Our Historic Court House
Ellis County History
James A. Michener, in his book, Texas, best described the Ellis County Courthouse as “A fairy tale palace…replete with battlements and turrets and spires…and miniature castles high in the air… one of the finest buildings in Texas.” It is indeed a jewel of a building that has been designated as “number 8” on the list of outstanding architectural achievements in Texas.
Standing proudly on the southwest side of the courthouse is the bronze statue of Richard Ellis, by internationally recognized and Smithsonian registered sculptor, Attilio Piccirilli. The county was named after Virginian-born Ellis, President of the defiant 1836 Constitutional Congress that declared Texas’ independence from Mexico. The voters were told by the state legislature to name the county seat, “Waxahachie” a Tejas Native American word for “buffalo creek.” They determined the location of the county seat as the 62 acres bordering the Waxahachie Creek, donated by one of the earliest settlers, Emory W Rogers.
Texas has more historic courthouses (225) than any other state. Of these, 86 are on the National Register and 78 are Texas Historic Landmarks. Courthouses have always been a symbol of self-government, power and civic pride. Collectively, the courthouses were viewed as a sign of progress. They served as the heart of the community and the hub of social activity. The Ellis County Courthouse was no exception to the rule.
This courthouse is the fourth one to stand on this site, starting with an 1850 log cabin costing $59, a wooden frame structure in 1854 for $1,999, and two-story yellow limestone structure with a tower for $40,000 circa 1870. Finally the most recently restored courthouse was formally accepted in 1897 at a cost of approximately $130,000 plus the supervising architect’s fee.
Life in Prosperous 1890 Ellis County
It is easy to understand the need for this larger (and much more magnificent) courthouse when one realizes that Ellis County’s population had grown by 50% between 1880 and 1894. The Enterprise, reported that this county was said to be in the heart of the wealthiest and most productive part of Texas. Because of its black loamy prairie soil, it was perfect for all kinds of grains, cotton, and corn. It was considered the garden spot of the South. The article touted that Waxahachie was the judicial seat of Ellis County and a city of intelligence and wealth. Land was selling for $15 to $20 an acre, and a quart of homemade chili was 25 cents. The city had two railway lines, three national banks, and a land mortgage bank. Farmers were getting high prices for their seeds and crops. Because of four local cotton gins, two flouring mills, and one of the most prosperous cotton oil mills of the day, Waxahachie received more cotton direct from producers that any other city in the world.
Construction of the Courthouse
Not to be outdone by their neighboring counties, in 1893 the Ellis County Commissioners set about to build their new courthouse on a grand scale. The timing was right since the 1881 Texas State Legislature had authorized bonds for building new courthouses. Even today, controversy abounds about the actual construction of what would become one of the most artistic and beautiful public buildings in the South. Otto Kroeger came to Waxahachie to a sell a “stock” courthouse plan designed by noted architect James Riely Gordon. Gordon apprenticed under WC> Dodson, architect of the Hill County Courthouse. Gordon was known for his Richardsonian Romanesque style. He would eventually be credited with over 60 courthouses nationwide, including 16 in Texas. Also, Gordon was selected to represent Texas at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. This Exposition set the tone for buildings in America for years to come, a classical design based on monumental renaissance architecture. The high honor probably account for the selection of his plans without any competitive bids.
A savvy Kroger negotiated a contract with county officials and demolished the old courthouse before a second set of county commissioners took office. Only one commissioner, Finley, retained his office. Today, some believe that the radical change in the commissioners’ court was due to the extravagance of the courthouse contract. But national politics probably played a more prominent role. There was no mention of the courthouse construction in the general election and the local economy was prosperous, thus giving credence to the political climate as being the reason for the court’s change in composition. In 1895, the new court stopped construction and hired the Fort Worth firm of Messer, Sanguinet and Messer to be the “on-site architect” and supervisor of Kroeger. The local citizens knew Marshall Sanguinet since he had designed and built the bank directly north of the courthouse. The firm was to review the plans, make suggestions and hire an on-site superintendent if necessary. Sanguinet did all of the above and hired R.Parry as superintendent. Kroeger agreed to the concession and reimbursed the county for salvaged materials he had removed from razing of the third courthouse.
50 to 70 men worked on the construction of this courthouse at a monthly payroll of $5,000. This massive and stately edifice (23,739 square feet) stands nine stories tall, with a working clock tower featuring an 800-pound bell. Towers were frequently featured in the Richardsonian Romanesque (also known as Romanesque Revival) design. The courthouse sits on a three foot thick twisted steel and concrete foundation that supports 12-inch steel beams - giving it a heaviness of style characteristic of H.H.Richardson, known as “the architects’ architect.” In 1885, five of his buildings were ranked in the top ten buildings in America. The first on the list was Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston (1877). Few American architects have been credited their own national style. This architectural style (Richardsonian Romanesque) always utilized brick or stone masonry. Gordon specified several types of stone with contrasting textures and colors, including gray granite, rose pink granite, Burnett County limestone, and Pecos red sandstone. Slate replaced the roof tile as a cost-cutting measure the ever price conscious Sanguinet. The building’s turrets, some with curved glass, massed short robust columns, deep-set windows, semi-circular arches, cavernous recessed door openings and unusual sculptured shapes made this building the epitome of this revival style, a showplace for its time and today. Other elements set this structure apart from its contemporaries-such as the 21 exquisitely carved stone faces that decorate the porches, gleaming copper dentil molding, gutters and downspouts, and four soaring bronze eagles mounted high on the roof.
The stone sculptures are particularly important because Sanguinet sub-contracted the stonework to the Dallas firm of German stonemason Theodore Beilharz. The exquisite carving of the stone ornamentation is attributed to Harry Herley, and sets the Ellis County Courthouse apart from any building in Texas. Fables surround stonemason Herley, and Miss Mable Frame, a daughter of a local boarding house owner. Some believe their unrequited love became the subject matter for the many faces that decorate the façade. However, architectural history illustrates that the carving design and subject matter is commonly found on European Romanesque buildings, the architectural forebears of this revival design.
It was no wonder that in the invitation for the laying of the cornerstone, it was proposed to make that day “the grandest day in the history of the county” and that every citizen should take an interest in this “temple of justice.” Since all of the marble floors tiled entrances face the points of the compass, proceed to the north side main entrance (the most heavily carved of all entrances) of the courthouse. There you will find what has been called locally the “dueling cornerstones.” As you read the stones’ inscriptions, imagine that you can hear on July 4, 1895, Judge J.C. Smith proclaim ”A temple that will for ages stand out in golden letters of the history’s page of Ellis County as a milestone on the eminent highway tread by our generation.” The commissioners’ court ordered the Masonic Order cornerstone, and Kroeger - showing that they had resolved the controversy and eliminated the hard feelings - purchased the other cornerstone. Both old and new commissioners’ names appear in a standoff in perpetuity.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this courthouse is also recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark. As the centerpiece of the National Register Ellis County Courthouse District, there are an additional 42 contributing members (buildings) of the district located around the business square. Before you enter the courthouse through the accessible entrance ramp, please read the state historical marker.
Beginning at the basement of the building observe the structural evidence of its two million bricks, which have been plastered over. Please keep in mind that the contract called for heating, lighting, and plumbing. When it was turned over to the county, as The Enterprise reported, “there was to be nothing to do but raise the steam and press the button.” This building was “state of the art” for the 19th century. It contained indoor plumbing and several indoor toilet rooms. The ventilation system was unique in that it operated by using the central staircase as an airshaft. Air constantly circulated from the windows through offices and courtrooms, out the door transoms and into the central corridor where it was lifted out through the “wind chimney” at the top of the stairs. In addition, the 20-inch thick stone allowed the occupants to stay relatively cool in the heat of the Texas summers - without air conditioning!
During the recent restoration, all of the updated mechanical systems have been concealed under the porches or off site to make the building appear closely as it did in 1897. Electrical plumbing, audio, data and security systems are hidden in the floors, walls, and ceilings. Some interesting artifacts seen in the basement area are: the cornerstone from the third courthouse, the coal chute, and several historic graphic painted signs. Architectural features include the converted vault (now a public restroom), arched corrugated iron ceilings and a new elevator (offices were gutted out to make room for it and the fire stairs). The basement houses the Ellis County Visitors Center, break room, the Human Resources department, the Indigent Health Office, and Constable Offices.
Courthouse Third Floor
The Third floor is home to the County Auditor Offices, the Purchasing Department Offices, and a spiral stair access to the attic and clock tower. The four-faced clock by E Howard and Co. (now electrified) continues to toll the hour as it did when so many people did not have the luxury of a personal timepiece. The courthouse had three spiral stairs in private offices - only the central stair goes from the basement to the third floor.
Through the oak doors is the entrance balcony of the courtroom. This incredible space epitomizes what Richardsonian Romanesque is all about. It is referred to as “dynamism of interior space.” The balcony (now capable of holding 275 people) had been removed, but was reconstructed based on the design of other courtrooms of the same vintage. Handrails and glass guardrails have been added to meet today’s safety and building codes. The wall plaint colors in the corridor, as well as in the basement, are of a more neutral palette. You will also see that some of the woodwork is painted, which may have been done to save money. The paint, wooden blinds and accessories were all researched for historical accuracy. The lights are reproductions based on the styles of the period. The plaster arches, moldings, and wood trim are essentially original to the building. As you look into the rooms notice that the exterior balconies were not only beautiful, but were functional. They allowed occupants to get a breath of fresh air and to take in the view of the city. They also were used to make public announcements - the last such proclamation is said to be that of the death of gangster duo Bonnie and Clyde.
Courthouse Second Floor
Leading to the second floor is beautiful iron grillwork, cast iron staircase, and textured plaster wainscoting. Also on the second floor is a noticeable color shift to a more elaborate color palette. The floors are original marble and the office floors are reproduction linoleum, a predecessor to hardwood floors used in commercial buildings and interesting characteristic of the period. This level houses the Treasurer’s Office, which features the original Clerk’s Cage, made of carved oak and metal. The old vault meeting room is a reuse of space much different from its original purpose.
The restored District Courtroom is also located on the second floor. In 1915, the second story of the courtroom was floored over for additional office space. There was no photographic or written records as to how it originally appeared, but there are clues in the building itself - such as the judge’s bench, column bases, walls, and windows. The judge’s bench is original, except for the bit that was too tall to fit when the ceiling was lowered. Of additional interest are the portraits of many of the former judges who presided in this courtroom. Much of the furniture throughout the courthouse, and this courtroom is original, including the bar railing, judge’s and jury benches. For its time, the craftsmanship is unequaled. The furniture was designed and produced by Sanguinet’s firm. The furniture hardware is particularly beautiful and should be noted, as there are the few examples of copper-plated hardware found in this courthouse.
Courthouse First Floor
The first floor features ornate crown molding, as well as the beautiful egg-and-dart arched trim. The oak-and-acorn plaster molding has been painted to look as if it were carved wood. This beautiful plasterwork helps to hide and decorate the massive reinforced concrete and steel construction that comprises the ceiling.
The first floor contains the Justice of Peace Offices and Court, and the County Judge Administrative Offices. The Purchasing Agent’s Office also located on the first floor was once the County Sheriff’s Office and bears a bullet hole, a sign of more violent times which date to 1920. At that time, a prisoner’s girlfriend secretly gave him a pistol when he was in custody. A shooting ensued that resulted in the death of the prisoner, and a deputy was wounded during the ruckus.
The J-P Courtroom has cast iron Corinthian columns, a secure hidden stairwell for the prisoners’ entrance and egress, and the judge’s bench backdrop. The wood of the courthouse is of particular importance - it is old growth longleaf southern pine. The beautiful wood is no longer available because it came from old growth forests. The replacement lumber for the restoration effort was secured from other old buildings of the period. This large vault room has been converted to meeting rooms. This large vault room has been converted to meeting rooms. Of particular interest are the decorative vault doors and the metal window shutters which make the vault secure at night and protect the records in case of fire.
In 1998, during his re-election campaign, then Governor George W Bush announced his intent to restore many of the historic Texas courthouses. $50 million was appropriated by the state legislature to start the program, and on May 5, 2000, counties, including Ellis, were awarded matching grants by the Texas Historical Commission. Ellis County received $3,567,787, the third largest grant of the first funding cycle.
The building restoration was desperately needed to address significant deterioration and wear, inadequate mechanical and business systems, and ADA compliance for the new millennium. The slate roof was replaced in 1999 during phase one. Then the building was vacated in December of 1999 to accomplish demolition, lead paint abatement, and elimination of all non-historic improvements. Many window frames had to be replaced because of water and termite damage. All of the exterior stone-work was tuck-pointed using a historically correct mortar mix. Making molds to recast broken and missing pieces of columns, cornices and decorative features was necessary to restore the sandstone that had not weathered well. A restoration project involves many hours of research for the historical data and appropriate materials, and the involvement of talented architects, artisans and craftsmen. The process includes demolition of inappropriate changes, abatement of environmental hazards, repair of structural and decorative elements, creative installation of mechanical and business communication systems, fireproofing and compliance with ADA codes. It is more difficult and expensive that new construction, but the end product is irreplaceable and the highest quality.
On January 3, 2000, Judge Cornelius stated, “We have a duty to maintain part of our heritage here and remember where we came from.” This stewardship has resulted in a find restoration project whose cost, including refurbishing furniture, landscaping, and 21st century modernization, was approximately $10 to $12 million. This returned the courthouse to its former glory as a working government facility that also serves to educate visitors about the architectural style, culture and values of a bygone era.
The recent restoration work is now an integral part of the history of the Ellis County Courthouse. As you revisit this 1897 outstanding architectural specimen, know that it reflects the spirit and love of the citizens of Texas and Ellis County for their history and faith in our American system of government.
George W Bush - Former President of the United States and former Texas Governor
Texas Historical Commission
F. Lawerence Oaks - Executive Director
Stan Graves - Director, Texas Historic Courthouse
Sharon Fleming - Staff Architect
Texas Department of Transportation Restoration Architect - ARCHITEXAS
Larry Irsik- Principal in Charge
David Singer- Preservation Specialist
Devlin Shelton - Preservation Specialist
General Contractor - Thos. S Byrne, Ltd.
T.O. Sherer - Project Manager
Steve Gumm - O’Dea, Lynch, Abbitista Engineers
Steve Lucy - Jaster - Quintanilla and Associates
Craig Haney - IntroSpec
Chris Jordan - Electro Acoustics and Video
County Judge - Al Cornelius
County Commissioners - Ron Brown, Jerry Holland, Hallie Jo Robinson, Jackie Miller Sr., and Charles Waller
Construction Project Managers - Jo Bhore and Joe White
Grant Consultant - Fred Weldon
State Representative - Jim Pitts
Ellis County Citizens
This brochure is provided by Ellis County Historical Commission and Historic Waxahachie, Inc.