Menard County, organized 1871, conducted its first county business in a house built of pickets before financing the construction of a more permanent, two-story limestone building designed by architect P. H. Mires. From 1880 to 1884, the limestone structure’s first floor housed a general store while the second functioned as the county’s courtroom. The building also included a dungeon, located in the northwest corner, which served as the county jail where prisoners were dropped and retrieved via a ladder.
In 1884, the Menard County commissioners court ordered bonds issued to finance a new courthouse and jail, designed by architect T. P. Minor and completed in 1886. This stone, two-story courthouse served the county for over thirty years. By the late 1920s, however, its conditions were deteriorating. According to the local Menard Messenger, the vault space had become inadequate to hold all the county records, bats were prevalent, wind penetrated the courthouse through the windows and cupola, and there were holes in the district courtroom floor.
Despite a citizen-led campaign to preserve the historic courthouse, the structure and a nearby jail were demolished to make room for a more modern courthouse. Many of the buildings’ stones were recycled, however, and used to build the fence around the Pioneer Rest Cemetery with help from labor courtesy of the Works Progress Administration.
The new courthouse, completed in 1932, was designed by Elmer George Withers, principle architect of the Fort Worth-based firm Withers & Thompson. Withers was born in Caddo Peak, Texas, developing a career as architect through apprenticeships and correspondence courses. He was responsible for several other Texas county courthouse designs as well as the Art Deco courthouse he created for Menard County.
Withers’ Menard County courthouse is located along the south end of a long, narrow square in Menard, the county seat established along the San Saba River. The building’s one-story front section steps back to a central, four-story design flanked by two-story wings. The structural clay tile walls are sheathed in multiple shades of brick and decorated with cast stone detailing. A jail was originally located on the top floor and the building includes a basement featuring an individual jail cell used for prisoners too drunk or combative to get up all four flights of stairs. Long after the jail was relocated to another building, a python escaped from a traveling animal handler who was set up on the courthouse square during the Jim Bowie Days Festival. The snake made its home in the basement holding cell for several years before it was removed by several deputies prior to the restoration work in 2000.
Although the general design of the courthouse functions as planned, the architect or builder apparently miscalculated the placement of the judge’s bench, witness stand, and jury box in the District courtroom, an issue addressed both soon after completion and once again when a complete restoration of the courthouse began in 2000. Apparently, the judge’s bench and witness box were placed in an awkward position, preventing the judge and a portion of the jury to see the face of the witness during questioning. Instead, they could only see the back of the witness’s head, creating grounds for “reversible error”, a term used to define circumstances resulting in an unfair trial. Soon after the courthouse was completed, the courtroom layout was modified to correct this oversight. During the restoration process, financed by the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the decision was made not to return the courtroom layout to its original design, thereby avoiding the possibility of creating a “reversible error”, grounds for a mistrial still on the books today.
Menard County Courthouse
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