By 1882, the busy community of Sulphur Springs, Hopkins County seat, had already accepted its first official courthouse, a simple, two-story limestone edifice designed by noted Texas architect F. E. Ruffini. The courthouse, built in the popular Second Empire style, featured a central tower with a curving mansard roof and clock. Cut stone, carved pilasters, pavilions at each entry, and an arching entryway gave the simple building a quiet dignity common in similar Ruffini designs. A fireproof vault was added in 1891 to store county records, a fortunate modification that proved invaluable in 1894 when the courthouse and neighboring jail building (but not the records) were destroyed by fire.
The county commissioners court wasted little time in proceeding with construction on a new courthouse, hiring well-known San Antonio architect J. Riely Gordon on March 24, 1894 to design a replacement for the destroyed Ruffini. Gordon’s distinct Romanesque Revival style typically featured towers, turrets, and polychromatic masonry to suggest the European architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries and he integrated these characteristic into the Hopkins County Courthouse design. However, Gordon made a few slight departures from his typical floor plan, creating a Greek cross plan for Hopkins in which a central space is surrounded by a gallery and adjoining rooms. A central staircase provided access to all the rooms, terminating in a dramatic spiral stairway leading to a hinged skylight designed to vent and circulate air.
The Hopkins County Courthouse also differs from other Gordon designs, as well as most of the courthouses in Texas, because it was built on the far corner of a large main plaza rather than in its center. In all likelihood, the decision was made in order to accommodate the thriving market center already taking place on the public square. Period photographs show a flat open ground crowded nose to tail and yoke to tailgate with horses, mules and loaded wagons, all employed by local farmers for the business of trade. Little room was left for a permanent structure, much less the grand stone edifice of Gordon’s design. Rather than disrupt the lively commerce, county commissioners elected to build the courthouse in its present location.
Gordon selected pink granite and polished blue granite for the exterior walls of the Hopkins design, repeating the blue granite in the entryway steps. Red sandstone details completed his popular polychromatic masonry approach. A hip-roofed central tower featured ornamental turrets and dormers. Heavily carved cartouches with the date of construction, carvings of designs and faces below the balconies, and a band of stones of contrasting hue assembled in a checkerboard pattern completed the courthouse’s Romanesque character.
It is said that all of the sandstone and granite was laid by two masons using an old experienced mule named Pete to help them raise the stones on the building. They used pulleys and platforms and Pete would pull the stones up and knew to back up once they'd been laid.
The Hopkins County Courthouse began taking on groundwater seepage from an underground spring even before the end of the final construction day in 1894. Court minutes indicate a string of extensive repairs to the basement drainage which continued long after the county accepted the building. After heavy rains, between six and ten inches of water could be found collecting in the basement. It would be one of the first issues addressed during the courthouse’s restoration, completed in 2002. The problem, identified by extensive geotechnical testing, was simple – groundwater was detected no less than two and a half feet below grade and was under slight hydrostatic pressure, causing the slightest rise in groundwater during an average rain, thus flooding the basement. Fortunately, modern technology (as well as trenching, bentonite waterproofing, and a french drain system) provides protection around the entire perimeter of the building today.
Another part of the restoration project occurred at the building’s highest points as well. The eight towering sandstone chimneys, missing for decades due to early 20th century modifications, were reconstructed.