There’s old historic buildings and then there’s the historic courthouse buildings that are the center of many communities around the United States. Courthouses around America come in many architectural styles and many were designed and built either at the end of the 1800’s or at the very beginning of the 1900’s. Many of these old historic buildings tell a story of the community and counties they reside in and therefore offer a real trip into history. They are a real part of a regions heritage.
Take a road trip around the U.S. and you’ll have a chance to explore many of these historic structures which often times house exhibits that explain the founding of the region.
The Courthouses of Texas
Texas has more old historic buildings, and most of these are courthouses, than just about any state in the country. Among the things I have always found fascinating touring old courthouses in Texas are the variety of architectural styles employed, often very different from one another. It seems that the founders all had different ideas as to how their courthouse should look. It seems that many of the styles had European origins of some type and even in this there are dozens of varieties. When you view these historic structures, they are not merely pictures of old buildings, but are representatives of a time when elaborate public buildings were meant to add prestige.
In today’s world, building a new structure of the types shown here are most often cost prohibitive. Even maintaining these old historic buildings today present a financial challenge. Fortunately, most of these structures are Historic Landmarks, both of national and state registers, and because of this often have historical societies that raise funds for their restoration and upkeep.
Donley County Courthouse, Clarendon Texas
Chances are you won’t find many old historic buildings that outdo the Donley County Courthouse in the Texas Panhandle town of Clarendon. Donley County Texas is in a region that was Texas cattle country. The area is sparsely settled as most of the surrounding acreage was vast range lands. This was in the area of the famous JA Ranch, operated by Charles Goodnight, the Father of the Texas Panhandle. Other notable ranches in the area included the RO Ranch and Carhart’s Quarter Circle Heart Ranch.Donley County took it’s name in honor of Stockton P. Donley, a lawyer and Texas Supreme Court judge.
The Donley County Courthouse was built in a Romanesque Revival style in 1880. It was constructed of stone and brick. It’s interesting to note that white settlers, mostly ranchers, didn’t inhabit this area until the 1870’s. The Panhandle region of Texas was the home of many Native American tribes including the Comanches and Apaches. In fact, it was in Palo Duro Canyon, not far from Clarendon and just southeast of present day Amarillo, where the famous Comanche leader Quanah Parker, surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry in September 1874. Donley became an official county in Texas two years later in 1876. At the time the Donley Courthouse was built and the area became a county, Clarendon was one of only three settlements in the Panhandle. The Donley County Courthouse was restored and it’s plumbing and electrical work was upgraded with oversight from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.
The McLennan County Courthouse, Waco Texas
Here is a courthouse with truly European origins. In fact, many say that the Beaux-Arts architectural style of the McLennan County Courthouse was inspired by St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome Italy.To emphasize the elaborate construction and design, on the top of the courthouse dome is a small lantern crowned by a statue of “Themis”, the Greek goddess of divine law and justice. The statue on top holds the scales of justice in her left hand and the hilt of a sword in her right. There was once a blade in the sword but unfortunately it was lost during a large Texas storm.
There are many who believe the McLennan County Courthouse has a strong resemblance to the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin, just about 100 miles south. Both old historic buildings have wings on each side of the main area and both have an elaborate statue display on their domes. The two significant features of the McLennan County Courthouse is it’s beautiful dome and it’s commanding front entrance.
What is today McLennan County was at one time a Mexican land grant given out in 1925. The frontier line in Texas gradually moved westward. At one time it ran roughly in a line from Dallas southwestward to San Antonio. Indian troubles from the Comanches and their ongoing threat caused permanent settlement in today’s McLennan County to be delayed until the 1840’s. McLennan County was founded by the Texas legislature in January 1850. The county was named for Neil McLennan, one of the areas earliest settlers.
The Texas Historical Commission
As mentioned above, Texas has more historic courthouses that any other state. There are more than 234 courthouses in Texas still standing that are least 50 years old. Some eighty were constructed before the turn of the twentieth century. Eventually, most of these old historic buildings were significantly deteriorated due to inadequate maintenance, insensitive modifications or weather related damage.
The Texas Historical Commission documented the condition of 50 of the state’s oldest courthouses in the late 1990s and determined that counties lacked the funds to preserve and maintain the buildings for future generations.
When the Texas county courthouses were added to the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Properties list in 1998, some action had to be taken. Due to all of this the state created the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. This was the largest such creation of any one state. This nationally recognized preservation program reversed the trend of disrepair and started the process of restoring the state’s most treasured historic landmarks. Fortunately this action went a long way in preserving these historic buildings for all of us and future generations to enjoy.
(Photos from author’s private collection)