The Cooley House was designed and built for entrepreneur Gilbert Brian ‘Captain’ Cooley of Monroe, Louisiana, by internationally acclaimed architect Walter Burley Griffin.
Griffin was a young architect in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, he took a job working for architectural legend Frank Lloyd Wright. With Wright and a handful of others, he helped to define a new American style of architecture. This group of architects was deeply influenced by Louis Sullivan, who called for an architecture that was free from the influences of older European styles, one that would reflect the spirit of this new country. What developed became known as the Prairie School, named for the influence it took from the prairies of the Midwest. It was characterized by open floor plans, horizontal lines, and natural materials.
G.B. Cooley was born in Savanna, Illinois, but in 1894 he moved to Monroe with his wife Selena Kugler Cooley and started Monroe Steam Laundry. Cooley became one of the city’s most successful businessmen, and he soon set his mind to building a new home for him and his wife. Cooley’s brother and Griffin’s parents are believed to have been friends in Chicago. It is probably through this relationship that Cooley and Griffin became acquainted. Once they met, it is of little surprise that these two innovative men recognized a kinship. Beyond their entrepreneurial natures, they both took strides to improve the human condition. Griffin did this through his design. Cooley did this through his efforts against tuberculosis. Cooley was instrumental in rallying the support of wealthy Monroe families to build a hospital to treat the tuberculosis epidemic. Because of his leadership, the hospital bore his name, the G.B. Cooley Sanatorium. Over time, tuberculosis faded and the hospital’s focus shifted and became what is known today as the G.B. Cooley Hospital or the G.B. Cooley Services for Persons with Developmental Needs.
The house was designed in 1908, but Cooley was not able to begin construction at that time. Before he was able to start, Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony won an international competition to design a new capital city for Australia. Griffin and Mahony went to Australia in 1912, and his career flourished. His success in Australia made it difficult to maintain an office in Chicago, and he closed his American office in 1917.
By 1925, Cooley was prepared to break ground on his home, and during a visit back to the states, Griffin included a trip to Monroe. He made several revisions to the structure and added the characteristic green clay tiles that, with the 2008 restoration, again adorn the roof. Griffin returned to Australia, but he left an associate, Henry Pynor, in Monroe to oversee construction.
The Cooley House was completed in 1926. It was constructed of concrete with wood trim. In addition to the green tile roof, the home also had a central vacuum system, central steam heating, an incinerator, a steam shower, and a sunken tub. Though non-functioning, these, as well as the original cork floor, are still in place. The home also has a detached carport. This was not part of the original 1908 plans, but in the teens Cooley became the first person in Monroe to own an automobile, and the structure was added to 1925 revisions. Before the levee system was constructed, the home also had a view and a walkway to the Ouachita River.
Contrary to popular belief, the home was not designed to look like a riverboat, nor was Captain Cooley a riverboat captain. His brother L.V. Cooley was the captain, and he was noted as one of the last great steamboat captains along the Mississippi and Ouachita Rivers. G.B. Cooley always loved the river, and he spent time working on his brother’s steamboat before settling in Monroe. G.B. Cooley did own a yacht, the Weto.
The Cooley House became Griffin’s last structure to be built in the United States, and it is one the last surviving examples of Prairie School residential architecture in the South. Among architects and historians it is also noted for combining elements of Griffin’s American and Australian periods.
Cooley lived in his dream home until his death in 1952. When his widow died in 1955, the home was left to their nephew, who sold the property to Donald C. Hughes. The home became apartments and then law offices (Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, and Osborn and later Jones & Johnson) before being purchased by the G.B. Cooley Board of Commissioners in 2000.
The Cooley house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and in 2006, it was added to the list of Top 10 Most Endangered Sites by the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 2008, the City of Monroe purchased the property and entered into a cooperative agreement with The Cooley House Foundation for the restoration of the historic home and gardens. The property will be owned by the City of Monroe, which will also provide staff. The Cooley House Foundation is raising the funds for restoration of the property and will provide on-going board support when the home is opened as a museum.
Foreman, Larry. Special Collections, Ouachita Parish Public Library.
Galicki, Marta McBride. “Walter Burley Griffin’s Oeuvre in the South,” Master Thesis, The Florida State University School of Visual Arts, December 1981.
Kruty, Paul. “The Gilbert Cooley House, 1925: Walter Burley Griffin’s Last American Building,” FABRICATIONS: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand 6 (June 1995): 8-23.
Kruty, Paul and Mati Maldre. Walter Burley Griffin in America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Legler, Dixie and Christian Korab. Prairie Style: Houses and Gardens by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
The News-Star, Monroe, Louisiana, multiple articles.