Fayette County’s first courthouse, located in the county seat of LaGrange, consisted of a wood-frame building purchased for $250 and moved to the present courthouse square in 1838. Described by some accounts as a shanty, the building proved insufficient for conducting court business and was sold in 1847, including its bell, a detail that survives today at LaGrange’s Travis Street Methodist Church.
Several courthouses later, Fayette County Commissioners Court determined that an edifice worthy of the growing community had become a necessity. In 1890, the court hired the young architect J. Riely Gordon to design a signature work. Gordon complied, despite rising acrimony around the construction price and a controversy about the justification (a “farce” according to some county citizens) for demolishing the existing courthouse.
Gordon’s Romanesque Revival courthouse was completed in 1891 and employed four different types of native Texas stone. The walls were blue Muldoon sandstone with decorative detailing of Belton white limestone, Pecos red sandstone, and pink Burnet granite. Limestone details included the acanthus leaf capitals, griffins perching above the entry gables, arabesque frieze panels, and a large American eagle. Acorn-shaped ridge ornaments were removed in 1925 after one of them fell to the ground. The five-story clock tower, the building’s dominating exterior feature, was crowned by a slate roof and decorative weather vane. Inside, the original courthouse featured an open-air central atrium, unique to Texas courthouses, landscaped with a fountain and banana trees. A deer sculpture, along with a dog sculpture posed as if chasing the deer, populated the airy courtyard.
However, following World War II, the county needed additional office space and storage. In 1949, the Commissioners Court elected to enclose the courtyard atrium, creating space for a vault on the first floor, offices on the second and storage space on the third. The basement was excavated to accommodate segregated restrooms.
It was an unfortunate loss of a distinguishing architectural feature for the courthouse, resolved half a century later during the courthouse’s 21st century restoration completed in 2005.
"Initially I didn't think it was something we could afford," Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka explained in an interview about the atrium restoration project. "I remember sitting right here in this office and someone saying to me, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could bring the atrium back?' and I said to them, 'Are you kidding me? That's impossible.' "
But thanks to matching funds from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the open-air courtyard, with the addition of a protective skylight, once again occupies the courthouse interior.
"When we first started this thing I was trying to be as practical as possible and appease as many people as possible so we talked about having the commissioners courtroom downstairs in the atrium," Janecka explained. "That would have been a disaster! Somehow it evolved and we broke through the concrete and put it back the way it was originally. That was a pleasant surprise. We went through the concrete and all we found was sand and the original steps and everything was still in place just the way they had left it. People come in and say, 'I remember as a kid I used to come here and watch the squirrels in there.' The overriding thing was everyone remembered the banana trees so we put them back.”
Fayette County Courthouse
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