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Domes hold mystique for philanthropist Cook

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Gayle Cook has seen her share of the magnificent and exotic during her travels, and after all of that, she still feels fascination and a sense of wonder in the mystique of domes.

She marvels at grand churches, courthouses and certainly, the awe-inspiring 200-foot-diameter dome above the West Baden Springs Hotel that she and her late husband, Bill, restored and reopened in the summer of 2007.

Cook knows domes.

"Domes compel you to look upward with awe and respect, and that's what you're supposed to do with churches and courthouses," she explained last week.

Even at West Baden, which you've seen hundreds of times?

"I do it over and over, every time," she said with a smile. "I also enjoy sitting in there and having lunch and watching other people do it. As soon as they enter, they stop and look up, and you can sometimes see them say 'wow.'"

Cook will speak on "The Mystique of Domes" at 4 p.m. Thursday at Whittenberger Auditorium in the Indiana Memorial Union in Bloomington. Her presentation is sponsored by the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology at Indiana University and the associated Stone Age Institute.

Surprisingly enough, the first real eye-opener to the beauty and majesty of domes that Cook experienced came from a stint serving jury duty at the Monroe County Courthouse in the early 1980s. While most of the courthouse had been carved up and sectioned off to create offices over the years, the inside of the dome loomed large over the Superior Courtroom and Cook was both impressed by the handsome stained-glass interior and disappointed that it wasn't visible to the public at large. It provided one big motivation for Cook and other members of the courthouse's Citizens Building and Grounds Committee to push for a renovation that would open up the rotunda and return it to its original glory.

"And then West Baden came into the picture, and that's a serious dome story," she said. Indeed, the spectacular domed hotel — dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when the 1902 structure was new — had fallen into such disrepair that six floors had "pancaked" down in a portion of the building. But the dome, supported by 24 columns, remained remarkably intact.

A reported $100 million worth of renovations later, West Baden is now on various lists of the nation's top historical resorts and hotels.

Cook has made it a point to see other famous domes, such as Royal Albert Hall in London, where she once bought tickets for a musical performance and confounded the box office attendant by asking for the highest seats in the house. "I wanted to get a good look at the ceiling," she explained.

What she saw was profoundly disappointing. "Sound is a problem with domes," she acknowledged. "They wound up dealing with their issues by installing these (sound baffles) that look like upside down toadstools. It looks weird."

That will never happen at West Baden as long as Gayle Cook is alive.

Sadly, Bill Cook, the highly successful businessman and philanthropist, died last April, just a day before the Cooks and a "who's who" of Indianapolis movers and shakers were to celebrate the primarily Cook-financed restoration of that city's Central Avenue United Methodist Church. The signature attraction to the structure, now the home of Indiana Landmarks, is — you guessed it — a handsome dome.

Gayle Cook's passion for domes remains unabated. She's currently working with people at Indiana State University in Terre Haute to restore a beautiful dome in the school's former library, which, like the Monroe County Courthouse dome, has been long hidden from the public.

Her presentation Thursday will cover the history of domes from ancient times and through different civilizations until modern times. She'll cover Indiana's well-known domes, such as Notre Dame's Golden Dome, as well as lesser-known domes.

"I never tire of talking about domes, as long as there are people who want to listen," she said.

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