The county courthouse has long held a central place on the Texas landscape—literally, as the center of the town in which it is located, and figuratively, as the symbol of governmental authority. As a county’s most important public building, the courthouse makes an architectural statement about a community’s prosperity and aspirations—or the lack of them. Thus, a study of county courthouses tells a compelling story about how society’s relationships with public buildings and government have radically changed over the course of time, as well as how architectural tastes have evolved through the decades.
A first of its kind, The Courthouses of Central Texas offers an in-depth, comparative architectural survey of fifty county courthouses, which serve as a representative sample of larger trends at play throughout the rest of the state. Each courthouse is represented by a description, with information about date(s) of construction and architects, along with a historical photograph, a site plan of its orientation and courthouse square, and two- and sometimes three-dimensional drawings of its facade with modifications over time. Side-by-side drawings and plans also facilitate comparisons between courthouses. These consistently scaled and formatted architectural drawings, which Brantley Hightower spent years creating, allow for direct comparisons in ways never before possible. He also explains the courthouses’ formal development by placing them in their historical and social context, which illuminates the power and importance of these structures in the history of Texas, as well as their enduring relevance today.
In the summer of 1955 two men newly appointed to the University of Texas architecture faculty took advantage of the pause in their teaching responsibilities to explore the area around their new Austin home. In their travels through central Texas they discovered a landscape of small towns containing buildings of surprising architectural sophistication. The experience made an impression on them both, and later they would describe their observations in Architectural Record magazine. In “Lockhart, Texas” they depict the central Texas town featured in the essay as an urban model worthy of detailed study. Like many small towns in America, it was inspired by European architectural and urban precedents, but in the case of Lockhart they saw a distinctly Texan approach. For the authors, the county courthouse and its square held particular interest:
For these courthouse squares are not the residential enclosures of England, nor like the piazzas of Italy do they admit the church in a presiding role. Here it is the law which assumes a public significance; and it is around the secular image of the law, like architectural illustrations of a political principal, that these towns revolve. In each case the courthouse is both visual focus and social guarantee; and in each square the reality of government made formally explicit provides the continuing assurance of order.
The two young architecture professors who made these observations were Colin Rowe and John Hejduk, who both became influential architectural theorists and educators in the second half of the twentieth century. Their fascination with the seat of Caldwell County attests to the powerful allure of courthouses and the towns in which they reside.
The 254 county courthouses of Texas represent a diverse expression of the idealized values and ambitions of a rapidly expanding population during times of intense economic, technological, and social change. The courthouses of the central part of the state provide an illustrative sample of the larger forces at work throughout Texas. In the century during which the first and last existent central Texas county courthouses were constructed, the state expanded from a mostly untamed wilderness of under 820,000 inhabitants to a modern center of business and technology with a population of over 11 million.3 Today that number is over 26 million. When the Kendall County Courthouse opened in 1870, Comanche war parties and roving bands of outlaws were still a reality in Texas. Courthouse buildings by themselves did not end these threats, but the institutional services and legal protections provided by the county government they contained did much to establish a stable civil society.
Counties are required by the Texas Constitution to build courthouse facilities to house the departments that define government at that level. Functionally they have always been office buildings with archive storage and clerical space in addition to a few specialized courtroom facilities. Early courthouses were built as pragmatic containers of program, but by the closing decades of the 1800s, the courthouse began to be understood as a potent symbol of a community’s prosperity. County governments would invest far beyond their means in a bold architecture of optimism whose aspirational grandiosity illustrated the future they envisioned for themselves and their people. Of course, this vision was the exclusive domain of the county’s white property owners. A courthouse could just as easily be a symbol of corruption and injustice for the less privileged members of the community.
As Texas became more densely settled and the rule of law became more institutionally entrenched, county government became a less central fixture in the daily life of the average citizen. The courthouses built during this transitional period reflect this changing reality. Although the relative importance of county government continued to wane as the state became increasingly urbanized, the “temples of justice” that were built in its name still serve as vivid reminders of how significant the county once was to Texans.
The frontier may have been civilized long ago, but courthouses still provide a way to better understand a time and an attitude toward architecture and government that was radically different from the one that exists today. What is more, they provide a compelling example of the importance of architecture in the public realm.
The vast physical size of Texas means that the state encompasses a wide variety of geographic and climatic regions within its boundaries. The central area of the state represents a unique convergence of these varied regions. Central Texas consists of rolling plains to the northwest, piney woods to the northeast, coastal plains to the southeast and rocky hill country to the southwest. The area also includes an equally diverse cultural sampling of Anglo, Czech, German, and Mexican cultures.4 While the confluence of these influences defined the history of the state as a whole, in central Texas it also determined its architecture. It was not uncommon for limestone quarried in the hill country to be worked by skilled German immigrants who created forms influenced by Hispanic precedent.
The creation of consistently scaled and formatted architectural drawings allows the direct comparison of courthouse buildings in a way never before possible. Courthouses that appear similar when viewed in isolation reveal themselves to be radically different in scale or density of ornamentation when rendered adjacent to one another.
Every attempt has been made to create an accurate portrait of the courthouses studied. Each courthouse was photographed and measured when it was visited on multiple occasions over the course of several years. When possible, existing architectural drawings were used to verify field measurements.5
Deciding what to draw was not always obvious. Counties often expanded their facilities incrementally over time, resulting in courthouse squares littered with buildings of different eras and purposes. In some cases large new annexes were built that dwarfed the original structure they were built to support. For this study, a county’s earliest functional courthouse was drawn. Additions were included, but stand-alone annexes were not. Certain additive details such as air conditioning units, downspouts, and handrails have been omitted for analytical clarity.
It is worth noting that these buildings are dynamic entities whose appearances can change dramatically over time. During the research phase of this project, several courthouses underwent extensive restorations and appear significantly different than when the study began. As such, the drawings and photographs assembled here can best be understood as a single snapshot of a specific time in a continuing evolution.