The Erath County courthouse restoration is, in many ways, a story of courthouse restoration statewide, illustrating county efforts across Texas to salvage, preserve, and renovate a community’s most important surviving historic structure. Completed in 1892 and rededicated one hundred and ten years later in 2002, the Erath County courthouse illustrates the challenges (as well as the successes) of historic courthouse restoration. Eroded exteriors, rotting wood, storm damage, deteriorating stone, modifications that compromised the integrity of the original design and materials, ill-advised remodeling efforts, and neglect are among the problems faced in historic courthouse restoration and the 19th century Erath County courthouse had to overcome them all.
Designed by venerated Texas architect J. Riely Gordon in his signature Richardsonian Romanesque style, the Erath County courthouse is one of three buildings Gordon designed for Stephenville, Erath County seat. Also located along the town square are Gordon’s First National Bank and the Crow Opera House. The December 3, 1891 installation of the cornerstone for his new Erath County courthouse, accompanied by ceremony and filled with documents relating to Erath County history along with Confederate bills, initiated a smooth, relatively trouble-free construction, providing county officials with a completed courthouse just ten months later on October 20, 1892. According to an article printed in the Stephenville Empire the following day, “…a thorough investigation was made from foundation to top, and the work was pronounced not only good, but very good”.
The new courthouse received little more than minimum routine maintenance for the next forty years and, by the time the county began to take serious notice, an assortment of conditions had already set in – windows were in poor condition, the electrical system unsafe, and the heating system and plumbing were both inadequate and outdated. Modifications were more affordable than new construction so the county proceeded to replace windows, add restrooms and air conditioning, replace the roof, and sandblast the exterior, a detriment to historic masonry. The modifications held for a while but by 1982, the conditions were back. In addition, the renovations to the building in the 1940’s remodel were deemed historically inappropriate. A rehabilitation was once again ordered, this time with an eye for historical accuracy. The results addressed pressing problems and set a precedent for adhering to historical detail in any a future renovation. The opportunity arrived in 2000, when the Erath County Commissioners Court and county citizens began working with the Texas Historical Commission to restore the courthouse, acquiring significant funding through the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.
During the project, extensive research helped ferret out the details of the original courthouse materials and design. The work required an exhaustive array of analysis from determining the structural support for the courtroom balcony (missing) to paint colors (determined courtesy of surviving examples hidden behind various remodeled sections and featuring “Tavern Green”, “Westchester Gold”, and “Bellcourt Castle”).
The restoration of the Texas limestone and Pecos Red sandstone Erath County Courthouse returned an important structure, intact and improved, back to a community that has always taken pride in their edifice of county government. The rehabilitation also uncovered an indication that a few citizens may not have been so happy with county law and order. As part of the structure’s tower roof restoration, the original sheet metal finial attached to the tower peak was removed and restored. The finial exhibited numerous holes, some apparently the result of bullets.
Erath County Courthouse