Rainsford Historic District
The Rainsford Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Rainsford District is located just east of the downtown area representing the natural expansion of early residential needs. Once referred to as Cattle Baron's Row, 17th Street, the southern boundary, was located in close proximity to the Union Pacific, the downtown, and the posh Cheyenne Club, important considerations for the wealthy rancher wanting to keep an eye on his interests. Warren Avenue on the west, named for one of Cheyenne's most prominent citizens and a resident of the district, has long been a major north-south artery moving traffic along the eastern edge of downtown. Morrie Avenue, the most eastern boundary is another vital north-south artery which borders Holliday Park, an area considered to be "in the country" until well into the twentieth century. The northern boundary is 22nd Street which provides a reasonable boundary because of changes in housing stock characterized by a greater concentration of pre and post World War II construction to the north. The streets running north and south through the district retain their original names, taken from the survey team which accompanied Grenville Dodge in his historic survey of the Union Pacific route west. The district includes roughly thirty square blocks of original city or approximately one hundred ninety-two acres.
Designs within the district reflect continuity in a variety of design elements through unusual combinations of style including Stick, Italianate, French, Classic, Greek, Gothic, Romanesque and Shingle. These combinations demonstrate the Victorian talent for borrowing;and combining to create something never before seen; a vital expression of the eclectic spirit. Residences within the district share tree-lined streets, uniform setbacks, shaded walks, continuity of vegetation with exotic looking Victorian favorites and traditional plantings throughout. Homes are mostly wood frame with clapboard and/or shingle exteriors with a number of brick homes : in the same design interspersed. Outbuildings share the same designs, styles and materials as the homes they were constructed to serve. Foundations are predominantly 'stone;' Intrusions in the' district tend to be concentrated along the boundaries and are usually in the form of one or two-story modern brick and concrete structures with contemporary mansard roofs and cedar siding. Some homes have been rendered noncontributing/nonintrusive by a series of insensitive exterior alterations such as siding, changed windows, additions and a recent trend to attach a variety of solar devices. The condition of contributing structures varies from poor for many of the rental properties to excellent for most of the primary residences. The fascinating collection of ornamental glass machine produced ornamentation and elaborate brickwork evidences the technology and craftsmanship of the period and provides a clear picture of the accepted vernacular methods and aesthetic principles of the age. A walk through the Rainsford District still evokes a sense of the opulent and gracious mode of life which characterized the time and place responsible for one of America's most versatile and creative architectural periods.
A majority of large cattlemen made their headquarters in Cheyenne operating out of their mansions and popular stock growers' hideaway, the Cheyenne Club. The cattle industry was booming in the 1880's and so was the economy of Cheyenne. As the residential area along Carey Avenue was needed for commercial space the residential area to the east of the central business district became a favorite area for erecting prestigious dwellings. The area was at first characterized by the large picturesque Victorian cottages and villas of cattle barons, wealthy merchants, politicians, professionals and other businessmen. The homes were typically large elaborate homes, with spacious lawns, gardens and carriage houses. Styles and designs were borrowed from those popular in the east and adapted to western tastes, often including a variety of elements in one structure. After the fateful summer and winter of 1886-87 which emaciated the cattle industry, a great many of Wyoming's wealthy entrepreneurs either left the country or were forced to tighten their belts in the face of hard times. Lots were subdivided, sold and a new generation of middle class homeowners began constructing their homes in the area. Construction again increased between 1897 and 1910, due to new growth and a long overdue comeback of the stock growing industry.
The district takes its name from New York architect, George D. Rainsford, who came to Wyoming in the late 1870's to raise horses. Like many wealthy ranchers, Rainsford built his home in Cheyenne; but unlike the others he began designing homes for his contemporaries as a hobby. Rainsford's new ideas quickly caught on and were evident throughout the neighborhood in the houses he designed and in many others copied from his originals. Rainsford is best known for his experiments with varieties of roof shapes and simplified traditional styles. His influence and that of the eclectic vitality of the age is visible throughout the district, reflected in multiple roof and dormer shapes, ornamental windows with tracery, stained, leaded, beveled and etched glass and in an abundance of machine produced ornaments on porches, bay windows, and gable ends, 19th century American equivalents of European folk art.
The Rainsford district still closely resembles its turn-of-the-century appearance and continues to convey a sense of time and place increasingly difficult to find in a state where the effects of rapid energy development are pressuring every aspect of a traditional western lifestyle. The district has potential for tax act rehabilitation as well as "jobs bill" funding. Its residential character, though threatened by conditional use zoning, remains intact. The district is associated with persons of local, state and national significance, demonstrates a unique architectural character and retains integrity. It is representative of an historic period which made significant contributions to the broad patterns of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and American history and is worthy for enrollment in the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1880's native born westerners were scarce in Wyoming. Nearly everyone came from somewhere else and the majority of those who came to the Territory lived in Cheyenne. The growth of the eastern portion of Cheyenne, known as the Rainsford District, was due primarily to an influx of cattlemen from both the eastern half of the United States and Europe, especially England and Scotland. Merchants, bankers, physicians and politicians followed when Cheyenne became the cattle capitol of the world and the legislative capitol of Wyoming. After the cattle business declined in 1890, the character of the neighborhood began to change as the cattle barons returned home or moved out to the range. Politics quickly took priority over business when Wyoming became a state and smaller, comfortable homes were built between the baronial cattle mansions. Further development, in the manner of small replicas of the larger dwellings occurred again after 1900 when both the railroad and the cattle industry entered a period of growth and revamping. Only a few of the homes in the district are presently occupied by descendants of those original emigrants.
The district is currently feeling the growing pains associated with Wyoming's latest boom, energy. Unfortunately, these new emigrants are adding very little of the romantic flavor of the west associated with early Cheyenne. Parking lots, medical centers and congested city streets are creeping into an area once known for fine lawns, decorative porches and expensive buggies. Carriage houses and stables now serve as garages and fine horses roam the streets only on parade days.
George D. Rainsford, the principal architect of the district, is fairly typical of the emigrant barons who left their individual marks on Wyoming in those early years. A New York native and the son of a prominent banker, Rainsford was educated in Europe, then practiced architecture in New York City with the firm of W.A. Bates. He relocated to Wyoming in 1881 and established his Diamond Ranch near Chugwater. Here he bred his world famous Morgan and Clydesdale horses, establishing himself as both an adept stock grower and architect for his contemporaries in the stock business. Though his ranch was much more elaborate than most in Wyoming at that time, like his companions, he was more a capitalist than a cowboy and chose to spend a majority of his time in his Victorian Cheyenne house. When not at home, he was doubtless socializing or conducting business affairs at the Cheyenne Club, which he also designed. Though he was among those who chose to leave Wyoming during the battles over the right to utilize the public domain, his influence is visibly apparent in the district which bears his name.
The stabilizing social elements of Cheyenne arrived when Fort D. A. Russell became a permanent military post and the officers began moving their wives, families and eastern habits to Cheyenne. Military balls and concerts provided a distinctive sophistication in the now new community and the eastern ladies opened up a whole new market for enterprising merchants such as Erasmus Nagel and Ithamas C. Whipple. The cattle barons and their ladies provided additional profits as homes were built and furnished and guests were wined and dined in a manner befitting eastern gentry. The mansions constructed by Nagel and Whipple attest to the boast that Laramie County was the wealthiest county per capita in the United States during the 1880's.
Individual military men also contributed to the neighborhood. Colonel A.T. Babbitt's Queen Anne influenced home was designed by his wife. Babbitt served as president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association for a short time before his death in 1888. The former Army doctor encouraged eastern investment in the territory and acquired many property interests of his own. His house was later owned by George W. Baxter, a West Point graduate who left the Army for the cattle business and served as territorial governor for a time under President Cleveland. Baxter's later home, the log cabin headquarters of his Hillsdale ranch, borders the district.
Transportation, first by means of the Cheyenne to Deadwood Stage and later in the form of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern railways, brought not only goods and livestock but investors, entertainment and visitors. Transportation served to link Cheyenne with civilization. Homes in the Rainsford district were furnished as pleasantly as those in the eastern cities and the bill of fare at the Cheyenne Club (torn down in the 1960's) always included the finest cigars and spirits.
Railway employees seldom lived in the district until after 1910 when some of the smaller workingmen's houses began to appear. One notable structure, the Nettford Apartment building, was designed by Fredric Hutchinson Porter and built for a former Union Pacific foreman, Arthur C. Kingsford, in 1911. The range cattle industry itself contributed more to the settlement and subsequent civilization of Cheyenne and Wyoming than any other single factor. The cattle boom, from 1880 to 1890, was not confined to Wyoming, but Cheyenne depended on cattle almost entirely. The vast open stretches of public land and the apparent ease involved in building a fortune on beef drew investors to Wyoming. During the early years, the Cheyenne Club served as a financial center for Cheyenne and eventually even a political center. Several ranchers even lived at the club for a time since ranches consisted of little more than a few log cabins or dugouts surrounded by movable corral enclosures. Most of these beef barons preferred to visit the range only during the roundups and by 1884 the majority of them had constructed spacious homes complete with grassy lawns and paved walks in Cheyenne.
Charles Oelrich maintained his Polo Ranch on Crow Creek but his 1880 brick home on East 17th Street served as a gathering spot for visitors, including Lillian Langtry, as well as a winter residence.
Four eastern bachelors, Herbert and Arthur Teschemacher, Fred de Billier and Richard Trimble, did most of their business from the Cheyenne Club or their house on East 17th Street. Winters were spent in Paris or London and roundup time was spent on the range. The Teschemachers remained in Wyoming but de Billier gave up his interest in the Duck Bar Cattle Company to enter the diplomatic corps and Trimble, to become secretary-treasurer of United States Steel. The hard winter of 1886-87 drove many of the emigrant investors back home, but some such as the Scotsman Samuel Corson stayed on. Corson came to Cheyenne in 1883 and his home, designed by Rainsford, has remained in the Corson family for one hundred years. Others, such as Percy Scott Hoyt, who purchased Rainsford's Cheyenne house, continued their support of both the beef industry and the State in spite of financial setbacks. Though it was rumored that Hoyt drank nothing but champagne, he found time to organize the Cheyenne Volunteer Fire Department and to travel through Wyoming in his private rail car promoting Boy Scouting.
Many of the early residents of the district left indelible reminders of their stay in Wyoming. A.J. Parshall, who came to Cheyenne in 1872, surveyed the first Lincoln Highway across Sherman Hill and assisted in planning both pathfinder Dam and Granite Springs Reservoir. The Parshall family occupied their Rainsford designed home until 1930. Esther Morris, the woman's suffrage proponent, lived just down the street from 1890 until 1902. In 1905, W.R. Dubois, the architect responsible for many of the native stone buildings on the University of Wyoming campus and many government buildings in Cheyenne, occupied this same house. Other district residents include the first female governor of Wyoming, Nellie Taylor Ross, Dr. William Crook, one of Wyoming's first physicians, the historian, Grace Raymond Hebard, John Lacey, attorney for Sinclair Oil in the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the infamous Tom Horn and Judge Willis Van de Venter, the only Wyoming judge ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The professional men and women who accompanied the investors into Wyoming also made their homes in this area. J.D. Freeborn, cashier at the Stock Growers National Bank, occupied a small scale stockman's mansion. In the early years, when milk cows were kept in town and sent out to graze with a herder each morning, Freeborn, refusing to tolerate a neighbor's cow browsing on his lawn, gave ample warning, then shot the cow. Mrs. E. Mason Smith, Cheyenne's first librarian, lived with her daughters Alice, secretary for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and Louise, recorder for the Wyoming constitutional Convention in 1887, in a large frame style house on East 18th Street. Mrs. Smith served as assistant cashier at the Stock Grower's bank for fifty years. The opulence of an era based on the cattle industry as well as the evolution from boom capital to civilized city is visibly reflected in the yards and carriage barns of the Rainsford district. The distinctive western adaptations of Victorian and Queen Anne styles give a unique and somewhat romantic aura to the district. The Rainsford homes and those which display his influence as well as several of the more elaborate brick and stone structures are worthy of recognition not only because of their architectural significance but also because of their association with both locally and nationally prominent individuals.
The district is unique within Wyoming and completely representative of life in a cattle and transportation capital on the western frontier.
† Sheila Bricher-Wade and Bonnie Raille, Wyoming Recreation Commission, State Historic Preservation Office, Rainsford Historic District, Cheyenne, WY, nomination document, 1983, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.