"I can't believe I get to work every day in a building like this that's a piece of Texas history. It's just the most exciting and inspiring place to work."
– Justice Jane Bland, Texas First Court of Appeals
The Harris County Courthouse is a six story structure of neo-classical design topped by a prominent clerestory drum and dome. It occupies an entire city block, called Courthouse Square, in the oldest section of downtown Houston near Allen's Landing. This square, bounded by Fannin Street, Congress Avenue, San Jacinto Street and Preston Avenue, has served as the site of the seat of government in Harris County since 1837.
Situated in the center of the square, the courthouse is rectangular in plan and is bilaterally symmetrical about both the major and minor axes. The shorter or side elevations face Congress (north) and Preston (south) and extend almost to the side-walk. The longer, principal elevations face Fannin (west) and San Jacinto (east) and are set back farther from the street. The two principal elevations are identically composed as are the two side elevations.
The facades are vertically organized into three zones: a two story base, a three story piano nobile and a one story attic. The rusticated base consists of a raised basement and the floor above which serves as the main entry level, via monumental stairs. The piano nobile zone contains a double height courtroom floor with a perimeter mezzanine for courtroom balconies.. This relationship is externally expressed by tall windows divided midway by copper spandrel panels. The floor above the mezzanine, now the fifth floor, is the final level of the piano nobile zone. The sixth floor, originally unfinished on the interior, completes the main block and is separated compositionally from the piano nobile section by a cornice.
A circular colonnaded clerestory drum, resting on a shallow octagonal base, rises above the center of the main block. The drum, in turn, supports a high, attenuated dome which rises 200 feet above the ground and is capped with a Doric lantern and copper finial. Cast-stone eagles, stationed above the clerestory columns, ring the base of the dome.
Both the principal and side elevations are composed of seven bays in an AABBBAA scheme. Each elevation consists of three colonnaded center bays in a pedimented projection flanked on either side by two identical bays separated by rusticated piers.
The system of construction consists of an interior steel frame which supports the ceilings and floors surrounded by load bearing perimeter walls. Built on a foundation of reinforced concrete, the rusticated base, or first two stories of the building, is constructed of rough cut pink Texas granite. The remainder of the building is faced with light brown St. Louis hydraulic pressed brick. Terra cotta, limestone and masonry ornament is used throughout the building. The roof is red terra cotta tile.
The dominant feature of each of the four facades is the central projection which rises the full height of the main block. Each of these projections contains a balustraded loggia in the piano nobile zone. The projections on the north and south elevations are shallower than those of the principal east-west facades. Paired colossal Corinthian columns frame each of the three loggia bays of the east and west elevations. On the shorter north and south elevations, however, the central bay of either loggia is framed by single colossal Corinthian columns while narrow, fenestrated bays are introduced behind the paired outer ranks of columns. The attic level of each projecting bay is crowned with a raking parapet. The architrave and frieze of the dentilled raking cornice are detailed with stylized brickwork and iron grills. The tympanum contains a large medallion displaying an open book set within the scales of justice and underlined with a bilateral feather ornament. Other conspicuous decoration on the facades of the courthouse includes sculptured female faces which peer out from scroll brackets positioned like keystones above segmentally arched windows of the second floor. Abstractly rendered lion heads with depending floral ornament occur at the frieze level above the rusticated piers on each elevation.
Wide granite steps with side buttresses lead up to the main entry level (now the second floor) from Fannin and San Jacinto Streets. The side entrances on Congress and Preston Avenues retain their original divided staircases but the doorways to which they led have been relegated to emergency exits for the second floor. First floor entrances under the stair landings provide on grade access to the building.
The fenestration of the building consists of large, double hung wood windows, many featuring prismatic glass. All windows are rectangular in shape except those of the second level which are headed with a segmental arch. Windows in the barrel of the dome are historic steel framed units with wire glass, installed following the 1915 Storm which destroyed the original windows at that level. Prismatic glass tiles are inset into some exterior landings, porches and window sills at the second floor level to provide natural light to the spaces below.
On the interior, two semi-circular staircases rise from the first to the third floors on either side of the rotunda. The rotunda is capped by a large stained glass skylight, visually supported on four massive ornamental plaster capitals, themselves carried by equally massive pilasters clad in marble. A pair of open, suspended stairs continue up from the third floor level to the sixth floor on the east side of the rotunda. Mosaic tile floors, black veined marble wainscoting and extensive ornamental plasterwork decorate the public areas of the building.
The 1910 Harris County Courthouse, is the fifth courthouse to stand in Courthouse Square on a site set aside for that purpose by the Allen brothers, founders of Houston. The site and the building have figured prominently in the history of Houston and Harris County. An imposing, domed neo-classical edifice, it is a prime example of the civic architecture of Houston of the l900s and l910s and is the only example in Houston of the work of Lang & Witchell, a leading Dallas architectural firm of that period.
When Augusts C. Allen and John K. Allen laid out Houston, the charter they secured specified that "the town was to encompass nine square miles with the courthouse in the center." Courthouse Square appears on the first map of Houston in 1836 as block #31 which, at that time was the center of Houston. The Allen's donated the courthouse site with the stipulation that ownership would revert to their heirs were it ever used for any other purpose.
The first session of the Eleventh District Court of the Republic of Texas was held uncle the trees of Courthouse Square 10 March 1837.
Soon after, the county seat was moved from Harrisburg to Houston, which only one year after its founding has surpassed nearby Harrisburg in population. The following year a small, two-story pine log courthouse was erected on the square. This first courthouse was expanded in 1841 but was sold and removed in 1844 because of structural deterioration. Court sessions were then held in various hotels until a new two-story brick courthouse was completed and dedicated 15 October 1851. Designed by F.J. Rothaas and built for $15,000, it was topped by a cupola and was served by four entrances, one from each street (just as with the 1910 courthouse). The walls and foundation cracked badly and it was demolished after only nine years of service.
The new courthouse was intended to be a Greek Revival structure of "great architectural beauty" with portico and pillars. This $25,000 project was begun in 1860 but only the walls, floors and roof had been completed when construction was interrupted by the Civil War. During this period the building was converted to a cartridge factory employing over 200 women and children, while the basement became a guard house for Union prisoners of war. After the end of the Civil War, the building fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1869. The bricks were sold to be used in the construction of Annunciation Roman Catholic Church on nearby Texas Avenue (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places).
During the 1870s and early 1880s Courthouse Square was used as a municipal park. In 1883 Edward J. Duhamel, a Galveston architect who had in 1878 won a competition to design Houston's new city hall and market house, was selected to design a new courthouse. Duhamel produced a handsome, four-story brick Victorian Gothic building cruciform in shape, with a tall spire rising from its center. It was constructed at a cost of $100,000. After nearly 25 years this courthouse, like its predecessors, was demolished having been deemed hopelessly overcrowded and a fire hazard.
In April 1907, a special election was held to approve a $500,000 bond issue to under write construction of the present building. The issue passed overwhelmingly and an architectural competition was held. Fifteen designs were submitted from architectural firms throughout the United States. These entries were first reviewed by a special citizens committee which, after serious consideration of five plans, recommended that the contract be awarded to Lang & Witchell of Dallas. Two of the four County Commissioners concurred with the committee's recommendation, however, two others voted instead in favor of F.S. Glover & Son of Houston. The deadlock was resolved by County Judge A. A. Amerman, who cast a tie-breaking vote for Lang & Witchell. A second place honorarium of $1000 was awarded to F.S. Glover & Son, and sums of $500 each went to Cooke & Company of Houston and Stone Brothers of New Orleans. The American Construction Company was awarded the general contractor.
The 1883 courthouse was vacated in November 1908 and county offices moved to the Prince Theater. The old building was demolished and construction of the new courthouse was begun in mid-1909 and was virtually complete and occupied by November 1910. An open house was held 15 November to coincide with Houston's annual "No-Tsu-Oh" Festival, but the courthouse was not formally dedicated until 2 March 1911, in observance of the one hundred-fifth anniversary of Texas Independence.
Although Otto H. Lang of Lang & Witchell represented the firm during contract negotiations, it was Charles Erwin Barglebaugh, as associate of the firm, who was responsible for the design of the courthouse. Barglebaugh (1881-?) had studied architecture at the University of Illinois and from 1901 to 1903 had worked in the Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the following year for Walter Burleigh Griffin. From 1907 until 1917 when he opened his own office, Barglebaugh was employed by Lang & Witchell where he was responsible for much of the firm's Prairie School work. The firm which he subsequently formed, Barglebaugh & Whitson, designed the Hogg Building (1920-21) in Houston which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The choice of style for the Harris County Courthouse was evidently dictated by the specifications for the competition. Barglebaugh, in an article which appeared in the Southern Architectural Review wrote: "In the development of the architectural scheme certain requirements were laid down in the program which led to the choosing of the style of architecture, which had we been free, would perhaps have been developed along different lines. But such specific demands as 'a large dome' and 'columned facades' could hardly be disregarded." The perspective rendering of the initial scheme first published in 1907, reveals a more academically refined structure than was ultimately realized. The Cooke County Courthouse in Gainesville, Texas also designed by Lang & Witchell, is similar in appearance and arrangement to the Harris County Courthouse.
The courthouse has undergone several major renovations and alterations since it was completed. In 1934 the interior was redecorated and repainted and the dome cleaned and repainted with "aluminum paint." The building came close to demolition in 1938 when a bond issue for a proposed three million dollar, eight story courthouse to be built in Courthouse Square was narrowly defeated.
In 1952, an undistinguished courthouse of modern design was erected on the block directly to the south of Courthouse Square, at a cost of $9.5 million. The following year when the new courthouse was completed, all the courts and offices were removed from the Lang & Witchell courthouse. A $2.7 million program of remodeling was then begun according to plans prepared by Finger & Rusty, who had also served as architects for the new courthouse. The renovation seriously compromised the integrity of the interiors of the original building, sealing off the dome and cutting up the central rotunda to provide more space for offices and courtrooms. When the building was completed in 1956, it was rededicated and redesignated the Harris County Civil Courts Building.
Since then, the county has constructed a number of buildings on the surrounding city blocks to house functions once accommodated within the 1910 courthouse. These buildings are connected by means of an underground tunnel system to the 1910 courthouse. The 1910 courthouse, however, remains the symbolic seat of government in Harris County.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Designated a State Antiquities Landmarks in 1991 and a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1984.
- The 1911 Cooke County Courthouse in Gainsville, designed by the same architectural firm as the 1910 Harris County Courthouse, is in many ways a smaller version of the same basic architectural design. Despite their similarities, all of the detailing found in these two courthouses, their stained glass, plaster and terra cotta are unique to each.
- Architect Charles Erwin Barglebaugh went on to become a nationally known engineer. Barglebaugh invented lightweight concrete for use in the construction of ship hulls and helped to lead the Emergency Fleet Corporation’s efforts to construct concrete transport ships during World War I in an attempt to reverse merchant marine losses to German U-boats in the North Atlantic. Barglebaugh personally supervised the pour of the hull for the first such concrete ship, the SS Atlantus.
- The landmark Texaco, Inc. v. Pennzoil, Co. case was held in the 1910 Courthouse. This case resulted in the largest civil award in history, $10.53 billion from Texaco. Punitive damages were reduced on appeal from $3 billion to $1 billion. Pennzoil attorney Joe Jamail was paid $335 million for his services on the case.
- The lead contractor for the recent restoration, Vaughn Construction of Houston, is the successor firm to Manhatten Construction, the lead contractor for the 1950s renovations!
The exterior and the significant historic spaces on the interior of the 1910 Harris County Courthouse have been restored to their original appearance. Major modifications made during the 1950s, including the removal of the monumental steps from the east and west facades and the infill of the central rotunda and courtrooms, were reversed. The two large courtrooms were reopened to their historic volumes and their ornate, historic architectural features were replicated based on historic photographs and the surviving original plans. The restored courthouse will house the 1st and 14th Court of Appeals and other related judicial functions. The building will continue to serve the citizenry as intended, balancing functional efficiency with cohesive historic appearance and expressing an image consistent with civic dignity, judicial decorum and county pride.
Innovations and Unique Discoveries:
- During a preconstruction walkthrough of the vacated courthouse, one of the building’s historic steel vault doors was discovered. It had been relocated, probably during the 1950s, into an otherwise non-historic office suite that was scheduled for demolition. The historic vault door has been relocated to its original position along the first floor corridor and expertly restored to its original finishes.
- Although the 1950s renovations were very heavy handed and seemingly all-encompassing, much of the decorative plasterwork above the level of the dropped ceilings was more-or-less intact. A notable exception was the four huge pilaster capitals supporting the skylight in the rotunda. These had been roughly hammered off in the 1950s to make way for air conditioning ducts. To recreate these missing elements, the plaster restoration contractor combined the surviving elements of the four capitals and then creatively filled in the missing zones, using the existing plasterwork in the building as a guide for interpolating the missing sections.
- The original mosaic tile floors, though heavily damaged, have remained in place since 1910, although covered by vinyl tile flooring from the 1950s. During the restoration missing tile was replaced with newly replicated tile.
- As the project neared completion, site clean-up uncovered a large overgrown stone in the yard. When the dirt and vines which covered it were cleared, it was discovered that it was the cornerstone from the previous 1883 courthouse. The cornerstone had been saved in 1909 when the old courthouse was demolished and left on the corner of the site. The stone survived the major renovations in the 1950s only to become overgrown and forgotten until its rediscovery. The historic cornerstone is now on display in an alcove across the corridor from the rotunda stairs on the first level of the courthouse.
State Grant Program Participation
Through the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program administered by the Texas Historical Commission, Harris County received grants totaling $5,500,000 for the restoration of the Harris County Courthouse.
County Preservation Leadership
Harris County demonstrated strong leadership and dedication to historic preservation by providing the majority of the funding for this restoration project.
A rededication ceremony was held on August 23, 2011, at the courthouse.
Nearby Places of Historical Interest:
- The Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens displays at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s collection of American decorative arts and paintings in the historic River Oaks home of Houston’s legendary civic leader, Miss Ima Hogg (1882-1975).
- The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park in downtown Houston displays 10 historic Houston structures dating from 1823 to 1905.
- Housing the special collections of the Houston Public Library, the Houston Metropolitan Research Center is located in the historic 1926 Julia Ideson Building at 500 McKinney in downtown Houston.
- The lush, park-like Glenwood Cemetery at 2525 Washington Avenue, designed by European landscape artist Alfred Whitaker, has provided a final resting places for Houston’s high society since 1871. Internees include notable Houstonians from Charolette Baldwin Allen, wife of one of Houston’s founders Augustus C. Allen, to billionaire Howard Hughes.
- The Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research provides public access to its nationally known genealogical collections.
- There are a wide variety of other outstanding historic buildings and sites located throughout downtown, the city of Houston and the county. Please see the Historic Sites Atlas for more information about these sites.
- For more information about historic places and events in this region, visit the Texas Independence Trail Region.
For more information about lodging, restaurants and businesses to help your visit be enjoyable, visit the Greater Houston Partnership.
Is your courthouse in need of historic preservation?
Our nationally recognized and award-winning Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program has turned around the trend of disrepair and begun restoring these treasured historic landmarks.Find out how we can help.