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Probably because I grew up in Fort Worth, county courthouses always have fascinated me. I will drive miles out of the way to see a really good courthouse.
Fort Worth does not have just a good courthouse; it has a superb one, a vast red granite pile topped by a 200-foot clock tower, which, when I was in high school, was topped in turn by a metal and neon American flag. The Tarrant County Courthouse sits on a bluff above the Trinity River at the head of Main Street, and it dominates that street even from the railroad station, 14 blocks away. It was built in 1895 and is a fine example of what courthouse aficionados call the “golden age” of Texas courthouse architecture: ornate, richly embellished and expensive. It cost $420,000, a small fortune in 1895.
The first Texas courthouses were often log cabins, which had certain flaws. Texas courthouse artist Bill Morgan likes to tell about the first Cooke County Courthouse in Gainesville, which was built of logs in 1850 and only lasted three years. It was destroyed when a bull belonging to a local, Jim Dickson, broke out of his nearby pen and charged through the open front door, slamming into the opposite wall and bringing the whole structure down around him like so many toothpicks. According to Morgan, the minutes of the next county commissioners’ court meeting stipulated that a new courthouse “shall be built so strong that Jim Dickson’s bull or no other damn bull can butt it down.”
The next generation of Texas courthouses, those built in the 1850s and ’60s, were generally bullproof frame or brick buildings in the Greek Revival style with white columns out front, modeled on courthouses farther east. But as Texas counties grew rich on cotton and cattle in the 1880s and ’90s, these courthouses suddenly seemed shabby and old-fashioned, and they were replaced with the golden age courthouses. These featured Roman-esque and Renaissance Revival wedding cakes with towers and cupolas and mansard roofs and rusticated arches and all the exuberant paraphernalia of late Victorian architecture.
The Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa is a perfect example of this style. When it was built in 1886, Presidio County was the largest county in the United States, with 12,000 square miles (but fewer than 3,000 people), and the county commissioners wanted a courthouse that would reflect that grandeur. Although the architect of record was James H. Britton, the courthouse probably was designed by San Antonian Alfred Giles, who designed eight other Texas courthouses built during that period, as well as banks and public buildings all over Texas and northern Mexico. Giles produced a courthouse that could be seen for miles across the prairie.
Giles was one of several Texas architects who specialized in courthouses in those years. Another was Wesley Clark Dodson of Waco, whose cluster of Second Empire courthouses in Weatherford, Denton, Granbury and Hillsboro were the destinations of my earliest courthouse expeditions from Fort Worth in the late 1950s. The most prolific courthouse architect was Dodson protégé James Riely Gordon, who built 18—a dozen of which are still standing. The best-known include his pink granite and red sandstone confection built in 1896 in Waxahachie, the slightly smaller near-duplicate built the next year in Decatur, and the 1891 Fayette County courthouse in La Grange, which features a palm court with a cast-iron fountain.
Gordon was somewhat manipulative in his dealings with county commissioners. When the Fayette County Commissioners Court met in March 1890 to declare the old courthouse unsafe and unanimously voted to build a new one, Gordon stepped forward to sketch out a rough plan for the new one. The commissioners awarded him the contract without competitive bidding. When it came time to demolish the old courthouse, which had been built 34 years earlier by a German stonemason, it took dynamite to get the “unsafe” structure down. The old courthouse cost $14,500—the new one, $100,000.
In 1898, the Comal County commissioners retained Gordon to help them draw up the rules for a competition to design a new courthouse in New Braunfels. Gordon suggested that instead of having a competition, they go and look at other courthouses and then hire the architect who designed the one they liked best. They got on the train and went down to San Antonio, where they saw Gordon’s Bexar County Courthouse; then over to La Grange, where they saw his Fayette County Courthouse; then up to Giddings, where they saw his Lee County Courthouse; and then came back to New Braunfels and hired Gordon. He didn’t even have to draw up a new set of plans. He gave them a duplicate of the Lee County courthouse, but in limestone instead of brick.
Texas has 254 courthouses, so there is at least one to suit every architectural taste. There are dignified neoclassical courthouses and restrained art moderne courthouses and even glass boxes from the 1960s. But give me the excessive enthusiasm of the golden age courthouses. They exemplify the unbridled spirit of Texas.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. Excerpted from Texas People, Texas Places: More Musings of the Rambling Boy, TCU Press .