Upon completion in 1891, the impressive Romanesque Revival Donley County courthouse featured prominent towers and chimneys, contrasting red brick and quarried limestone, and a large, arched stained glass window. C. H. Bulger and Isaac Hamilton Rapp, architects based in Trinidad, Colorado, designed the courthouse and Trinidad construction company Troutman Brothers built it for $ 28,500.
Despite its imposing profile, problems with the structure began shortly after the work was completed. The roof, sheathed in pressed metal shingles that had an ill-fitting locking design and thus failed to shed water properly, leaked and required repairs within two years. By 1926, the roof had been repainted or repaired nine times according to Commissioners Court minutes. The metal shingles were replaced with cement asbestos shingles the following year. County records also indicate other structural problems, such as a loose column above the District Clerk’s office in 1929. By 1937, roof repair resulting from storm damage required the complete removal of the third floor including the main tower, the conical tower, and the roof dormers, a major modification that dramatically compromised the original design.
Problems with the Donley County courthouse continued throughout the 20th century. Of particular concern, a bat colony took up residency beneath the modified roof, which continued to leak, and the bats filled the attic with eighteen- inch mounds of bat guano over the years. Despite the benefits bats bring to the Panhandle’s surrounding agriculture industry, the unpleasant guano odor permeated the building and, as county officials pointed out, the courthouse was designed to conduct county business, not house an entire colony of bats.
Donley County’s courthouse bat problem was one of several issues resolved during a restoration of the structure, completed in 2003 with help from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Although little was known of the original roof design (other than the fact that it leaked) historic photographs helped to reconstruct the main tower, the round tower and the four missing gabled dormers. All joints in the roof were sealed to halt bat reentry and bat houses were installed in nearby trees, successfully relocating the bat colony from the courthouse attic.
The courthouse’s original stained glass window also required attention. In poor condition but still intact, the arched window and frame were removed, completely disassembled and all of the historic glass was carefully collected. Broken glass was epoxied together and re-used where possible. New matching glass was substituted where the historic glass could not be salvaged. Once the window was completely re-leaded and re-assembled, it was reinstalled in the wall along with a new protective glazing to prevent future damage.
The rededicated and restored Panhandle courthouse and its vaults, located in the county seat of Clarendon, house county records dating from the county’s establishment in the 1870s. Over one hundred and thirty years of birth records, death records, court case records, and thousands of land deed records are stored on file, including documents on the historic JA Ranch, the vast rangeland accumulated by John Adair and Charles Goodnight that once exceeded one and a quarter million acres. Appropriately, the historic records remain stored safely inside the Donley County icon, the oldest operating courthouse in the Texas Panhandle.
The courthouse was the site, in November 1909, of the murder trial of G. R. Miller, which resulted in the last legal handing in the Panhandle.
Donley County Courthouse
Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.