“The end excuses any evil”, the Greek playwright Sophocles wrote in 409 B.C., sentiments that perhaps came to mind in Trinity County when Eastham Prison inmates, painting the courthouse under the direction of former County Judge Mark Evans in 1995, uncovered the building’s stunning copper doors beneath decades of old paint. A symbolic reprieve for the prisoners may have been provided by Sophocles’ insight but at the end of the day the prisoners were returned to Eastham to finish serving out their terms of incarceration. But their discovery inspired an arduous but highly successful Trinity County courthouse restoration, begun in essence that day and finally completed over fifteen years later. The building was rededicated in 2011.
The 1914 red brick structure, considered one of the best examples of Neoclassical courthouse architecture in Texas, was in dire circumstances at the time. Judge Evans, in describing the courthouse conditions pre-restoration for the Groveton News, stated that the masonry building “…was like a sugar cube that has been saturated with water. It still looks good and holds it shape but if you touch it, it crumbles.”
Apportioned from Houston County by the Texas State Legislature in 1850, Trinity County established its first seat within five miles of the county center as required by law, creating a community known as Sumpter. Since that time, Trinity County has had six different courthouses in four different locations due, primarily, to the development, growth, and location of the railroad and sawmill industries. By 1868, the county had its first courthouse as well as its first courthouse fire. The simple log structure and all county records were lost. A mere four years later and Sumpter’s second courthouse, again along with all records except surveys and the local Justice of the Peace documents (stored elsewhere), were reduced to ash. Afterwards, a move to the community of Trinity as county seat didn’t last long before the county relocated again to nearby Pennington. The locale proved no more stable. In 1878, its courthouse burned as well but suffered only major damage rather than complete destruction. Court indictments survived as well, only to be burgled on March of 1880. District Court records were never recovered but both incidents were believed to be perpetrated by individuals under indictment in an attempt to destroy the records that would probably have sent them to jail.
The county seat’s final move, to the Groveton community, at first proved only to perpetuate the run of bad luck for the county. A poorly constructed courthouse and jail soon began to fall apart, requiring the insertion of chains and rods throughout the building to prevent the walls from collapsing. A fire in 1910 helped the process along and the entire mess was demolished to make room for the 1914 Neoclassical icon still standing today.
Trinity County’s courthouse, fully restored today with assistance from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, features a dramatic three-story central section with limestone columns, a classical portico, and a double-height District Courtroom on the second floor. Original pendant light fixtures and surface-mounted globe lighting, a forecast of the 1920’s Art Moderne style already on the rise by the time of courthouse completion, were discovered intact beneath a suspended acoustical ceiling during the restoration and reinstalled.
The Trinity County courthouse was designed by C. H. Page & Brother Architects, first generation of the present-day Austin-based architectural firm of Page Southerland Page. Once known as Page Brothers, the firm became one of the primary architectural practices designing the state’s public projects through much of the first half of the 20th century. Page Brothers negotiated the dramatic transitional period of architecture occurring over the course of the first decades of the century with style, tackling the evolution from 19th century eclecticism through the rise of modernism. Today, the firm, the oldest architectural practice in Texas, operates world-wide.
Trinity County Courthouse
Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.