INDIANA (WEHT) – 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.
Gayle 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.
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.
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.