If you’ve ever imagined attending your local Garden Club meeting, visions of an agenda might have come to mind featuring sweet little ladies in cotton gloves discussing spring iris beds during refreshments of fresh-squeezed lemonade and finger sandwiches. But at a San Augustine Garden Club meeting, you might want to prepare for a discussion on the progress report of a half-million dollar fundraising effort as well. Members of the San Augustine Garden Club are no shrinking violets, raising a significant sum of money on behalf of the county to supply matching funds for the restoration of the 1927 San Augustine County Courthouse. The Club raised over $650,000 to facilitate the project, and paid for additional conservation studies during the planning phase to make sure the courthouse restoration succeeded in returning the Modern Classical building to its original state.
The San Augustine Garden Club members have had a hand in courthouse beautification for decades, spearheading enhancements like decorative lamp poles, benches, a gazebo, and annual Christmas decorations. Tackling a complete courthouse restoration required a far greater fundraising effort but Club members, undaunted, proceeded to deliver. The highlight of the 2010 courthouse rededication ceremonies featured public recognition of the Club’s hard work.
The courthouse restoration project was also aided by a collection of vintage photographs taken in the 1930’s and 40’s illustrating the period before modern modifications like dropped ceilings, carpet, and aluminum windows compromised the integrity of the courthouse design. Russell Lee, the Illinois photographer and photojournalist who made a home in Austin and became the University of Texas’ first photography instructor, arrived in San Augustine in 1939. Working for a federally-funded Farm Security Administration program, Lee photographed the region’s places and people during the Depression years including the San Augustine courthouse, providing details for modern restoration experts to refer to and replicate.
Designed by Lufkin architect Shirley Simons, the 1927 courthouse expresses a sleek, streamlined style highlighted by simple details like a patinated bronze entry and doors flanked by matching lanterns, limestone pilasters (nonstructural architectural elements that suggest supporting columns), limestone veneer, and a unique green tile roof. The interior houses one of the largest courtrooms in East Texas. Its judge’s bench and spectator seating are original.
San Augustine’s surviving courthouse was not its first. In fact, the first District Court in San Augustine was held at the Mansion Hotel in 1837, the year the town was named the San Augustine County seat under the Republic of Texas. Present-day San Augustine first developed near the Ayish Bayou, strategically located along the historic El Camino Real near the Sabine River crossing. In 1884, a two-story courthouse, constructed with hand-made brick from a nearby kiln and designed in an Italianate styling (complete with cupola), replaced an earlier structure. Historical documentation indicates the courthouse construction was questionable, eventually leading to its sale, demolition, and replacement, and precipitating the construction of the present-day courthouse.
Because early courthouse iterations in San Augustine survived without suffering fire damage (unlike numbers of courthouses elsewhere) county records have survived as well. Today, the San Augustine courthouse preserves documents prior to the establishment of the county, including Spanish language records from the Spanish colonial period. Original court documents on civil cases, wills, court minutes, land transactions, tax rolls, criminal cases, military rolls, surveyors notes and drawings are among the historic documents now available to researchers, making the San Augustine County courthouse archives one of the state’s most important resources for exploring Texas’ pre-statehood past.
San Augustine County Courthouse
Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.