When Hamlet’s conundrum, “to be, or not to be”, arose for a future Bee County in 1857, the south Texas region was lively with settlers, taxing the limits of the surrounding county governments. Future Bee County residents, with assistance from the Texas State Legislature, elected to come together and create a county to call their own rather than remaining as scattered components of San Patricio, Goliad, Refugio, Live Oak and Karnes counties. Not to “Bee”, they decided, was an unacceptable alternative to existence. To name their new county and its county seat of Beeville, residents chose to honor General Barnard E. Bee, Sr., (not the insect as some believe) who was Secretary of War under President Sam Houston as well as President Mirabeau Lamar’s Secretary of State during the Republic of Texas era.
Genesis for the county’s current courthouse was not as forthcoming. Bee County Commissioners met in rented rooms until the first courthouse was made available along nearby Poesta Creek. In 1879, a new courthouse was built on the courthouse square, constructed of wood for $3,425. The building served the county until the current, more permanent courthouse was completed in 1912.
Designed by local Beeville architect W. C. Stephenson and his partner Fritz Heldenfels, Bee County’s three-story brick courthouse occupies an entire block and features a rusticated, Beaux-Arts classicism in its ornate detailing both inside and out. The central “beehive” dome houses functional clockworks and is crowned by a statue of the Goddess of Justice. Stephenson sculpted the fourteen-foot tall statue for the dome, one of several artistic projects the Shakespearean actor-turned-architect tackled during his career. Unlike many Goddess of Justice statues, Stephenson’s version does not wear a blindfold.
Builder W. C. Whitney, veteran of three previous Texas courthouse construction projects, was contracted to build the Bee County courthouse for $72,050. As part of the contract, executed on January 12, 1911, Whitney was responsible for removing the existing lumber courthouse built in 1879 (to make room for the new one) by February 6th. Two days after the contract was signed the wooden courthouse burned, aiding Whitney’s efforts but compelling county commissioners to offer a reward for the apprehension and conviction of anyone connected to the arson. Whitney later died during the construction of the courthouse and Stephenson’s partner Heldenfels stepped in to complete the job.
In 1943, a Works Progress Administration program funded the construction of an additional courthouse wing, also designed by Stephenson and added to the south side of the building. Six years later, another Beeville architect was hired to renovate the courthouse and the project significantly altered the original interior design. The dramatic rotunda and courtroom balcony were enclosed and divided, sealing off the rotunda. No surviving documents portray the rotunda before the renovations, thus its original appearance remains unknown.
Despite the lack of documentation for the initial rotunda design, much of the Bee County courthouse has been restored thanks to funding from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program and the efforts of the contemporary Houston firm of Bailey Architects. The open rotunda and domed skylight have been constructed to approximate the original designs. The polychrome mosaic tile floor below the rotunda, discovered during the restoration then uncovered and repaired, features a giant “B” in Gothic script.
Bee County Courthouse
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