CHEYENNE — The lights of the holidays are twinkling at the Nagle-Warren Mansion, as all of the vintage Victorian ornaments and angels have escaped their boxes to crowd the fireplace mantles and Christmas tree at the grand showstopping home on Cheyenne’s Millionaire’s Row.
They’ll sing no carols, they are silent throughout the holy night. But they’re still part of legendary Wyoming history that goes back 137 years.
“The most vintage (ornament) up there is that nutcracker,” two-star Michelin chef Jas Barbé told Cowboy State Daily, pointing at a glass ornament that resembles nothing if not stained glass with sunshine inside. “There were two of them. I’d say that ornament is probably 50 years old.”
It’s part of a collection that’s 70 boxes strong.
“They go three and a half floors above here, in the attic,” Barbé said.
Putting them all out takes a few weeks to accomplish, as does putting them all back.
“You know, this is a Christmas house,” Barbé said. “It really is. And the same way for Frontier Days. When it comes along, we decorate for that as well.”
One Part Christmas, One Part Legend
Afternoon and high teas are a longstanding Cheyenne Christmas tradition, popularized by self-described “hospitalier” Jim Osterfoss, who died in January, 2021.
But they go back much further than that, Barbé told Cowboy state Daily.
“The teas we are doing come from what our research has told us,” he said. “This is what the Nagles and Mrs. Warren, Clara, would have done. We are in essence just recreating what the original two main owners were doing.”
The history Barbé tells guests during the afternoon and high teas held during the holidays includes the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody, Erasmus Nagle and his wife Emma, President William Howard Taft, and Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing.
They were the most frequent guests of the Nagle-Warren Mansion, Barbé said, and sat right there in the front great room, talking through military and political decisions that are now part of not just state, but American history.
Bringing people in for holiday tea is a unique way to share legendary Wyoming history. It’s also one that’s also quite tasty.
The afternoon teas are suitable for families with older children.
The menu tends more to the sweet than savory side, though there are three finger sandwiches. The latter are pretty quickly upstaged, though, by scones that are tender and melt in the mouth, cookies with just the right amount of toothy bite and a toasty Christmas cake sweetened mostly by blueberries and cranberries snuggled into a meringue batter that hits the high notes with a crunchy caramelized top.
Two kinds of tea are available: Earl Grey or “Victorian” tea, and peppermint or Christmas tea.
There are also high teas on Dec. 23 and 24 patterned after those offered at Balmoral castle by the late Queen Elizabeth. Unlike afternoon tea, this particular tea is adults only. It not only tends to be more savory than sweet, but Champagne is part of the menu.
“And it includes a reading of Scrooge, so there’s a little entertainment as well,” Barbé said of how it’s done at Nagle-Warren.
Dishes at all of the teas and historical events at the mansion are served by people in period costume, helping complete the 1890s submersion.
“That’s what we do here,” Barbé said. “We want to bring back to life all the traditions that were part of (the mansion) and just keeps it going for Cheyenne. This is part of their heritage. It is Cheyenne and Wyoming heritage.”
The teas are not the only way the mansion keeps Cheyenne history alive. The mansion itself is a bed and breakfast experience, where guests are invited to try on the 1890s for size.
“You come in here, and we don’t have TVs — we do, but they’re stashed,” Barbé said. “If you want one, we can get you one, but most people don’t. They want the experience of 1890.”
Sometimes so much so they bring their own period costumes.
After dinner, guests are invited to sample brandy and sherry in the sitting room with music, lights and conversation.
After the tea, Barbé will often offer an impromptu tour of the Nagle-Warren mansion, which was built on what’s known in Cheyenne as Millionaire’s Row.
“This was the wealthiest street in the world at one point,” Barbé told guests during a recent tea. “And Nagle’s wife was one of the first families here. They were early on, 1865. When they came here, there probably weren’t 50 people here.”
‘Ablaze With Light And Brilliancy’
Cheyenne’s merchant prince Erasmus Nagle built the Romanesque mansion on the corner of what is now 17th Street and House Avenue in summer 1888. He and his wife Emma threw a bit of a party, “ablaze with light and brilliancy,” as the Cheyenne Daily Leader put it, to show off their new home.
An orchestra played music for those who wanted to dance, while other ladies went into “ecstasies” over the artistic beauties in the home. All that mahogany woodwork, the stained-glass windows the Moroccan chandelier.
The cost of the home, including furnishings, was $35,000, according to the Daily Leader’s account. That didn’t include grounds and stables.
Paperwork on file with the National Register of Historic Places puts the amount at $50,000, a figure that perhaps accounts for the cost of the sandstone Erasmus used to build the mansion. It had been rejected as too soft by the contractor building the Wyoming State Capitol at the time. Erasmus decided it was good enough for his mansion.
The contractor, though, was right. By 1971, the Nagle-Warren Mansion was in danger of giving way to the elements. The Young Women’s Christian Association, which ran it as a women’s hotel at the time, auctioned off all the home’s furnishings to pay for stucco to save its crumbling exterior.
Saving the home is exactly what the YWCA accomplished. In today’s dollars, that $50,000 would be worth around $1.6 million. But visitors touring the mansion quickly realize the Nagle-Warren house couldn’t be replicated today with so little money.
About Those Ceiling Panels
There are far too many treasures inside the mansion that would be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate. Among them are the ceiling panels in the hallway. At first glance, visitors think they are some type of fancy tin or perhaps some exotic carved wood.
They are neither.
“They are carved buffalo hide,” Barbé told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s the only one like it in the world.”
The carved leather panels were made by Cheyenne pioneer and saddlemaker Frank A. Meanea, a favorite of Buffalo Bill Cody. The panels were a gift from Cody, a frequent guest when the mansion was owned by the Warrens.
“It took (Meanea) and his nephew a year to carve these panels,” Barbé told Cowboy State Daily.
That Moroccan chandelier in the entry hall, the stained glass and crystal windows, and the Moorish tiles are just a few of the finer details rounding out this grand entryway’s first impression.
Stained Glass and Gold
Walk further into the home, and a feature that really stands out are the intricate metal fireplaces in the great room and in the parlor, which are truly Scottish works of art.
They were cast from four different metals, including pig iron, iron, copper and brass.
“Both of the fireplaces have exactly the same material,” he said. “They were done in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then shipped by railroad and put in here. They were the last two pieces put in here.”
All of the mansion’s doors are framed with elaborate wooden mantles, while period wallpapers, recreated from La Belle Epoch and imported from France in the late 1990s by Osterfoss, adorn the walls with bright, Victorian colors that are period appropriate.
Sometimes what appears to be wallpaper is not wallpaper at all. Sometimes it’s molded plaster, painted with what looks like soft gold, such as in the main dining room area.
Stained glass windows illuminate what would otherwise be dark corners with vibrant light and color, delighting and surprising the eye.
Even the floors underfoot are special in this home, with three kinds of wood polished to a lacquered shine in various artistic patterns throughout the entire first floor.
That’s just one of three floors in a mansion that is full of history and surprises. Upstairs on the next two floors, 11 posh guest suites await, each with its own bathroom, as well as its own ornate charms. There’s also a small conservatory upstairs in a tower, which looks down on Cheyenne as if from on top of the world.
Nagle meant his three-story mansion to be a showcase and bragged at the time that he had built a mansion — truly a castle in his own mind — that could not be rivaled.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy his castle for long. He died six months later of peritonitis and, eventually, the home was bought by sometimes partner and sometimes rival Sen. Francis E. Warren.
Today, the home that Erasmus Nagle built is available for all to enjoy in every season, but the Christmas season most of all, a gift of history and heritage that is now more than 137 years old.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.