The Cheyenne Depot was the first in a series that Henry Van Brunt designed for the Union Pacific. In 1885, as he was beginning the design for the Cheyenne Depot, Van Brunt sent his business partner Frank M. Howe from Boston to Kansas City to open a branch office there. As the depot was approaching completion in 1887, he moved there himself. As construction was underway on the Cheyenne Depot, Van Brunt designed a similarly scaled passenger station for the UP at Ogden.
The Ogden depot featured a prominent central clock tower similar to the Cheyenne building and a complex roofline with numerous dormers. Although it resembled the Cheyenne Depot in its overall scale and configuration, the Ogden structure used brick construction and lacked the distinctive Richardsonian Romanesque detailing of its Wyoming counterpart. During the early 1890s Van Brunt & Howe also designed major depots for the railroad at Sioux City, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. None featured the richly textured Romanesque design that Van Brunt had employed on the Cheyenne building.
Two of Van Brunt’s earlier buildings—the Adams Academy in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Memorial Hall at Harvard-- have subsequently been designated as National Historic Landmarks. Both buildings were primarily educational in nature, unlike the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne. And both were built relatively early in Van Brunt’s career, before his move westward, using an entirely different architectural idiom than the Depot. Neither reflected Van Brunt’s later architectural development, as illustrated by his commercial and railroad commissions of the 1880s and 1890s. The series of railroad structures undertaken for the Union Pacific Railroad marked a defining stage in Henry Van Brunt’s career. With the Cheyenne Depot in 1886 as the pivotal point, he moved his office from the East Coast to the Midwest and—to a certain degree–redefined his architectural philosophy and style. In his writings and his buildings, Van Brunt sought to assimilate what he saw as Western robustness with Eastern sophistication. In so doing, he hoped to imbue Western architecture with a heretofore underdeveloped sense of originality and prestige. Few others, in his view, were attempting this mission. “I do not believe there are as yet a dozen men really conspicuous for a capacity to express their art in those indigenous terms which take root and fructify the West,” he stated in 1889.
“But the work to be done is so great and the field so vast that, if these were the only effective missionaries of art in the West, we might well despair of seeing the establishment and confirmation of a national art there within the century.”
Van Brunt traded on the Richardsonian Romanesque(named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson) style for a relatively brief period in the late 1880s. Among his commissions using the style were the Thayer Building (1886) and Gibraltar Building (1888), both in Kansas City, party-walled office blocks that featured dressed stone exterior walls and Romanesque arches to frame the facade bays; and the Hoyt Library (1885-1886) in Saginaw, Michigan, and the Public Library (1888-1889) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both massive free-standing buildings that resembled Richardson’s Ames Memorial Library. None of these latter structures, approached the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne in grandeur or architectural accomplishment.
Van Brunt saw the Richardsonian Romanesque as a means of embracing artistic strength and sophistication in Western architecture. He lamented the clumsy attempts at imitation by local architects as “damnable iterations” and “rude and undisciplined caricatures” of Richardson’s style but saw in his own work and that of a few others a kernel of hope for the Romanesque in the West. “There are sufficient evidences that the strong style, of which [Richardson] was the chosen heir, is being acclimatized and developed under Western influences beyond the point to which he was able to carry it in his brilliant but brief career, until it promises to become one of the most effective agencies in establishing the architecture of the West.”
Van Brunt’s work did not represent the vanguard of the Richardsonian Romanesque style—the vanguard died with Richardson himself—but Van Brunt was one of the country’s more noteworthy practitioners, on par with Daniel Burnham or George Shepley.
The UP Board of Directors in 1886 would probably have hired Richardson himself to design the Cheyenne Depot, but his failing health prevented him from taking the commission. Instead of hiring Richardson’s successors, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the railroad approached Van Brunt & Howe as the best alternative to design a distinctive building that would project a dramatic image of power, wealth and sophistication.
Van Brunt’s superlative position in the architectural profession was recognized by his choice in 1892 to design one of the exhibition buildings in the Court of Honor of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In its construction and subsequent operation, the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne has reflected the aspirations and circumstances of Union Pacific Railroad. When the railroad first entered Cheyenne on its way across the country in 1867, it was engaged in a high-stakes race to complete as much trackage as possible.
The Union Pacific directors had little interest in spending time or money on grand structures and so erected here a simple wooden box from a standard plan. During the 1870s, with the country in a financial slump, the railroad concentrated on consolidating its hold on Western rail traffic, reconstructing much of its hastily built line and weathering both a national depression and Congressional incursions into its finances. By the end of 1881, with the country recovering and investor Jay Gould stirring the pot among the various railroads, “the whole region west of the Mississippi River seemed caught up in a frenzy of expansion, diplomacy, and war from which no road could escape or isolate itself,” stated historian Maury Klein. “It was as if the forces underlying the railroad industry had suddenly exploded, throwing every company into motion at a greater velocity than ever before.”
Given the amount of design work that Van Brunt & Howe did for the railroads, relatively few of their passenger depots remain in place. Van Brunt's office provided a design for the Omaha station in the late 1920's under a design competition, but the design was not chosen. Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed the Omaha station, which was opened in 1930, and is still standing now as The Durham Museum.
Van Brunt was active in the American Institute of Architects. Elected an AIA Fellow in 1864, he contributed frequently to the Proceedings, and in 1898 he was elected president of the Institute. At his death in 1903 the Architectural Review lauded his distinguished career and the formative influence he had had on the architectural profession. “It is much in a desert of drought to believe in the oasis,” the Review stated, “It was much when there was no architecture to try bravely to make one.”