When one thinks of Wyoming, buildings are not the first images that come to mind. The state is known more for its majestic mountain ranges and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush prairie than for its architectural monuments. With less than 600,000 residents occupying an area of 97,000 square miles, Wyoming’s built environment is overwhelmed by its natural environment. Still, the human impact on the land—from transportation routes, designated parks, forests, and wilderness areas, and natural resource extraction—has been significant. Located at the juncture of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, Wyoming is a high, semi-arid plateau broken up by a series of north-south running mountain ranges, mainly the Bighorn Mountains in the northeast, the Laramie Range in the southeast, the Absaroka and Teton ranges in the northwest, and the massive Wind River Range in the central west. A low pass (South Pass) at the south end of the Wind River Range made Wyoming the preferred transportation route across the Rocky Mountains, in spite of its high elevation (6,700 feet) and harsh climate.
Although Wyoming’s Euro-American history is young, its prehistory stretches back 10,000 years or more, with more than a dozen Indigenous groups identified as occupying or regularly using the area. Most of the traces left by ancient people include trails, tipi rings, rock art sites, and the occasional medicine wheel or vision quest site. Likewise, early explorers and fur traders left little physical evidence other than scattered trading posts and rendezvous sites. However, by the 1840s South Pass had become known as the easiest route across the Rocky Mountains, and migrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails all used the South Pass route to access the West Coast. With the establishment of the trails came military forts to protect the migrants, and eventually ranches and small settlements to provide them with supplies. The oldest remaining Euro-American cultural resources in the state date from this period—1841 to 1869—and include trails, forts, springs and other camping places, and landmarks such as Independence Rock, upon which migrants carved their names as they passed through.
For most of the nineteenth century and beyond, Wyoming remained a place to get through on the way to somewhere else. Wheeled traffic followed the ancient and historic trails. The Overland Stage Line began offering regular transportation across the state in 1862, and 31 stage stations were built across the southern tier of the state, several of which remain. It was not until 1868, after the railroad arrived and Wyoming Territory was created, that a substantial number of permanent buildings were constructed, including the state capitol, Old Main at the University of Wyoming, courthouses and prisons, depots and roundhouses, schools, churches, and houses. The railroad also brought to Wyoming the only H.H. Richardson–designed structure west of St. Louis, the Ames Monument, built to honor the founders of the Union Pacific. The railroad was followed by the Lincoln Highway (1913), and then I-80 (1960s and later), with each successive iteration of transcontinental transportation altering the built environment. Many towns turned their backs to the railroad to face the highway, only to be bypassed later by the interstate.
Forty-eight percent of Wyoming’s land area is owned by the federal government and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Department of Defense, and the Bureau of Reclamation. A big factor in the development of Wyoming was the recognition of the value of its scenic and natural resources, starting with the designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as the first national park in the world. Yellowstone National Park itself includes eleven National Register Historic Districts and six National Historic Landmarks. Wyoming also boasts the nation’s first national forest (Shoshone National Forest, 1891) and first national monument (Devil’s Tower, 1906). A second national park, Grand Teton, was created in 1929 and expanded in 1950. These parks and monuments are lasting treasures that have also resulted in some of the state’s most admired architecture, with large resort hotels such as Robert C. Reamer’s Old Faithful Inn and Lake Hotel, park museums and visitor centers, and administration buildings.
Tourism and recreation continue to play an important role in the state’s economy, and newer buildings ranging from the Mission 66 Canyon Lodge (1957) in Yellowstone to the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center (2007) and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Visitor Center (2008) in Grand Teton National Park have greatly enhanced the state’s architectural portfolio. The resort towns of Jackson, and to a lesser extent Cody, have been shaped by their proximity to the national parks as well as their scenic beauty and opportunities for outdoor adventure. Jackson in particular has become a world-renowned center for downhill skiing and mountain climbing, and an amenity town attracting wealthy residents from around the country who have built high-end, architect-designed residences and who support a range of cultural amenities not found in the rest of the state.
In addition to its natural beauty, Wyoming was recognized early on as an abundant source of raw materials, including timber, coal, oil, trona, iron, and later uranium, coal-bed methane, and natural gas. Extraction industries shaped the landscape and the state’s cities and towns, resulting in the prevalence of building types like charcoal kilns, refineries, mining tipples, and hoist houses; structures such as open pit mines, pipelines, powerlines, roads, drill pads, and more recently, wind turbines and natural gas wells; and settlements ranging from architect-designed company towns (such as the 1925 oil town, Parco) to temporary “man-camps.” The energy industry brought a boom-and-bust economy to the state that has left its mark on the built environment, with entire towns built up in a few years only to be abandoned when demand fell. Ghost towns in Wyoming range from 1850s gold-mining camps to 1970s uranium-mining towns.
Wyoming is probably best known as the “Cowboy State.” Although farming and ranching comprise only a tiny fraction of the state’s total economy, agriculture still accounts for a large percentage of land use. Evidence of the state’s hay, cattle, and sheep production can be seen in homesteads, farms, and ranches scattered throughout the state. Most of these complexes are notable as cultural landscapes comprising several generations of buildings, structures, and small-scale features, as well as the natural landscape. Early agricultural complexes often reflect the ethnic origins of the owner and/or builder as well as locally available materials, while those built in the past 100 years are more standardized, following national trends and reflecting the availability of mass-produced elements. The introduction of irrigated agriculture starting in the early 1900s transformed huge swaths of land from brown to green, and resulted in large dams and reservoirs and extensive networks of irrigation canals.
Settlement in the state naturally followed transportation routes. The earliest cities and towns as well as all of the state’s major institutions—the capitol, the university, the prison, and the state hospital – are located along the Union Pacific line in southern Wyoming. Settlement to the north occurred later as the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad extended its lines to connect with coal fields, national parks, and the Northern Pacific route. Out of a total of 99 incorporated municipalities only two Wyoming cities, Cheyenne and Casper, have a population of more than 50,000. The capital city of Cheyenne has the state’s most extensive collection of residential historic districts as well as its most substantial downtown commercial blocks and government buildings. The government sector continues to expand, as does Cheyenne’s F. E. Warren Air Force Base, which rose to national prominence as a missile center during the Cold War.
Casper’s growth from ranching to industrial town was sparked by the development of oil resources in the nearby Salt Creek Field in the early 1900s. By 1920 the area was booming and residents were building handsome, architect-designed, period-revival homes and brick commercial and institutional buildings generously trimmed in terra-cotta. A second oil boom following World War II resulted in some of the state’s best examples of postwar modern architecture, including the Wyoming School for the Deaf and Wyoming National Bank. Casper continued as a significant oil refining center throughout the twentieth century, with most major oil companies maintaining regional offices there. The centrally located city remains the business center of Wyoming.
Other cities and towns grew up along the railroad, near sites of natural resource extraction or national parks, or as farming or ranching communities. After World War II, the rural population declined, as farms and ranches consolidated, small-town businesses succumbed to chain stores in the larger communities and jobs followed industry to specific locations around the state. Conversion of railroad locomotives from coal to diesel in the 1950s had a huge impact on coal mining towns in southwest and northeast Wyoming, although these industries revived in the 1970s with the construction of several coal-burning power plants in the state and a nationwide demand for Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal. Wyoming in the 1970s was notorious for its coal and oil boomtowns such as Rock Springs, Evanston, and Gillette, overrun with construction workers living in trailers, old school buses, tents, and motel rooms. In the height of the boom, around 1980, mobile homes accounted for almost 20 percent of housing units in the state. A new company town, Wright, was founded in 1976 by ARCO to accommodate coal miners and their families.
Early commercial architecture was generally frame or log construction, often with a tall false front giving the building a more impressive look. As towns grew, this boomtown architecture was replaced with more permanent brick or stone buildings, many adorned with cast-iron or sheet-metal storefronts and cornices. Most of the state’s downtowns retain at least a few blocks of early-twentieth-century commercial buildings, many updated with new storefronts, while a few original false-front buildings remain in some of the smaller towns. Urban renewal decimated several of the state’s downtowns in the 1960s and 1970s and its impact is still evident in the blocks of surface parking in Cheyenne and other cities. The introduction of the Main Street Program to Wyoming in the 1980s, and again in the 2000s, has led to revival of downtowns, many of which had been abandoned for outlying shopping centers in the 1960s and 1970s. These shopping centers are, in turn, threatened by big box stores, as is the case throughout the country.
Wyoming’s residential architecture ranges from owner-built log cabins to architect-designed mansions, in styles ranging from Italianate to Ranch and Contemporary. A few small, Second-Empire dwellings can be found in Laramie and Cheyenne. Almost every community has at least a block or two of substantial houses built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century by the town’s founding businessmen and political leaders. A few of these have been turned into house museums or bed-and-breakfasts. Cattle barons also built magnificent “town homes” in the larger cities (most notably Cheyenne, but also Sheridan), and even smaller ranchers often had two residences, so that their children could attend school in town. Shotgun and small pyramidal houses can be found in the working-class neighborhoods of most cities. Craftsman cottages and bungalows are also popular house styles for both urban and rural living. Almost every town has a few moderne-style houses dating from the 1940s, as well as subdivisions of midcentury modern, ranch, and split-level residences. More recent “McMansions” tend to be hidden away from public view. Although early-twentieth-century brick apartment buildings of three to five stories can be found in most cities and many smaller towns, more recent multifamily housing tends to be townhouses with small yards for each unit.
Krza, Paul. “While the New West Booms, Wyoming Mines, Drills…and Languishes.” High Country News 29, no. 3 (July 7, 1997).
Larson, T. A. History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Roberts, Phil. “A New History of Wyoming.” Phil Roberts Wyoming Homepage. Accessed November 10, 2015. http://www.uwyo.edu/robertshistory/new_history_of_wyoming.html.
Starr, Eileen F. Architecture in the Cowboy State, 1849–1940: A Guide. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 1992.
The Wyoming State Historical Society. “Wyohistory.org: A Project of the Wyoming State Historical Society.” http://www.wyohistory.org/.
Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Wyoming. Wyoming, a Guide to Its History, Highways, and People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.
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