|© courtesy Ron Koenig
Herman Bock, Decorator
A gift from the past at the Law School
by Grace Shackman
Last summer, Deb Adamic was cleaning the ceiling of the U-M Law Library’s reading room when she spotted a cubbyhole where the ceiling beams meet the wall. Reaching in, Adamic felt something loose and pulled out a grimy tube. Inside was a rolled-up piece of canvas bearing the inscription “Herman Bock—Feb. 5, 1931—Ann Arbor, Mich.—Decorator.”
“It was like a gift from the past,” says Adamic’s boss, Ron Koenig. “He put his name up fifty feet off the ground where no one could see it, with the thought that someday someone would see his name.”
Many people know that Law School alum William Cook (class of 1882) gave the money for the beautiful Law Quadrangle. Historians are well aware that York and Sawyer, well-respected East Coast architects, designed the buildings. But until Adamic discovered Bock’s note, the artisans who decorated the building had remained uncredited.
A city directory of the time shows a Herman R. Bock and his wife, Elizabeth, living at 435 South First Street. His occupation is listed as “painter.”
“Decorative painters were the unsung heroes” of historic buildings, Koenig says. “They traveled from project to project and kept a low profile.” Although they’re rare, Koenig had previously run across a couple of other examples of artisans who have left their names to posterity. In the early 1990s, when he was working at the state capitol in Lansing, he found the name Frank Baumgras written on the top of a door frame. The door was poplar and pine, treated to look like walnut. Koenig did some research and discovered that Baumgras was only peripherally involved in the decoration—his brothers and nephews did most of it—so it’s possible he signed his work because he was unused to anonymity. The name was left intact, with a piece of Plexiglas to protect it.
Working at Wisconsin’s capitol in 1996, Koenig was cleaning and replicating painted surfaces when he found five or six signatures entwined in a floral design high on a wall. He
realized they were all women’s names and thought, “Wow—what a great thing.” When the wing where he was working was built, from 1910 to 1913, it would have been unusual for women to be involved in such a project.
It is easy to imagine why Herman Bock would have wanted credit for his work on the Law School’s reading room. The coffered ceiling, made of plaster hand painted to look like wood, is gorgeous. The recessed square panels are painted in a fleur-de-lis pattern in blue and ivory. The beams that run across the ceiling are richly decorated in bright colors and have winged shields at their midpoints. Figures of griffins—mythical winged lions—hold more shields at the points where the beams meet the walls.
The four Law Quad buildings were erected between 1923 and 1933. The library was the third completed, in 1931. It looks and feels like a Tudor Gothic cathedral, except that the entrance is on the low, long north side rather than the high, peaked east or west end. There’s even stained glass in the windows—though instead of depicting saints, these feature the seals of other universities with law schools.
Except for routine maintenance and repair, no work had been done on the reading room since it opened. Small lights lit the desks, and light streamed in from the stained-glass windows higher up, but the area between was gloomy. The painted ceiling had darkened with age.
In June 2007 the Law School received a $3 million gift from Charles Munger, a Warren Buffett associate who attended the U-M as an undergrad but didn’t finish (interrupted by World War II, he never got a bachelor’s degree—but did graduate from Harvard Law School). The school raised matching funds for what it called the “lighting project,” since the focus was on making the reading room brighter (it also included safety improvements in the library and neighboring Hutchins Hall).
“The reading room is such a gem,” says Lois Harden, the Law
School’s facilities manager. “We wanted to do updates as needed while enhancing the iconic areas and have it all work together, not pull apart.” For instance, exit signs were required but would have looked out of place on the walls. Instead, they were installed on historic-looking metal poles.
Ron Koenig was delighted to win the bid to renovate the ceiling. He had lived in the Law Quad in 1971 when he was a grad student studying English and had fallen in love with the Law Library. Even then, he had noticed that the ceiling needed cleaning.
The ceiling job presented two major challenges: how to work safely fifty feet above the floor, and how to clean and restore the paint without doing any damage. The first challenge was solved with rolling towers. The second was made easier when Koenig discovered that the paint was oil based, not water based, and therefore wouldn’t dissolve in water-based cleaner.
Still, the job was huge. “We cleaned a ceiling the size of a football field with balls of cotton,” says Koenig. He also recast medallions damaged when lights were installed, cleaned parts of the limestone walls that had suffered water damage, and treated metal light units to look like stone.
While work on the ceiling proceeded, Harden sent the reading desks, also untouched since the library opened, out to be refinished. When the ceiling work was done, she also had the original cork floors replaced. They had worn remarkably well and did an excellent job of keeping the noise down, but they were dirty and scuffed. Most of the work was finished by the time the Law School opened last fall. The last job, rehanging the restored chandeliers, was done over Christmas break.
Herman Bock’s signature hasn’t been forgotten. Koenig had the canvas framed on acid-free matting, with glass on each side so that both the front and the back are visible. He will give it to the Law School to display in the building.
The Law School’s enrollment has doubled since the Law Quad opened. Its next challenge is to create more room without harming the beauty of the original buildings.
Two attempts to expand the complex have been made in the past, one more successful than the other. The modern-style metal addition to the library stacks facing Monroe Street is widely disliked, while the clever underground library addition is widely applauded. The Law School is now raising money for a three-pronged project: to replace the stacks’ metal cladding with a stone facade; to create a student commons by filling in a courtyard between the library and Hutchins Hall; and constructing an entirely new building in place of the parking lot across Monroe Street, next to Weill Hall.
[Originally published in March, 2009.]