All the world’s metropolitan centers give rise to triumph as well as notoriety over the course of their development and Houston, the Harris County seat, is no exception. It has, in fact, been doing both since 1836, year of Texas’ independence and arrival to the area of John and Augustus Allen, brothers and New York real estate promoters in search of the ideal location for building a center of commerce and government. A year later, the Allen brothers granted the planning committee of the City of Houston use of Block 31 for the courthouse square, stipulating that usage could continue as long as the block served as the heart of Harris County government. Although a deed conveyance of the property had not yet been completed, officials began work immediately on the county’s first courthouse, a decision that would reflect the tenuous, unsettling character of Harris County courthouse history for the next seventy-five years.
Despite local lore, the county’s first courthouse was not a dogtrot log cabin. Although it’s likely a log cabin was used for public meetings (along with other buildings in the community), the first official Harris County courthouse was a two-story lumber structure completed in 1838 and abandoned a short six years later due to its rapidly deteriorating condition. Courthouse number two, a two-story brick structure featuring a cupola, was completed in 1851. Again, just six years into its use the building was deemed structurally unsound. An article in the Weekly Telegraph reported that “fears are entertained that the building may fall”.
Construction on a new courthouse, designed in the Greek Revival style and located in front of the 1851 brick structure, was begun in 1860 only to have the project halted by the Civil War. Neglect and poor construction (accompanied by storm damage) resulted in its demolition by 1881. The bricks of the earlier 1851 courthouse, however, received a second chance in the construction of the Annunciation Catholic Church just down the street.
Undaunted, Harris County citizens proceeded with construction of a fourth courthouse. The four-story Victorian Gothic structure designed by architect Edward J. Duhamel was considered outdated and inadequate (it wasn’t even fireproof) by the time it was finished in 1884. But by 1908 (year of its demolition), Harris County officials finally knew exactly what they wanted– a grand, functional edifice that wouldn’t fall down.
The fifth and final Harris County courthouse is a six-story, Neo-classical structure constructed of rough cut pink Texas granite, pressed brick, terra cotta, and limestone. Designed by the Dallas architectural firm of Lang and Witchell, the elegant 1910 courthouse occupies the Allen brothers’ Block 31 in its entirety and features a circular colonnaded clerestory dome rising two hundred feet above the ground. Cast-stone eagles ring the base. Dedicated on March 2, 1911, the 75th anniversary of the Texas Declaration of Independence, the edifice remained intact until an unfortunate modernization took place in the 1950’s, accompanied by the construction of an undistinguished replacement across the street.
Fortunately, the original 1910 courthouse received a dramatic restoration in the early 21st century and now serves as courthouse to the 1st and 14th Texas State Court of Appeals. The project, with assistance from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, restored the magnificent dome, reopened the rotunda, and uncovered the original mosaic tile floors (all altered or damaged in the 1950 makeover). Detailed interior and exterior repairs and restorations helped bring this state and national landmark back to its original, imposing design. Yet, despite a long and event-filled wait, the conveyance of the original deed of the Allen brothers’ Block 31 never occurred and, to date, remains unrecorded.
Harris County Courthouse
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