Head straight for the heart of just about any county seat in Texas and you’ll likely discover the courthouse at its center. Not so, however, in New Braunfels. Here, in the Comal County seat, the community considered the public platz (or plaza) first and foremost above public buildings and New Braunfels’ platz, located at the center of the San Antonio and Seguin crossroads since founder Nicolas Zink platted the community’s historic roadways in 1845, was no exception. Despite attempts by the Comal County Commissioner’s Court to build a courthouse on the town’s central plaza, as was the tradition for most Texas courthouse construction in 1848, New Braunfels city government members weren’t having it. The German settlers who established and dominated the community drew on a concept of town planning that relied on a corporation of aesthetics, cultural heritage, and social well-being and at its core lay the platz
Comal County officials ultimately proceeded with their courthouse construction project in full cooperation from city officials. But it did not take place on the downtown platz. Instead, a land grant along the edge of the platz provided a permanent location for what would become one of the grander 19th century courthouses surviving in Texas today.
The Comal County courthouse project began with a competition among six designs including the winner, a monumental Romanesque Revival structure designed by the accomplished architect James Riely Gordon. Gordon, based out of San Antonio until 1901, designed eighteen courthouses for the state during his career in Texas, working throughout the late 1800s during what many consider the golden age of Texas courthouse construction. Gordon’s plans for the Comal County courthouse, with its construction costs of $ 36,000., received near unanimous approval from the County Commissioners with the exception of an August Schulze, Jr. Schulze, unhappy with either the design or the expenditure (or both), resigned his Commissioner’s post over the selection, complaining that “the debt on the Courthouse would take 40 years to pay and the Courthouse would only last half as long as the debt”.
Schulze apparently knew nothing about the courthouse’s construction materials, native limestone with a rusticated finish, cut-stone lintels, pink granite columns, and a slate roof. It would not only outlast the debt, the three-story monument to solid rock would outlast two centuries. Upon completion in 1898, its solidity would inspire one county commissioner to exclaim that “the clerk and his visitors and everybody else for that matter can smoke like chimneys and without fear of all of our records going up in flames”, a reference to a relatively common cause of courthouse destruction across Texas throughout the 19th century.
With an imposing Romanesque Revival exterior rooted in European architecture, the courthouse made a powerful, authoritative statement. But the design of the courthouse interior took a more modern turn for the period, reflecting the rise of the Colonial Revival style, an aesthetic uniquely American.
The original color palette of the Comal County courthouse interior was vibrant and lighthearted, reflecting not only the rise of the Colonial Revival style but also a distinctly American transition from the strong, dark colors of the Victorian era. The Colonial Revival style first caught America’s attention during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The century provided a period of reflection for Americans and an ability to review their unique history and draw a new template from it that they could call their own. The Comal County courthouse reflects both the authority and power of the Roman Revival influence along with a nationalistic awareness of America’s exceptionalism, reflected in the optimism of the fresh, new interior design.
A complete restoration of the courthouse concluded with a rededication ceremony in 2013. Restoration efforts returned the courthouse to its 1898 iteration at a cost of almost three and a half million dollars, an amount that would have no doubt caused August Schulze Jr. to quit not only the Commission but perhaps the entire Comal County environs altogether. The results, however, preserve a state and national landmark that may have been placed according to Germanic principals and constructed in a classical European design but, at its heart, expresses a distinctly American style.
Comal County Courthouse