By Liz Carmack, Sr. Communications Specialist
Texas courthouses designed in Romanesque Revival style number more than 20 across the state. An architectural style popular during the late 1800s, it emphasizes the classical Roman arch, rusticated (rough-faced) stone and towers as its dominant features. Look closely at Texas courthouses featuring this style and you will notice round arches over windows or entryways. Other common features include thick, cavernous entryways and window openings, thick masonry walls, and rounded or square towers with conical roofs. Construction uses stone or a combination of brick and stone, almost exclusively.
This issue of County features the Bexar, Karnes, Lavaca and Maverick courthouses. Some of the other Texas county courthouses built in this style include: Archer, Bosque, DeWitt, Donley, Ellis, Erath, Fayette, Gonzales, Hopkins, Jasper, Lee, Llano, McCulloch, Shelby, Somervell, Victoria and Wise.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of photo essays highlighting architectural styles of Texas county courthouses. Photos are by Laura Skelding and story by Liz Carmack. Thanks to the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program for its assistance with this series.
Karnes County Courthouse, 1895 – Karnes City (above)
Architect John Cormack beat out famed Texas architects Alfred Giles and James Riely Gordon for the commission to design the Karnes County Courthouse. Unfortunately, Cormack died before construction was completed. His partner Jacob A. Astor saw the project through to completion in 1895.
In the 1920s, a renovation of the structure included the removal of its original mansard roof, turrets, clock tower and extensions on the west side of the building. The changes also include stuccoing the brick and replacing the slate roof with clay tiles giving the building more of a Spanish Colonial appearance. During the last few decades, life-safety, health and structural problems plagued the courthouse, eventually forcing the county to evacuate the building in 2011.
For more than a decade, the courthouse underwent a multi-phase restoration, funded by the county and grants from the Texas Historical Commission’s THCPP. Work included stabilizing the foundation, reconstructing the distinctive roofline and clock tower, removing the two 1920s additions that had been causing structural damage and restoring the west façade to its original design and appearance.
Karnes County recently rededicated its fully restored courthouse in April 2018.
Bexar County Courthouse, 1896 – San Antonio
The Bexar County Courthouse (facing page) was completed in 1896 and designed by noted architect J. Riely Gordon, who designed several the Romanesque Revival courthouses in Texas. Reaching four stories and covering the better part of a city block, it is one of the state’s largest historic courthouses. Some of the building’s most iconic features, such as the bee hive tower and the large spread wing eagle, occur on the main façade and face the city’s newly redesigned Main Plaza.
The county has undertaken extensive work to restore and protect the building from further damage in the last two decades. This included cleaning and restoration of the exterior sandstone, granite and terra cotta, and repairing water damage and upgrading energy efficiency of the windows. Accessibility to the building was also improved and its security, technology, fire, plumbing, electrical and other mechanical systems upgraded. Multiple late 20th century courtroom additions to the building were also demolished.
Recent interior work included restoration of an original two-story district courtroom with its coffered ceilings, gilded plaster moldings and capitals, and decorative windows that allude to the rose window at San Antonio’s Mission San José.
Over the years, the county was awarded two grants for major repair and restoration work through the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP). It is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, a State Antiquities Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Lavaca County Courthouse, 1899 – Hallettsville
Houston architect Eugene Heiner designed the 1899 Lavaca County Courthouse, which was dedicated on July 4 with more than 5,000 in attendance. It features Muldoon and Mineral Wells sandstones, Romanesque arches, and a tall central tower with two-story slit windows drawn from the Richardsonian characteristics of the Romanesque style. Its unique interior elements include powder-blue walls, green iron staircases with decorative railings, pressed metal ceilings, and ornate geometric tile floors as well as hand-painted landscapes on its safes and vaults — a common feature of courthouses from the late 19th century.
The courthouse’s interiors have been restored, its elevator relocated to a more historically sensitive location, a new HVAC system installed, and major repairs to the building’s 109-year-old windows were made during a full restoration, funded in part by the Texas Historical Commission’s THCPP.
Lavaca County rededicated its courthouse in 2010.
Maverick County Courthouse, 1885 – Eagle Pass
The 1885 Maverick County Courthouse is one of the state’s longest serving courthouses. Architecture partners James Wahrenberger and Albert Beckmann designed the building in Romanesque Revival style with Second Empire influences.
In 1916, a clock with four plate-glass dials – each four feet in diameter – was added to the courthouse tower. A decade later, the county covered the building’s exterior walls with stucco, probably to mask the deterioration of its exposed brick.
Maverick County rededicated its courthouse in 2005 after an eight-year effort that included making the building fully accessible, reconstructing the wood porches at the south elevation entries, returning the courthouse to its 1926 paint scheme and restoring the existing features like its E. Howard clock, clock tower and metal roof. During this time, the county made several discoveries including the intact district courtroom’s original polychrome paint colors in shades of ochre, green and cobalt blue, and its surface decoration including “faux bois” wood graining on the doors and millwork, as well as wall stenciling.