Abner Cook, carpenter, architect, and contractor, was born near Salisbury, North Carolina, on March 15, 1814, the son of William and Susanna (Hill) Cook. He seems to have served an apprenticeship at Salisbury under the tutelage of Samuel Lemly, a master builder and gentleman farmer. Lemly built a bridge over the South Yadkin River (1824–25) to the designs of Ithiel Town and built the First Presbyterian Church, Salisbury (1826), a brick temple-form structure with freestanding portico in the Roman Ionic manner. In 1835, at age twenty-one, Cook moved to Macon, Georgia, where he may have found work on the construction crew for two imposing Greek Revival buildings, the Georgia Female College and the Monroe Railroad and Banking Company, both built to the designs of Elam Alexander. When the panic of 1837 brought building to a halt, Cook moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He seems to have taken careful note of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's country place, and of other recent Greek Revival work, but there was little work to be had in Nashville, and he moved to Texas in 1839.
Cook arrived in Texas just as the fledgling republic was beginning the construction of a new capital city on the western frontier, to be called Austin. By the summer of 1839 Cook was there and in partnership with a New York carpenter, Heman Ward. They did little work on the public buildings, but instead occupied themselves with private commissions for houses and furniture. Ward soon drifted back to the Gulf Coast, but Cook put down roots in the community. In October 1839 he and five others founded the first Presbyterian church in Austin, indeed, the first church in Austin. Cook later built the congregation's first log church with his own hands. On September 15, 1842, he married a widow, Mrs. Eliza T. Logan, with whom he had four sons. During the trying days when the capital was removed from Austin, little building was done, and for two years Cook was a partner of Jacob Higgins in the ownership of a lumbermill in Bastrop.
In 1847, a year after Texas entered the Union, Cook built a large residence for Thomas William Ward, veteran of the Texas Revolution, commissioner of the General Land Office, and one of the wealthiest men in Austin. Ward's was a two-story frame house with a single-story portico, late Federal in style and not unlike the Lewis Utzman House in Salisbury, built between 1814 and 1819, possibly by Cook's mentor Samuel Lemly. Several years later Cook built a single-story brick house in the Federal style for his friend Dr. William Copeland Philips (1854), and a two-story frame house in the same style for another friend, Dr. Samuel G. Haynie. Cook soon bought the latter house and lived in it for the rest of his life. From summer 1848 until early 1850 he was at Huntsville, supervising the construction of the Texas State Penitentiary. Back in Austin Cook was contractor for woodwork on the 1852 state Capitol, built to the designs of his partner and fellow carpenter John Brandon, who seems to have had no experience in the planning of large public buildings.
Early in the 1850s Cook built his own brick kiln on the banks of Shoal Creek and became part owner of another lumber mill near Bastrop, thus assuring his building projects of a dependable and economical supply of building materials. About the same time he seems to have purchased Minard Lafever's The Beauties of Modern Architecture (1835), a volume that deeply influenced Cook's subsequent projects. The earliest work to show the change was a farmhouse for William S. Hotchkiss, later owned by Beriah Graham, which, though a single story, is prefaced by a box-columned portico with a weighty entablature. The Hotchkiss-Graham House also seems to have been the first of Cook's houses to feature an X-and-stick balustrade, a Federal motif that became one of Cook's trademarks. Next was a house for John Milton Swisher, which was two stories, brick, with two sets of paired columns, Greek Ionic in detail and proportion. In 1854 Cook began three great brick houses with Greek Ionic porticoes stretching across their front. These were houses for State Treasurer James H. Raymond and State Comptroller James B. Shaw, and the Governor's Mansion. The building committee for the mansion consisted of Raymond, Shaw, and Governor Elisha M. Pease, who was the first occupant of the mansion and who later bought Shaw's place and named it Woodlawn Mansion. In 1856–57 Cook switched to the Greek Doric for houses for Washington L. Hill and Mary and Reuben Runner, now known as the Neill-Cochran House and Westhill, respectively. For the door frames, window frames, and mantels of these houses Cook designed simplified, abstracted versions of the shouldered architraves illustrated in Lafever's book.
In the era of Reconstruction, professionally trained architects began to move to Austin, and Cook began to leave design to the architects and to concentrate on construction. He was contractor for the North Building at the State Lunatic Asylum (1874–75), for the First National Bank Building (also known as Cook's Corner) at Sixth and Congress (1875–76), and three stores in a business block, 912, 914, and 916 Congress (1875–76), all built to the Victorian designs of architect Jacob Larmour. Cook's largest residential project of the postwar era was a two-story Italianate house for cattle baron Seth Mabry at Twelfth and Lavaca (1876). Cook's last great work was the construction of the west wing of the main building of the newly founded University of Texas. This High Victorian Gothic building, designed by Frederik E. Ruffini, was dedicated in September 1883, just a few months before Cook's death. Like many of Cook's works, Old Main has been demolished, but most of his Greek Revival houses of the 1850s remain, a testament to his skill as a master builder.
Cook was the most significant designer of Greek Revival buildings in antebellum Texas. Such works as the Pease-Shivers House (Woodlawn), the Governor's Mansion, and the Neill-Cochran House combined a monumentality of form and a sophistication of detail rarely seen in Texas since the days of the Franciscans. He died on February 22, 1884, in Austin and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.