Texas has 254 counties and each county has a seat of government and a county courthouse. Many counties have historical courthouses that date back to the 1880s. In fact, Texas has one of the most remarkable collections of Victorian buildings in the U.S. Only a few years they were considered endangered landmarks, and some were even demolished to make way for modern buildings. Over the last ten to fifteen years, many Texas counties have restored their historic courthouses. One interesting example is Wharton County.
In 1889, Wharton, a small farming community an hour’s drive south of Houston, hired Houston architect Eugene T. Heiner to design a brand new county courthouse. It was built in a classic Victorian design and overlooked the Wharton countryside and the Colorado River. The design was a combination of two popular Victorian styles — the Second Empire style and the Italianate style. It was a three-story masonry building with limestone trimmings that was surrounded with a mansard roof and a central clock tower.
But by the 1930s Wharton County officials considered the courthouse to be old-fashioned and they wanted a larger, more modern-looking courthouse. So they removed the large clock tower, the mansard roofs, and the brick façade, and redesigned the building in the more fashionable art deco look. Wings were added to the building which totally changed the original design. The brick and limestone walls were covered in stucco to represent the very clean lines of simplicity associated with the art deco.
Sadly, the once-beautiful Wharton County Courthouse had been left unrecognizable from its original design. Famous playwright Horton Foote, who grew up in Wharton, was very upset the courthouse had been changed and he referred to it as the Sulphur Block because it was painted yellow.
In the late 1990s there was talk of demolishing the old building and erecting a brand new courthouse. But local preservationists quickly organized and looked for a way to save the historic structure. They considered the courthouse to be the heart and soul of Wharton County.
Architect David Bucek commented, “When we found out that there was a Victorian building under the art deco building we began to think what would happen if we restored the courthouse to its original look. We thought restoring it would help the county because it would change the perception of Wharton. People would identify with the courthouse in their county.”
Restoring the 1889 Wharton County Courthouse became an emotionally charged issue among county residents. While the preservationists wanted to save the building, other residents thought it should be demolished and replaced with a new modern-looking structure. Many people thought it couldn’t be done – removing the art deco exterior and restoring the Victorian design.
Finally, the preservationists won the argument, and after four years of planning and fundraising, the tedious task of restoring the historic Wharton County Courthouse began. The courthouse would be fully restored to its Victorian grandeur.
In order to give the courthouse its original Victorian look, the wings that had been added to the building in the 1930s would have been to be completely removed as well as the art deco stucco facade. Restoring the building also meant the roof would have to be rebuilt and a new clock tower put on top.
One of the greatest challenges of the restoration was that no blueprints could be found and the building had been altered with drastic changes from the original look.
After the 1930s additions to the building were demolished, the stucco on the exterior walls was removed and replaced with brick and masonry. The interior of the courthouse was also gutted to be completely renovated and updated. Gradually, the look of the building began to change and county residents took notice of the restoration.
Finally in August of 2005, Wharton residents gathered on the courthouse square to watch as the massive clock tower was lifted to the top of the building. Rebuilding the clock tower on the courthouse has created an enormous sense of pride with Wharton residents and has given a new look to the downtown.
The new clock tower is an exact replica of the original, except it was fabricated in Kentucky and trucked down to Wharton. The courthouse bell had been saved by the First Baptist Church where it stayed until it was returned to the county.
Wharton resident Jeffrey Blair said, “It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon because it was covered up. No one had any concept of what it was like.”
Today, the restoration of the historic 1889 Wharton County Courthouse is complete and Wharton residents are thrilled with the way the building now looks. The restored courthouse seems to speak to the people of Wharton and reminds them of their county’s heritage.
These county courthouses, large and small, are symbols of Texas history and represent the vision and dreams of the people who built this state. So when traveling by car across Texas, why not venture off the interstate to visit one of this beautifully restored county courthouse? Spend some time on the courthouse square and reflect on life in Texas in a different era.
(The Wharton County Courthouse is featured in the PBS television documentary, “The Golden Age of Texas Courthouses,” produced by Sunset Productions in association with Texas Foundation for the Arts.)