Mythconceptions of Harris County Courthouses
In December 2002, Mike Yancey, the Director of Facilities and Property Management, acquired from County Judge Robert Eckels’ office six images of Harris County Courthouses. He asked me to have them matted and reframed to be hung in his reception area. While researching the buildings for label copy, I discovered these images had been used in a number of newspaper stories about the courthouses beginning in 1908 --- and that much of the information was incorrect.
Let’s explore some of the “mythconceptions” surrounding the courthouses built on Courthouse Square.
Courthouse Square in Houston, bounded by San Jacinto, Preston, Congress, and Fannin Streets, has been home to 5 courthouses since 1838. Ever since the first wall was raised, the early Harris County Courthouses have been plagued by poor construction, leaking roofs, and misconceptions perpetrated for over 150 years.
Harris County Courthouse – 1838
FICTION: The first courthouse in Harris County was a dog-trot log cabin.
FACT: Accepted by the Commissioners Court in April 1838, Harris County’s first courthouse consisted of a two-story frame structure with an outside staircase. The image seen here was drawn by Judge W. A. Hamblen, appeared in “Harris County’s Courthouse,” Houston Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1908. Newspaper and magazine articles and popular histories continued to lend credence to the double dog-trot log cabin. The drawing does not portray Harris County’s first courthouse. As with so much of Texas history, the interest lies in its mythic qualities and the perpetuation of that myth. More than likely, this is a drawing of the jail, also located on Courthouse Square, and mislabeled.
From the county advertised bid on October 21, 1837:
“The house shall be 36 feet in length by 24 feet in breadth, from outside to outside, two stories high, the lower story 12 feet in the clear, the upper story 11 feet between floor and joists; a frame building of good materials, weather boarded with good dressed weather-boarding, . . . The roof to be of good 18-inch shingles, to be painted after the same style of the capitol. . . And to stand one foot from the ground on good substantial blocks.”
The difference came with the staircase. They couldn’t build the center staircase called for in the bid, so they built an outside staircase. But, it wasn’t a log cabin.
This courthouse lasted approximately 5 years. I have been told that the building was moved across Buffalo Bayou to a location on Main Street and around 1980 it was moved to a ranch near Chapel Hill. I have not substantiated any of this information.
Harris County Courthouse – 1851
FICTION: The second Harris County Courthouse was abandoned in 1857, only six years after it was built.
FACT: A two-story building constructed of brick and topped by a cupola was designed by F. J. Rothaas and accepted by the Commissioners Court on October 15, 1851. Within six years, major structural problems began to occur. The Weekly Telegraph, September 16, 1857, reported, “We regret to notice evidences of instability in the walls of our Court House. Fears are entertained that the building may fall.” However, the courthouse continued in use, although several sources have reported that the records were removed, and the commissioners began to meet elsewhere. According to the Commissioners Court Minutes, the meeting place was the courthouse for several more years.
Harris County Courthouse – 1860
This first image is a drawing of the plans for the new courthouse. The publication is unidentified. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the roof, walls, and floor were completed, but then it was used by the Confederacy as an ammunition factory and to house prisoners of war.
Harris County Courthouse – 1860
After the war, there was no money. The county was broke. But, they were finally able to use their building. This photograph was likely taken around 1881, before the building’s demolition.
FICTION: In 1868, the 1860 courthouse was torn down, the bricks sold to build Annunciation Catholic Church, and Courthouse Square turned into a municipal park.
FACT: In 1860, N. DeChaumes received the contract to build the third courthouse in Harris County. The specifications called for the courthouse to be built in front of the old courthouse and to face Congress Avenue. According to church history, Annunciation was built using the bricks from the courthouse. But, it was the 1851 courthouse that was finally torn down. In 1870, the dome was removed, and the 1860 Courthouse underwent major repairs. Local architect Eugene Heiner repaired the roof in 1878. The building was finally torn down in 1881.
Notice the iron fence surrounding the property. The land was used as a park.
Harris County Courthouse – 1884
FICTION: The spire on the courthouse really belonged to First Baptist Church and is an illusion in the photographs.
FACT: Early photographs of the courthouse show the building without its tin spire. A 1950 entry to a photograph album in the collection of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (MSS 114-706) claims that the spire really belongs to First Baptist Church on Main Street. However, fire insurance maps from 1886 through 1907 indicate a tin spire on the courthouse, as does a Birdseye map from 1890. The First Baptist Church’s spire was too short and too far away to be photographed as a part of the courthouse. The “off-kilter” spire is a result of early photographic distortion.
Another possible explanation may be that early photographs were taken soon after the building was accepted prior to the spire being built.
This is the 1896 jail on Capital Street on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. It never was a courthouse but was often included in the newspaper supplements as a Harris County Courthouse since it often housed the criminal courts.
Harris County Courthouse – 1910
FICTION: A statue of Lady Justice was removed from the top of the courthouse dome and is somewhere in Houston.
FACT: The original competition-winning drawings by Lang and Witchell indicated a statue for the top of the courthouse dome. These plans were changed before the courthouse was built. However, the original elevations were used as a visual representation of the courthouse, and people accepted these images as fact. A copper pinnacle resembling a chess pawn was placed on the top of the dome. It was removed before 1930. In 1992 the Friends of the Courthouse Dome financed a reproduction which aged gracefully and was placed on top of the dome in 2009 during the restoration of the courthouse.
You can see a statue of Lady Justice on top of the pinnacle. In addition to postcards and various advertisements, county officials as late as 1920 used the drawing with Lady Justice on their official stationery.
The Harris County Courthouse today. A six-year project restored the courthouse to its original 1910 glory. It was rededicated in August 2011.
Come, visit, or take a tour online at https://izi.travel/en/952c-courthouse-restoration-renovation/en.