Either someone wants a fight or is going to pieces.”
Chapter 7 Six Stone Faces
In the summer of 1924, the Lawyers Club was moving toward completion. After months of heavy construction, the noise and dust were beginning to settle down, and work was underway on the building’s myriad details.
In the midst of it, stonemasons were carving small works of decorative art. The most striking of these were charming human figures that would sit atop stone supports called corbels in the open-air archways that passed through the building at three points.
They were designed by artists in the New York shop of Ulysses Ricci and Angelo Zari, whose stonework adorned Detroit’s General Motors Building and Fisher Building as well as U-M’s Graduate Library and Angell Hall.
Once mounted, the figures would look as if they were holding the vaulted ceilings of the archways on their shoulders, so architects called them “atlas figures.” (They were also called corbels and gargoyles, though, to get technical, a true gargoyle spews rainwater from a gutter.)
The effect on a visitor was surprising and winning, as if he were seeing a cartoon tucked into the stone face of a forbidding castle.
In the easternmost passageway, near Tappan Street, there were a dozen of these atlas figures. They represented the four seasons (including the seasonal sports of football, hockey, baseball and tennis) and several professions, including law, engineering and architecture.
In the west passageway, near State Street, four more disciplines were symbolized—astronomy, medicine, business, and military science.
And in the largest passageway, in the center, the masons hoisted and installed the six largest figures.
Three of these were the likenesses of past presidents: Henry Philip Tappan, the first president of U-M; his successor, Erastus O. Haven; and James Burrill Angell, the longest-serving.
Then there were those three figures that Shirley Smith saw—Smith himself; Jerome Knowlton, a law professor who served as dean from 1891 to 1895; and Henry Moore Bates, the least favorite Michigan man on William Cook’s list.
Stonemasons were carving small works of decorative art … charming human figures that would sit atop stone supports called corbels in the open-air archways that passed through the building.
Chapter 8 “Let the Gargoyles Stand Headless”
It’s not clear who sent him the news about the sculptures. Possibly it was Shirley Smith himself, who knew a red flag when he saw one.
Cook tried to find out who had chosen the heads, but no one admitted to knowing. So he sent a blast to his architects, York and Sawyer:
“I was astonished to learn…that without my knowledge or approval and at my expense you have placed in one of the passageways of the Lawyers Club building…six heads of persons connected with the University.…
“Who suggested this and who selected them and who furnished the photographs and on what principle were the selections made and why was not I informed?
“I cannot imagine you undertook the selection yourselves, as you were never connected with the University and know little of its history.
“If the selection had been confined to notable Presidents, that would be one thing, but to bring in the secretary [Smith] (who is not even a lawyer) and the Dean, who has had predecessors and will have successors, is another thing. Can you not see the impropriety of magnifying minor University officials in a building constructed and equipped on such a high plane as that?”
The three presidential statues were all right, he said, but the other three should have been “filled in as Time approved.”
“They have no place there. I don’t care how the removal may look. If new ones cannot be substituted later, let the gargoyles stand headless.”
“Can you not see the impropriety of magnifying minor University officials in a building constructed and equipped on such a high plane as that?”– William W. Cook
Chapter 9 Who Chose the Heads?
The architect Edward York ordered the offending figures to be hacked off the building. Then he moved swiftly to mollify his unhappy client.
“There is nobody to blame for this slip except myself,” York wrote Cook, “and I didn’t realize as you do the incongruity of the last three [Smith, Bates and Knowlton] until I saw them when I visited the job last. I can’t understand why I didn’t use ordinary horse sense and consult you in the matter.”
By assuming the blame, York took one for the team. But he must have been protecting somebody.
For as Cook himself said, the architects knew little about the history of the University, and never would have chosen an obscure figure like Jerome Knowlton on their own.
Regent Walter Sawyer, the doctor in Hillsdale who was Cook’s personal friend, told Cook the selection “was done without the suggestion or influence of any one connected with the University.”
But it had to be somone connected with the University. The architects knew Dean Bates and Shirley Smith, but they didn’t pull Jerome Knowlton’s name and face out of a hat. So Regent Sawyer likely was telling a white lie to placate Cook.
So if not the architects, who chose the heads?
It must have been someone with a measure of authority in the building project. It also had to be someone who knew U-M well enough to know that Shirley Smith and Dean Bates were important adminstrators with key roles in the Lawyers Club construction project. And it had to be someone who knew the Law School’s history well enough to suggest Jerome Knowlton.
President Burton might fit those criteria. But in all the records of the Law Quad’s construction, there’s no hint that he took a hand in minor design decisions.
Conceivably it was a University regent. Walter Sawyer, Cook’s friend, was the regent most involved in the project. But records show that Sawyer learned about the stone figures only after Cook did.
It could have been Shirley Smith, who had dealings with the architects. But Smith’s expression of bewilderment at seeing his own face in stone seems wholly sincere. And Smith was well aware of the need to tread softly with Cook. He never would have thought it wise to include Dean Bates among the stone figures.
So who else?
Perhaps there were others who fit the criteria, but the only obvious candidate is Dean Bates himself.
Perhaps the rattled and embattled dean, steeped in bitterness at Cook and envy of his boss, President Burton, thought it might just be a droll joke to have himself immortalized in limestone in Mr. Cook’s grand edifice.
The architect Edward York ordered the offending figures to be hacked off the building.
Chapter 10 The Aftermath
William Cook had a beloved niece, Florentine Cook Heath, who tried to tell people that her uncle was not the ogre he sometimes seemed.
Many years after the statues were beheaded, she said that “when the presence of the gargoyles was first reported to Mr. Cook…he really had a good laugh over the whole business. He was delighted that Shirley Smith was included but was considerably irritated that Dean Bates was among those represented and decided ‘Off with their Heads.’ He really got a great deal of amusement out of the whole affair.”
“Most of the disturbing letters he wrote with a twinkle in his eye,” she said, “but the twinkle didn’t show in Ann Arbor.”
The offending heads were guillotined. Evans Holbrook, a popular law professor, told friends he had combed the rubble for one of Dean Bates’s stone ears, “so that he might thereafter always have the ear of the Dean.”
In New York, William Cook puzzled over the episode for days. He couldn’t understand the choice of Jerome Knowlton, whom he had never heard of. In a follow-up letter to Edward York, Cook made his best guess. “I presume his name and photograph were given you by Dean Bates,” he wrote, “but why I can’t imagine… If there are any other freak things about that building kindly let me know, so that I may have them cleaned out before the students move in.”
In place of the smashed figures, three more were sculpted and set in their places, completing the set of all six U-M presidents down to the 1920s. To the figures of Tappan, Haven and Angell, the sculptors added Henry Simmons Frieze, a beloved professor of the late 1800s who served two brief terms as acting president; Harry Burns Hutchins, who had urged Cook to give his millions to Michigan; and Marion LeRoy Burton, whose figure holds a stone hammer to commemorate his nickname, “Burton the Builder,” since so many important buildings were constructed during his term.
Despite all his threats and bluster, Cook stayed true to his intentions. After a long struggle with tuberculosis, he died in 1930, but not before he had provided funds for the John P. Cook Dormitory (named for Cook’s father and completed in 1930); the Legal Research Building, better known as the Law Library (1931), and Hutchins Hall (1933).
In today’s dollars, his gifts to Michigan would exceed $250 million.
Henry Bates served as dean until 1939. His 29-year term in the office is the longest in the Law School’s history.
The Law Quadrangle, now named as a whole for Cook, is arguably the most distinguished and famous edifice on Michigan’s campus. Hailed for its beauty, it has provoked “a sense of protectiveness and trusteeship” among generations of alumni, said Francis Allen, dean of the Law School from 1966 to 1971. The School’s physical setting has been “of enormous importance,” Allen once told an interviewer, “and it can’t be measured, of course, in any precise way.
“It was always a delightful thing to go out into the Quad on a May morning [and] see a family group walking across the Quadrangle,” Allen said. “This was [a] father who had been a student here, and he is bringing his wife and his children to the Law Quadrangle, and he is pointing out where his room was and reliving his student days.”
Whatever their differences, Cook and Dean Bates shared an ambition—to make Michigan’s Law School one of the greatest in the world. As Cook’s biographer, Margaret Leary, has written, “Cook was driven primarily by an ideal that remains pervasive at Michigan Law today: to preserve the institutions of our democracy and to raise the standards of legal education as a means to that end.”
Certainly the Law Quadrangle helped to accomplish those aims.
* * *
The six presidents memorialized atop the Law Quad’s corbels were all deeply serious men. But if you stand in the half-light of the Lawyers Club’s central passageway and look closely at the atlas figures, you may glimpse a hint of amusement on several faces, especially those of Harry Hutchins and Marion Burton. They were the two presidents who best knew the tempestuous donor in New York and the grumbling dean in Ann Arbor.
Cook’s own bust, made from his death mask, stands at the west end of the Law Library’s magnificent Reading Room. Words he wrote are carved over the State Street entrance to the Lawyers Club:
“The character of the legal profession depends on the character of the law schools. The character of the law schools forecasts the future of America.”
He never saw the Law Quad.
* * *
Anyone wishing to look further into the life of William Cook and the building of the Law Quadrangle is urged to consult Margaret Leary’s authoritative biography, Giving It All Away: The Story of William W. Cook and his Michigan Law Quadrangle (2011); Ilene Forsyth, The Uses of Art: Medieval Metaphor in the Michigan Law Quadrangle (1993); and Kathryn Horste, The Michigan Law Quadrangle: Architecture and Origins (1997). Other sources include the papers of Walter Hulme Sawyer and Elizabeth Gaspar Brown at the Bentley Historical Library; Alexander Grant Ruthven, Naturalist in Two Worlds: Random Collections of a University President (1963); and Shirley W. Smith, Harry Burns Hutchins and the University of Michigan (1951).
Several passages in this story are adapted from James Tobin, Michigan Law at 150: An Informal History (2004).
The writer is grateful for help from Margaret Leary, Ilene Forsyth, Kim Clarke and Katie Gazella Vloet.