“He always talked about the Cooper mansion, so I’ve been hearing about that mansion since I was a little girl,” Ancestry and Albany County Ranch and West Side Historian Dicksie Knight May said. “My grandfather was just totally impressed with it, the beauty of it.”
May described her memories of going to town with family and driving down Grand Avenue, noticing the Cooper House each time.
“Frank Cooper, the patriarch of that family, was a rancher,” May said. “He purchased 5,400 acres on Rock Creek, which is north of Laramie.”
Cooper was an English aristocrat, as well as a Wyoming cattle rancher. Many of the early Wyoming ranchers came from England.
Cooper came to Wyoming from England in the 1870s. He only came for a visit, but became very invested in the state. Aside from cattle ranching, Cooper made a fortune by developing the means to freeze and transport beef, according to the University of Wyoming Cooper House history.
In 1904, Cooper sold his ranch, “but kept the mineral rights,” May said. He moved back to England. In 1917, oil was found in Coopers Cove and the Rock Creek Valley, Cooper’s former property where he still had mineral rights.
United States law required an individual to be a resident of the U.S. to retain ownership of mineral rights, so Cooper made plans to return to Wyoming and receive his profits. However, Cooper suddenly died in 1918.
Cooper’s three children, Frank, Richard and Barbara, moved to Wyoming to “take advantage of the money” their father didn’t receive due to his death, May explained. They purchased “block 4” in the early 1920s, the current location of the Cooper House. Soon after, the children made plans with Wilbur Hitchcock to build the home.
Hitchcock reportedly designed the house with the advice of the Cooper children, based on a home they saw in Santa Barbara, California.
The home was built in 1921 and blends two styles of architecture: Mission and Pueblo. Hitchcock did the bulk of the architectural work, “but some of the interior was supplied by the family.”
The Cooper children provided three things for the home: the jade-colored mantelpiece, Dutch tile stairs and the hand-carved wood mantle.
“Everything in that house, inside and out, is unique to the West,” May said. “There’s nothing else in the West like that house. The design — everything about it is unique.”
The house is noted because Ernest Hemingway, Richard’s good friend, visited him there a few times. The Cooper and Hemingway history is recorded in “Ernest Hemingway in Wyoming,” written in October 2018 by Jamie Egolf and Chavawn Kelley.
Aside from meeting up in Wyoming, Cooper and Hemingway spent time in Cuba, where Cooper had a tea plantation. Hemingway’s marriage to his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, was celebrated at Cooper’s flat in Vedado, Cuba, in 1946.
Hemingway referenced Wyoming more than once in his writing. One example is his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” published in 1936. In the story, a writer with gangrene is stranded in the African plains. As he awaits death, he thinks of all the things he hadn’t written about. The writer reminisces on a landscape very similar to Wyoming.
“What about the ranch and the silvered gray of the sagebrush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches,” the story reads.
“They were very active,” May explained about the Cooper’s interest in hunting and that they owned a hunting lodge in East Africa. “They were very, very well known throughout the world.”
Barbara Cooper lived in the Cooper House for 59 years and died in 1979. The paintings in the home were sent to auctioneers in New York City, one of which was Sotheby’s, May explained. The University of Wyoming bought the Cooper House in 1980.
In 1983, a group of private citizens called Friends of the Cooper Mansion formed in order to ensure the mansion stay intact. The group received an award from the Wyoming Historic Preservation Association for the efforts.
The Cooper House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the same year, noted for its architecture.
UW slated the house for demolition to build a parking lot in the late 1980s. Soon after, the Friends of the Cooper Mansion compiled a list of alternative uses for the house. The list included things like a conference center, hospitality center or an extension of the UW Art Museum.
In 1987, the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees voted to keep the Cooper House after the Laramie community, along with Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, expressed support.
The house is currently home to the UW American Studies Program.
It appeared for a period of time this year that the UW Housing Task Force was contemplating once again demolishing the house as it prepares for the building of new dormitories. After significant public pushback, however, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, a task force member, said he didn’t think the Cooper House is “going anywhere.”