By 1894 Ellis County business was conducted out of its third courthouse, a two-story limestone structure and clock tower completed during Texas Reconstruction in 1874. The decision at the time to build a new courthouse quickly became a controversial one, particular in light of the local financial conditions created by the nation’s debilitating depression. A devastating economic crash just the year before had caused industrial unrest, widespread poverty, homelessness, and unemployment nationwide, taking Ellis County with it. As the year began, Ellis County cotton prices, the economic mainstay of the region and operating within a tenant and sharecropper crop-lien system that had replaced slavery, were falling dramatically. So why would Ellis County Commissioners Court want to initiate more debt just to build a new courthouse?
Because in the late 1800’s courthouse construction proved to be big business. In 1881, the Texas Legislature authorized counties to issue bonds for courthouse building thereby initiating a boom in courthouse construction. The boom also created jobs, in short supply in regions like Ellis where a boost to the economy was needed. Designers, builders, manufacturers, stonemasons, painters, window glazers, and carpenters were among the laborers competing for the available funds, all contributing to the economic and civic development of the surrounding region.
But this only provides a general overview regarding Ellis County. On closer examination of the record, a sequence of legal and procedural maneuvers by various Ellis County officials ultimately resulted in the construction of the stunning, nine-story Romanesque Revival courthouse, designed by one of the state’s most prolific architects of the period – James Riely Gordon. In a remarkable shuffling of elected county officials during 1894, including a loss of incumbency and a court orchestrated removal, Ellis County Commissioners Court accomplished the task of initiating a new courthouse project just days before election results replaced them all. Days before an entirely new court was sworn in a lame-duck commissioners court voted to begin construction of the new courthouse, unseating the only dissenting member of the court before selecting a design. The court hired a contractor, forgoing competitive bidding by making special arrangements to pay him from general revenues, then issued bonds, raised taxes, moved the government and demolished the existing county buildings, all within the span of two months.
The means may not have been ideal but the end proved monumentally impressive. Composed primarily of Texas pink granite and Pecos red sandstone, the Ellis County courthouse rises majestically from the courthouse square, covering a total of 23,739 square feet before terminating in an ornate clock tower. Gordon’s elaborate surface ornamentation, emphasized here more than in any of his other courthouses of similar design, elevated the Ellis County courthouse in stature and artistic merit. Inside, intact original millwork designed by Gordon enhance one of the finest collections of original furniture found in any Texas courthouse. Bookshelves, chairs, benches, desks, armoires, tables, and judge’s chairs made of quarter-sawn oak with copper straps and hinges populate the courtrooms and offices.
The Ellis County courthouse was completed in 1897 for $ 165,000, representing about 4.5 million in 21st century dollars. Rather than deciding to build a new courthouse this time around, Ellis County Commissioners Court elected to restore the historic Gordon structure with a 3.6 million dollar grant courtesy of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, a considerable savings to the county upon rededication in 2003. But what is the true value of the Gordon masterpiece? Priceless, of course.