The Denton County Courthouse, completed in 1896, exhibits characteristics perhaps unique among Texas state courthouses. Possessing both architectural and historic significance, the courthouse represents the incorporation of forms and materials of particular richness that, while similar in its Romanesque Revival style to other courthouses of the period, lends uniqueness to its composition and aesthetics. Waco-based W. C. Dodson, one of Texas’ most prominent nineteenth-century architects who designed the courthouse, incorporated a distinct mix of construction materials in order to create an elegant yet imposing edifice located on the highest elevation within the town limits of Denton, the county seat. A diverse layering of masonry provided much of its distinction. Dodson chose to construct walls of tan quarry-faced limestone between blocks of light brown cut sandstone. Eighty-two pink granite column shafts, enhanced with capitals of red stone from a nearby quarry and carved in a basket weave motif, were commissioned for the exterior. The dominating courthouse feature is its central octagonal tower rising above a platform with four ancillary domes, a composition likely inspired by the Il Duomo di Firenze, the monumental Gothic cathedral of Florence begun in 1296 A.D. Once completed, however, Denton County Courthouse featured a few more modern amenities than the ancient cathedral did upon its completion, including speaking tubes, mouth pieces, and whistles for the courthouse offices courtesy of the Waco Electric Supply and Construction Company.
Dodson’s design, one of twelve courthouses for the state, replaced an earlier courthouse iteration completed in 1877. The two-story building, one of the first brick buildings constructed in Denton, featured a tall central tower, an architectural element that proved to be its ultimate downfall. Already in poor condition within eighteen years of completion, the earlier courthouse was struck by lightning in 1894. An assessment by the architectural firm of Flanders & Moore suggested that the building was in need of extensive repairs, including the removal of the electrocuted domed tower. However, the Commissioners Court chose to ignore the advice. A year later, county officers were more adamant, issuing a signed petition to the Commissioners Court insisting that the cracks in the courthouse walls had become worse and that the building was in eminent danger of collapsing onto their heads. Dodson was hired shortly afterwards and county officers were soon safely ensconced within new (and stable) office walls.
Denton County’s courthouses have always managed to draw attention. Perhaps the surviving Dodson design’s most prominent brush with celebrity occurred during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit in 1952. Eisenhower campaigned for the presidency from a platform on the courthouse square. The Denton Record-Chronicle, reporting on a crowd estimating to reach about 15,000 people, declared “No sunstrokes. No Fisticuffs. No lost children. No snatched purses. And just two small fires.” The fires, in fact, were unrelated to the rally.
In 1978 most county government offices were moved to the nearby Joseph A. Carroll Courts Building and the Denton County Historical Museum moved into the first floor of the courthouse. Courthouse restoration projects began in the 1980’s and culminated with a rededication of the historic structure in 2004. Today, the courthouse, known as the “Courthouse-on-the-Square” functions as both a home for several county offices and as museum with permanent and traveling exhibits on early Denton County history. The Dodson courthouse also still manages to draw a crowd.
“There is no question that the Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square has benefited the community and increased tourism to the city and county,” Georgia Caraway, now-retired executive director of Denton County Museums, explained in a 2009 interview for the Texas Historical Commission’s Courthouse Cornerstones publication. “Being one of the original remaining late-1800s courthouses in Texas draws tourists who are attracted to the downtown area for shopping, restaurants and numerous events and activities sponsored throughout the year.”
Today, this courthouse is home to the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum, housing exhibits related to Denton County history, western heritage, the military, and various cultures.