Ann Mullens Boelter discusses the life of architect Wilbur Arthur Hitchcock, who designed hundreds of historic homes in the early 1900s in Laramie, as well as numerous buildings on the campus of the University of Wyoming. He was known as a Renaissance man with a deep appreciation of the arts and literature. He was also a family man and his two sons Eliot and Clinton followed in their father’s footsteps opening their own architectural firm in Laramie, Hitchcock & Hitchcock.
By Ann Mullens Boelter
Wilbur A. Hitchcock was born in 1886 in Springfield, South Dakota. He learned carpentry from his father, attended schools in Springfield, and moved to Laramie in 1908 to find relief from hay fever and to enter the University of Wyoming. Early on, he earned his living as a carpenter. He had always been interested in architecture, constantly studying its principles and problems. He began designing houses while still an undergraduate in 1909, including homes for several UW faculty members.
Wilbur graduated from UW in 1912 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering. During the next two years he carried on graduate work and taught classes at UW. He was on leave of absence from 1915-1916 when he did graduate work at Colorado University in Boulder where he took a Professional Degree in C.E. In 1917, he was assistant professor of civil engineering at UW and was made associate professor in 1921. In 1922, he resigned his teaching position to enter private practice in architecture. Wilbur’s parents, three brothers and a sister followed him to Laramie in 1918; his father worked in carpentry and at the repair shop at the University until he was 80 years old.
A renaissance man, Wilbur loved literature, theater, and music, having grown up with all four siblings playing musical instruments. Wilbur played piano, organ, and clarinet and had a nice singing voice. During travels around the U.S., he always attended operas, symphonies and theater performances in the cities he visited. At UW, Wilbur started the university band in 1913 and was active in ATO fraternity. He served twice as president of the UW Alumni Association, was active in Lions Club and the Albany Mutual Building Association, and was one of the founders of The Jesters, a men’s theater group.
To learn about university campus design and buildings, Wilbur took at least two extended trips to the Midwest and eastern U.S. In 1922 and 1924, he visited campuses in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
In 1922, he won a competition for library design and was the architect for the UW Library, now the Aven Nelson building. Before designing the Men’s Residence Hall (now McWhinnie Hall), Wilbur went to Chicago and studied with Raymond Hood, designer of the Chicago Tribune Tower, the American Radiator Building, and others. While designing the Half-Acre Gymnasium with William Dubois of Cheyenne, Wilbur visited numerous locations including Denver and Colorado Springs to look at gymnasiums. For his design of the Cooper House on Grand Avenue, he traveled to southern California to study Spanish eclectic homes.
Wilbur drew the plan and made a scale model for the main UW campus, with buildings facing the open spaces of Prexy’s Pasture. He continued the use of native buff sandstone from the University’s quarry. This material plus the characteristic neo-Gothic architecture made the UW campus distinctive and harmonious. In addition to the campus buildings mentioned above, he designed the Engineering Hall with Frederick Porter of Cheyenne and the Pi Beta Phi house.
Around Laramie his work includes the original Ivinson Hospital, Civic Center, Ivinson Home for Ladies, Albany County Courthouse (with Dubois), Whiting School, Nellie Isles School, Lincoln School remodel, and the Alice Hardy Stevens Center at the Ivinson Mansion.
Other work includes schools in Hanna, Medicine Bow, Saratoga, Lusk, and Albany County rural areas. Wilbur designed about 70 homes in Laramie, plus others in Sidney, Nebraska, and one in Cody. He also designed apartment houses, churches, stores, armories, warehouses, banks, gas stations, hotels, fish hatchery buildings, barns, and garages, and provided drawings for the inventions of others including a beet-topping machine and a railway engineer’s seat.
While at UW, Wilbur met Gladys Corthell, one of seven children of attorney Nellis E. Corthell and Eleanor Quackenbush Corthell. Nellis came to Laramie in 1881 and studied in the law office of Colonel Stephen Downey before opening his own practice. Eleanor came from Wisconsin to teach at Rock Creek school north of Laramie in 1882. A year later she got a position in Laramie and was one of the first teachers in the new West Side School. In 1903, Eleanor took all 7 children to Yellowstone in a spring wagon. Eleanor was very active socially in Laramie, working to promote many good causes. Her spirit for social activism continued in her daughters and while attending Simmons College in Boston 1913-1914, Gladys joined in a huge march for women’s right to vote. Being from Wyoming, she marched in the section for states that already allowed women to vote.
Wilbur and Gladys were married in 1914. She shared his love of music and literature, played piano and had a wonderful singing voice. They loved picnics and camping in the Snowy Range and on Boulder Ridge. He designed their first house located at 1315 Thornburgh (now Ivinson Avenue), on the site where Coe Library is now located. He also built furniture for the home. This house was purchased by UW and moved to 808 Fremont for a while, serving as UW Home Management house; and later moved again to a location in West Laramie. Eliot was born in August, 1915, David in June, 1917; Clinton in September, 1919, and Elinor in February, 1921. Eliot and Clinton carried on their father’s work in their own architectural firm, Hitchcock & Hitchcock, in Laramie following WWII. David was an attorney and state legislator from Albany County. Elinor married Glenn Mullens, professor of civil engineering at UW and structural engineer on many projects.
The home was completed in 1925 at 262 N 9th Street. Wilbur and his father added beautiful woodwork inside with decorative beams in the living and dining rooms, the fireplace surround and built-in bookcases in the living room, and decorative features in the staircase.
Gladys was in the hospital for an appendectomy when the family moved into the home. After two weeks in the hospital, she came home but developed a blood clot and died the next day. With the help of both families, Wilbur raised the four kids for the next 5 years. In 1926, he built a cabin in the Snowy Range where the kids could get plenty of exercise, often spending most of the summer there with relatives and friends close by in nearby cabins, and Wilbur there on weekends. The family of Gladys’ sister, Evelyn Corthell Hill, lived next door on 9th Street with 4 boys and a girl. These children plus others in the family provided a lively atmosphere while growing up, with many games and projects going on between the houses. They also spent a lot of time on the Corthell farm in West Laramie where they loved to help their Grandpa and uncles with the horses, dairy cows and alfalfa crops. Wilbur had designed a huge barn at the farm where the kids spent many happy hours.
In 1930, Wilbur married Verna Johannesen, a home demonstration agent for county extension. She had a fine sense of humor and shared his love of literature and music, especially opera. On their honeymoon in California, Wilbur tragically died from injuries in an automobile accident. Verna returned to Laramie and after talking with the four children, ages 9 to 15, decided to stay and raise them with help from both families. Verna went on to have a remarkable career, retiring from UW as department head in Home Economics in 1962.
Eliot and Clinton had a long architectural career in Laramie, beginning with Eliot’s work in 1938 which was interrupted by WWII. After the war he and Clinton formed Hitchcock & Hitchcock, working until they closed the firm in 1983. Their familiar buildings around Laramie include the Classroom Building, west wing of the Engineering Building and four fraternity/sorority houses on the UW campus, Laramie High School, Beitel, Slade and Thayer elementary schools, and the State Veterinary Lab building. They designed numerous houses and commercial buildings in Laramie and around the state and completed alterations to the State Capitol and Barrett Building in Cheyenne from 1974 to 1980.
Following WWII, 262 N 9th became the home of Elinor and Glenn Mullens where they raised three children, Dave, Jim and Ann. Dave owns the home today and it looks much the same as when it was built, except for glass doors on the west wall of the living room opening to an outside deck, and remodeling to the kitchen and basement. All four of Gladys and Wilbur’s children stayed in Laramie and raised families, and 262 N. 9th has been the site of many family gatherings and dinners over the years.
Ann Mullens Boelter recalls how much fun it was growing up in the home and is happy it is still in the family. The attic was full of old books, magazines, and trunks with old family clothes that were perfect for playing dress-up with her cousins. She and her brothers loved throwing things down the clothes chute on the second floor and running down to the basement to find them. Just like their mother and uncles, Ann and her brothers were lucky to have many cousins in town or visiting in the summer for rousing games of kick-the-can, homemade go-carts, model airplanes, and water fights. In the winter she spent many happy hours reading her grandparents’ books in the living room with her feet propped on the steam radiator.