Written by Emily Koller
What makes Wyoming special is more about what isn’t there rather than what is. There are few coffee shops, parking lots, malls, four-lane highways, cell towers, and various other normal places and structures that help the rest of the world function.
There are blissfully few people, too. If you are vacationing there, you’re probably on your way to Yellowstone National Park, anxious to see working ranches, rustic lodges, and false-front commercial buildings lining small Main Streets with mountains hovering behind. Chances are you are not headed to Wyoming to check out modern architecture – and residents there aren’t particularly interested in it either.
I tried to track some of that architecture down on my short vacation back home last week (I’m a Wyoming native). I’ll tell you what – it’s far easier to find antelope out there. The state is barely 100 years old, so the recent past is half our history. It is not a modern place and it doesn’t need to be.
The state’s early economy depended on cattle ranching, mining, and the railroad, with architecture reflecting the needs of those industries. Then between 1950 and 1970, the economy transitioned from one supported by ranching and farming to one that became a national force in oil and gas production. (The state ranked as the fifth-largest producer in the U.S. from 1960 to 1970.) These were boom years, and residents enjoyed good times like they never had experienced before.
The result was a massive amount of wealth in a region not accustomed to it. People aren’t showy there, and the architecture in this period reflects their hard-working, practical Western ethos. So, while oil money produced lavish neighborhoods, Art Deco masterpieces, and cultural centers in other parts of the U.S., in Wyoming it created understated modern libraries, courthouse additions, schools, and round banks. Modern simply meant new; after years of the depression, recessions, materials shortages and more, the state could finally enjoy some stability and prosperity.
With six of the state’s 23 counties producing the majority of the oil, money flowed back mostly by county. To this day, there are large economic disparities visible by county line. Park County produced the largest amount of oil in the 1960's. Located in the northwestern corner of the state, it acts as the gateway to Yellowstone. Cody, a well-known Old West tourist town, is the county seat.
If you aren’t too distracted from the re-created gun fight in front of the Irma Hotel (1902) or the many new faux lodge shops, you can actually spot some modern architecture. A round bank a block off Main Street has escaped renovation, along with the county library with its lovely large decorative concrete blocks. And the famed Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s original building is the 1959 Whitney Gallery of Western Art, which later additions emulate in style.
Then there’s roadside architecture outside the towns. The good times in Wyoming meant a dramatic increase in tourism. Revenue more than doubled between 1950 and 1965, with those "darn out-of-staters" spending nearly $110 million per year in the mid-60's.
With the interstate slow to come to Wyoming, two-lane highway travel ruled the day. This led to handfuls of iconic roadside motels and gas stations with pony rides and western trinkets. The Gateway Motel with its A-frame office, neon sign, and little cabins on Highway 20 – 50 miles from the entrance to Yellowstone – is one of the last great examples of Wyoming roadside architecture from the 1950's and 1960's. (Sadly, it’s currently for sale and likely won’t survive.)
So, though I don’t want to watch a gunfight in front of a 1960's poured-in-place concrete hotel, the flat-roofed functional buildings that surround the great old west architecture represent the most prosperous point in Wyoming’s history and mark its pivotal transition from a cow to an oil economy. And though oil is a sensitive conversation-starter at the moment, its role in the growth and development of the West is indisputable. Many little modern buildings are hanging on as proof.
Emily Koller is a summer program assistant for the National Trust’s Modernism + Recent Past program. She is a graduate student in community and regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Texas at Austin.
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