Almost everyone in Laramie knows where the Alice Hardie Stevens Center is. Few remember that it was first named “Virginia Cottage” for a 17 year old girl who probably never lived in Laramie. That girl was Virginia Jean Voorhis. It has often been told the building was named for her because she died while a student at the Ivinson School for Girls, which is not true. When the structure was finished in 1925 she was living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with her parents and attending an Episcopal girls’ school called Kemper Hall. Charles, her father who donated money to build the Cottage named it in honor of his daughter. He is pictured to the left. Virginia, as a grown woman, is pictured to the right.
The building was named Virginia Cottage because the funds used were donated by a longtime supporter of the Episcopal Church in Wyoming, Charles Brown Voorhis, Virginia’s father. Charles Voorhis was born in Kansas in 1870 and initially worked for The Kingman Plow Company that made and sold plows. By his mid-forties he had moved on to be vice president of General Motors. After a successful career there, he became the vice president and sales manager of the old Nash Motor Company, retiring in 1924. Voorhis had developed an interest in Wyoming through the purchase of ranch property near Dubois, Wyoming. A devout Episcopalian, he became a benefactor to the Episcopalian Missionary District of Wyoming and contributed to many church projects.
In 1925, Bishop Nathaniel Thomas announced at the district’s a nnual convocation in Casper that Voorhis had donated $15,000 for the construction of a “dormitory” for Ivinson Hall. Voorhis, who was living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at the time, additionally donated $30,000 to pay for an organ for St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie. As the story goes, Charles, not seeing exactly Eye to Eye with the bishop of Wisconsin, approached the Bishop of Wyoming asking him if he would be willing to adopt him as his Bishop.
When the Bishop accepted his request, Charles asked if there was anything he could do for him. The Bishop responded that yes there was. He wanted to acquire a small piece of land near Jackson to build a small chapel. So, Charles donated the funds to erect the Episcopal Church’s beautiful “Chapel of the Transfiguration” in Grand Teton National Park. It was Charles’ idea to have a Clear-Pane Widow behind the altar to frame its single Cross against the panoramic scene of the Grand Teton Mountains. It is a truly striking site when you first enter the chapel.
Virginia Cottage was the social center of the Ivinson School for Girls. Girls lived on the second story. The ground floor housed a large room with a stage on the south end. The cottage was used for formal dances (the boys coming from the church’s Sherwood Hall not far away), plays and even gymnastics practices.
Charles Voorhis had two children. The youngest was Virginia Jean Voorhis who was born in Denver in 1908. She moved to Wisconsin with her parents and then on to Pasadena, California, with them in 1927. There she married Robert Edgar Rhodes in 1934, had three children and remained in the southern California area for the rest of her life. Interestingly, she was a member of the Valley Hunt Club, which was one of the founders of the Tournament of Roses Parade, and rode on one of their parade floats in the late 1970’s. Virginia died in Pasadena in 1999.
Virginia Voorhis Rhodes, more commonly known as “Gina” or “Aunt Gina” to folks in her inner circle, was about as unique as they come. She is remembered by her niece, Ellie Boothe as a woman who viewed her role in life as rarely about herself. Rather, she was there for her children both as example as well as cheerleader. In later years she channeled her energies to her theatrical artistic side which blossomed through her strong affiliation with the Pasadena Playhouse. It is there Ellie had one of her earliest and most fond memories of this grand lady. Virginia had a lead role in the production of “Puss ‘N’ Boots” which was presented for kids and adults alike. At one point s he had a line which reverberates to this day. It said nothing, yet it said everything, especially with her unusual and unmistakable voice. When she said with great confidence, “Oh Pish Tosh!”, well, the entire audience broke out in hysterical laughter. Who knew three words could carry such impact!
Charles’ oldest child, Jerry Voorhis, graduated from Yale and lived in Laramie from 1925-26 where he and his wife Louise ran Dray Cottage a school for boys associated with the Episcopal Church. After moving to California, Jerry managed “The Voorhis School for Boys” in San Dimas for many years, which was financed totally by his father where all of the boys attended tuition free. He was most well-known for his service in the United States Congress for five terms representing his district in southern California. He was defeated for reelection in 1946 by Richard Nixon
Charles continued his philanthropic efforts until his death in 1961 and received several humanitarian awards in southern California. The California school he built was eventually donated to the state of California and would form the nucleus of the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California.
Virginia Cottage was renamed the Alice Hardie Stevens Center in 2005 to honor the Laramie woman who spearheaded the drive to raise the money to prevent the demolition of the Ivinson mansion.
By Kim Viner.
Caption: Image of Virgina Voorhis Rhodes courtesy of Ellie Boothe who was also very helpful in the research for this article.