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GC: Pieces of Texas offer history of architecture, government

By By Jessica Rodrigo - JRODRIGO@VICAD.COM
Sept. 2, 2011 at 4:02 a.m.
Updated Sept. 6, 2011 at 4:06 a.m.


Most courthouses are open for tours because they are public buildings. They can be visited during the courthouse's normal operating hours and some offer tour guides with supplementary information providing background and a history of the building.

Names such as Sam Houston, Willie Nelson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush ring loud and clear when mentioned in a room full of Texans.

What about James Riely Gordon or Eugene T. Heiner? Not many know who they are, but historians and architecture-buffs might.

These men are two of a few dozen who are responsible for designing and building many of the courthouses in the past and those still in use today.

The seven counties that make up the Crossroads area offer a variety of courthouses that demonstrate styles from eras past or those that show more modern flare.

Michael Andrews, author of "Historic Texas Courthouses," said "public buildings were strictly utilitarian and simple, made from rough-hewn logs and without ornamentation" in the earlier centuries.

Anyone who has driven by, walked by or been inside any of the area's courthouses knows this is no longer the case.

STYLES FROM THE PAST

Sharing the same architect lends itself to some duplication when looking at historic public buildings.

Architect James Riely Gordon not only designed and constructed the original Victoria County Courthouse, built in 1892 and still in use today, but he also had a role, if not the entire hand, in building several other courthouses in Texas including those in Gonzales, Lee, Fayette and Bexar counties, just to name a few. He was born in Virginia in 1863, but moved to San Antonio with his parents in 1874 where he grew up studying civil engineering with his father.

The Texas State Historical Association website names Gordon's first major construction job as the Federal Courthouse and Post Office in San Antonio in 1886. After his work was recognized, he began building more state buildings, including no fewer than 18 courthouses.

Gordon's designs often included the use of various stones and ornamentation including the use of eagles, gargoyles and checkerboard placement of bricks on the exterior.

Resting on a corner across from the downtown plaza of Victoria, the courthouse serves as a reminder of the state's architectural journey as it sits next to the First Victoria Bank, a sleek, modern black beacon that marks the country's move toward the use of glass and steel.

The Gonzales courthouse, built in 1894, offers another one of his popular architectural details, also found in the Victoria courthouse. Andrew wrote that one of Gordon's common characteristics of designing includes the use of multiple arches and arcades, a series of arches supported on piers or columns, which is demonstrated in his design.

It has four porches, placed at the four corners of the building, each with a few archways granting access to the building and opening to a stairwell in the center of the building.

NOT JUST COURTHOUSES

Another point of interest in Gonzales is the old jail that stands adjacent to the courthouse. Another well-known architect, Eugene T. Heiner, built it. It is used today as a museum.

The building offers visitors a look into the past with an architectural and historical aspect. He was "regarded as a pioneer of improved and modern jail architecture," wrote Willard B. Robinson in "The People's Architecture."

Heiner incorporated the use of windows to provide light and ventilation on a cruciform plan, meaning a cross-shape floor plan, to keep segregation among prisoners. Though the building was built in 1887, it has undergone some restoration and still houses a gallow and prisoners' chambers. The building is open to the public for viewing and is also the office of the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce.

Heiner was born in New York City and moved to Dallas in 1877 after an apprenticeship in Indiana. He became a well-known Houston architect, where he practiced designing buildings for the rest of his life, according to the TSHA's website.

Heiner built 14 courthouses in the state. The Lavaca County courthouse, built in 1897, marked the last one he designed and one of six still standing.

According to Andrew's book, this courthouse is the best example of Romanesque Revival architecture. It stands three-stories tall and incorporates the use of various stones, floor-to-ceiling windows and arched entrances. The building has pyramidal roofs over the towers that are also common on the courthouse of DeWitt County.

Just a few blocks from Cuero's downtown, the DeWitt County Courthouse, built in the same year, houses a six-story clock tower, three colors of stone and incorporates Heiner's style of brick patterning and ornamentation.

Heiner built the DeWitt County courthouse with the help of A.O. Watson in 1897.

MODERN LINES AND FORMS

As some courthouses have fallen by natural deterioration, others have fallen at the hands of the citizens and have been razed.

In the 1950s, many of the courthouses were beginning to show more modern elements including different textures and use of materials.

Calhoun County's original courthouse was built in 1887 and has since gone through four different buildings before the building of the current one on South Ann Street in Port Lavaca. The modernized courthouse was built in 1959 and exemplifies the industrialization of the nation with modern features, including the use of straight lines and edges, glass, aluminum and concrete, according to "Courthouses of Texas," written by Clark Coursey.

The Jackson County Courthouse isn't too far off, either. Coursey's research adds that it was built in 1953 and demonstrates similar design elements as those found in Calhoun County's courthouse.

Robinson wrote the modern buildings, "were characterized as boxlike masses with flat facades and horizontal compositions of planes."

PIECES OF HISTORY

As advancements in technology and government build upon the foundations laid out before them, it is important for people to remember what lead to where they are now.

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