Wharton County, established in 1846, elected the community of Wharton as its county seat before constructing its first courthouse. The small, box-frame structure, built in 1848, served the county until 1851 when county officials voted to construct a replacement. Lumber from the first courthouse was used to build bookshelves for the new, five-room, two-story brick Wharton center of justice. In 1888, the County commissioners issued bonds to finance a third courthouse, a somewhat unpopular decision that nonetheless resulted in a new and improved structure. Designed by Houston architect Eugene Heiner, responsible for creating nineteen courthouses and seventeen county jails in Texas, the new courthouse featured Second Empire styling with Italianate details. The walls were finished with brick and Austin limestone and the roof, a Mansardic form with slopes and gables, included a central clock tower.
During the 1930’s, however, the classic 19th century courthouse design was dramatically altered with an Art Deco modification. The Victorian architecture and details, both inside and out, were stripped from the courthouse and replaced by simple elements derived from the Art Deco movement, popular during the period. The structural changes also introduced chronic problems with the courthouse, compromising the integrity of the materials and causing perpetual maintenance issues. In addition, the Art Deco remake had been poorly devised and executed. Layers of stucco were applied to the original façade of brick and limestone detailing and its mansard roofing and clock tower were replaced with a flat, concrete surface. Restoration specialists involved in the contemporary courthouse restoration plan all agreed that it would be difficult to argue that the Art Deco modifications on the Wharton County Courthouse represented great design.
In the early 2000s, the Texas Historical Commission began
a the dramatic restoration of the courthouse, a project that would perhaps prove to be one of the most challenging for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. The restoration work resulted in the reconstruction of the clock tower and mansard roofing and the removal of layers of stucco to reveal the original brick exterior. The courthouse’s original clock tower bell was located in a church only a few blocks away from the courthouse square and was gratefully returned. The bell became an important part of the restoration story. Local volunteers raised money and enthusiasm for the restoration around the county by transporting the historic bell from town to town. Although the original clockworks were lost, similar workings were discovered in Pennsylvania and installed. Today, the weight-driven, hand-wound clock and its bell provide a way for the community to reengage with the historic courthouse. Each week volunteers climb the steps up into the tower and hand-wind the weights for both the clockworks and the bell.
In fact, the courthouse restoration had benefited the Wharton community in a variety of ways. The commercial properties on the Wharton County courthouse square experienced a two hundred and seventy-nine percent increase in property values once the restoration was complete and their occupancy rates increased from thirty to seventy percent.
“The courthouse restoration brought a lot of new businesses to the town center,” Barbara Young, former chair of the Wharton County Courthouse Committee explained. “It literally brought the town back to life.”