In the year that the University of Wyoming’s Housing Task Force has been working on the future of the school’s new dormitories, the committee hasn’t received much pushback on any of the ideas that have been floated at their meetings.
Monday was different.
Nearly 100 people came to this week’s task force meeting to protest the idea of demolishing Cooper House for the placement of dorm building.
Residents from across Wyoming had been mobilized in recent weeks after hearing the task force had discussed the possibility of tearing down the building.
The task force heard more than an hour of public comment on Monday, all from people who were opposed to Cooper House being demolished.
Many told stories about their own personal history with the building.
The Cooper House has housed the university’s American Studies program in 1994.
It was built in the 1920s for an English aristocrat and local architect Wilbur Hitchcock was commissioned to design the building.
The architecturally unusual building, which exhibits a combination of Mission Revival and Pueblo Revival architecture, was later visited by Ernest Hemingway, according to UW.
After UW purchased the building in 1980, it was slated for demolition to make room for a parking lot.
Then, in the mid-1980s a local group called Friends of the Cooper Mansion began proposing alternative uses for the building.
“It’s one of the few historic buildings in Laramie that’s facing the community, so to tear it down and put a dorm there would just make the campus sterile and uninteresting,” Patrick Sheehy said Monday.
In 1987, after pressure from the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Organization and then Gov. Mike Sullivan, the university passed a resolution not to demolish the Cooper House.
Representatives of the Albany County Historical Society, several students and faculty of UW’s American Studies program, former members of Friends of the Cooper Mansion, three of Hitchcock’s grandchildren and numerous others all addressed the issue at the task force meeting.
Local historian Judy Knight said the building is “part of Laramie’s consciousness.”
Eric Sandeen, who directed the American Studies program from 1982 until his recent retirement, said that Cooper House has “changed what we teach and how we teach.”
Sandeen said that the program’s existence in the Cooper House has inspired faculty to make historical preservation and public service “a much bigger part of our program.”
When task force members had floated the idea of demolishing Tobin House and another fraternity building last year, the task force quickly received substantial backlash from current and former members of UW’s Greek life. In response to that backlash, task force members were quick to take the possibility of constructing dorms on Fraternity and Sorority row off the table.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, chairs the task force and made a similar statement about Cooper House on Monday.
“I don’t think the Cooper House is going anywhere,” he said.
Harshman downplayed the idea that there was ever a serious possibility of removing the building.
“Only one person on the committee has said we should tear it down, and I’m not even sure they said it publicly,” he said.
Discussion of the possibility of demolishing Cooper House first arose at the task force’s May 8, when Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said the task force should explore the “pros and cons” of removing the building.
“The big question is does it have historical significance,” Nicholas said at the time. “My understanding is that it’s kind of a maintenance nightmare. … What kind of issues will we have if we consider taking it down?”
Harshman himself had wondered allowed about Hemingway’s relevance to the building’s history.
“On the Cooper House and the Carriage House, I’ve heard all the stuff about how they were supposed to be torn down when they were first purchased 30 or 40 years ago, and I’ve heard that Hemingway stayed there and wrote stuff,” Harshman said. “One of them is maybe historic and one of them isn’t. So can we figure out if Hemingway stayed in the Cooper House or the Carriage House?”
At the committee’s next meeting, consultants presented a “massing study” that would put a dorm building on the site of Cooper House and task force members took a tour of Cooper House to learn more about its history.