A Room for the Year: The University of Wyoming’s Early Attempts to Provide Student Housing

When the University of Wyoming opened its doors to students on September 6, 1887, university officials had to consider housing for the students arriving from outside Laramie. Due to low enrollment and the fact that most students were from Laramie, the urgency of student housing and dining was not an immediate consideration.

Workers pause for a photograph during construction late in 1886 of what would become Old Main at the University of Wyoming. Upon completion, Old Main literally was the university. This collodion print panel card was taken by the photography studio of Silas M. Hartwell in Laramie. From photo file: Colleges and Universities – University of Wyoming – Buildings – Old Main, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

University officials turned to the local community to provide necessary room and board for the few students arriving from other areas. Prospective students and their parents were provided contact information for Laramie residents who might have rooms available for rent. The annual University of Wyoming Catalogue from the early decades, as well as newspapers across the state provided the information. The early University Catalogue publications include a statement about housing options, including this entry from the 1891-92 University Catalogue: “The President and Faculty of the University will endeavor to furnish all students with good homes with the citizens of Laramie. We have a list also of accredited boarding houses, where students can find good homes at reasonable cost. A letter to the President, asking for information, or to secure a boarding place, will receive prompt attention.”

Though university administrators relied on the community for student housing, they voiced a desire for official UW housing immediately. The 1887 University Catalogue states that, “It is expected that there will soon be built a University Club House, where any who prefer such an arrangement can have excellent board at cost, under the general superintendence of some officer of the institution.” The Laramie Boomerang reported in its August 18, 1887, edition that the University Club House could also “become the home of even some of the professors, who would thereby gain a closer acquaintance and greater influence with their students.”

The university’s attempts to secure funding to build a dormitory continued to be delayed. Until such a boarding house or dormitory could be made available, students relied on private accommodations. Though these informal accommodations were suitable for some students, many parents desired housing that was more formally associated with the university. Fortunately, a recently constructed mansion, also a club house, became available a few years after the university opened.

Located at the present site of the Laramie Post Office, at the northwest corner of University Avenue (known as Centre Street at the time) and 5th Street, the Laramie Club opened in December 1886. Commercial opportunities, including land development and stock growing, gave rise to the club for investors and developers and their guests. The Laramie Club was organized on August 18, 1885, with the object of providing “a pleasure resort and place of recreation.” The original trustees included the owners of the manse, Robert Marsh and Frank Cooper, who had formed a large land and cattle company.

The land at 5th and University was purchased in August 1885, and groundbreaking for the mansion occurred that fall. The Laramie Boomerang reported that the building was completed in late November 1886. The new club house was described in the December 23, 1886, issue of the Boomerang. The main floor included a “magnificent apartment,” a wine room, and a butler’s pantry. In addition to the “handsome and commodious dining room,” there was a main gathering room, a coat room, billiard room, and a card room. The kitchen was in the basement along with a cook’s pantry, wine cellar, storeroom, and a cook’s living quarters. The upper floor of the structure included eight bedrooms.

The Laramie Club at the corner of University Avenue and 5th Street, circa 1890. Box 2, Isberg Family papers, Collection No. 215, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Laramie Club’s existence was short-lived. Cattle prices began to drop in 1886, and the harsh winter of 1887 lent a devastating blow to the state’s cattle industry. The Boomerang reported on August 15, 1890, that, “The Laramie Club has decided to disband, and their affairs will be wound up this week.”

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church expressed interest in the club house and by mid-February 1891, thanks to a large donation from a New York City resident, Mrs. Eva Cochran, Bishop Ethelbert Talbot was able to purchase the Laramie Club and “establish a school here for the education of boys and young men for the ministry and for missionary work.” An additional opportunity soon presented itself to Talbot. That same spring, the Board of Trustees, at its March 27 meeting, approved the creation of a School of Military Science and Tactics (later known as the Reserve Officers Training Corps or ROTC.) On June 10, 1891, the Board of Trustees reached an agreement with Bishop Talbot to rent the club house to be used as quarters for the military department and to be occupied by the young men who would attend the university that fall. Rooms were provided at no cost. Monthly fees totaled $1.50 for fuel and lights. Meals were an additional $15-$20 per month.

The university assigned Professor Justus Soule, who taught Greek and Latin, to oversee the University Club House, as the property became known. The Laramie Daily Boomerang reported on September 10, 1891, that, “Professor and Mrs. J.F. Soule and Mrs. E.P. Congdon, the matron, moved into the university club house today.” The next day, the paper reported that Sheridan student, F.A. Kueny, “arrived this morning. He is the first to take quarters at the university club house and military headquarters.” The following school year saw English Language and Literature Professor W.I. Smith in charge, and Mrs. J.W. Claxton was the matron. Students paid $22 per month for room, board, and fees.

In June 1893, the Episcopal Church resumed control of the club house, and the building became known as St. Matthew’s Hall, where private boarding for young men continued. Mrs. Claxton remained the matron. The warden was Oxford graduate and Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral, the Rev. Edward H. Parnell. He and his wife made their home there. Parnell offered students two hours a day to assist with their studies.

After the 1893-94 academic year, the operation of the hall was sporadic. On September 11, 1894, the Boomerang reported that “There are a number of boarders at St. Matthew’s Hall at present.” There is also conflicting information about its use. A Boomerang article from April 13, 1897, reports that the hall is for boys. According to the official University of Wyoming Catalogue and Announcements for the year 1896-97, St. Matthew’s Hall was described as now being a “young ladies’ dormitory…The intention has been to make of it a Christian home, not only for Episcopalians, but for young ladies of all denominations who may attend the University.” It is possible that the club did not operate as described in the Catalogue that year.

St. Matthew’s Hall, circa 1900. Box 17, Item 9, B. C. Buffum papers, Collection No. 400055, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In his June 21, 1899, report to the Board of Trustees, President Elmer Smiley noted that, “It seems a pity for St. Mathew’s [sic] Hall to stand idle when there is such a demand for some such a building as a young ladies’ hall and dormitory.” On June 22, the Board of Trustees met with Episcopal Bishop Anson R. Graves, who oversaw matters in several Western states, including Nebraska and Wyoming. The university once again reached an agreement with the Episcopal Church to use St. Matthew’s Hall as a dormitory for girls. The hall first needed attention. Again, Eva Cochran donated funds for repairs, upgrades, and new furnishings.

The updated St. Matthew’s Hall was ready for the 1900-1901 school year. Though the hall could accommodate up to 25 students, the church reported that it was occupied by 15 UW students and four other boarders. Mrs. E.A. May, of Oakland, CA, was hired as the matron. The University reported that the hall would be available again for the 1901-1902 academic year. It was used on occasion for university gatherings for several more years.

University students pose for a photograph on the porch of St. Matthew’s Hall, 1904. Box 86, Samuel H. Knight Collection, Collection No. 400044, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In May 1905, the Episcopal Church sold St. Matthew’s Hall to Laramie’s Fraternal Order of Eagles. Later, it became the home of the Woodmen of the World organization, which first occupied the building on January 2, 1917. Its history of various occupants concluded in March 1958, when the University Baptist Church vacated the building. The structure was condemned and demolition of the 72-year-old club house began in August 1958. In the December 7, 1960, issue of the Boomerang, the bold headline proclaimed that Laramie, “Will Get New Post Office.” Construction commenced in the spring of 1961, and the new post office at the corner of 5th and University was dedicated on June 21, 1962.

After St. Matthew’s Hall was sold, the university continued its struggle to provide adequate student housing. In his report to the trustees in 1906, President Tisdel noted that “The present custom of having our young women board and room in widely scattered boarding houses throughout town is not quite satisfactory, and that many mothers throughout the state hesitate to send their daughters to the University, since there is no place for them to live under the direct supervision of the University authorities.”

By 1907, the process to construct a women’s dormitory on campus began, and Women’s Hall (now Merica Hall) opened on October 1, 1908. And that’s another history to be told…

Post contributed by University Archivist and Historian John Waggener.


This entry was posted in architectural history, Construction, Laramie, Uncategorized, University of Wyoming history, Wyoming history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply