Embodying Texas’ independence as a state and governing power, county courthouses erected after 1836 became a reminder of the community’s struggles and progress. Though decimated by more than 50 fires prior to the turn of the century, Texas county courthouses served as a haven for vital documents and land records. While the historical significance of Texas’ courthouses cannot be denied, quite a few little-known secrets about these majestic buildings exist.
Love Goes Wrong in Ellis County
Texas’ Ellis County Courthouse features meticulously carved sandstone columns which began as a tribute to a local woman with whom the mason was smitten. After being turned down by the woman, whose name was Mabel Frame, the mason began to disfigure the carvings to match his broken heart. To this day, the sandstone figures adorning the Ellis County Courthouse tell tales of both beauty and horror.
In an effort to secure construction oversight, Texas’ locals have been known to arrest courthouse architects. Because jails were historically located in the same structures as the courthouse, it became a great place to hold architects captive while construction was still underway.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence
Harris, Cook, and Johnson County Courthouses were designed by George Willis and Charles E. Barglebaugh, both of whom worked as draftsmen for the noteworthy designer, Frank Lloyd Wright. To this day, many Texas courthouses continue to display elements of Wright’s style.
Scotland Moves to Texas
Built in 1883, the Shackelford County Courthouse was constructed in Second Empire style architecture. Unlike other courthouses in Texas, Shackelford County Courthouse’s bricks were formed by Scottish masons, setting this building apart from others.
Texas’ Only Antebellum Courthouse
Of all 254 Texas counties, only Cass County can stake claim to the state’s oldest functioning courthouse, which was built in 1861 to reflect antebellum style. As the only one of its kind in Texas, the Cass County Courthouse lures historians for its contextual relevance in the state’s growth.
Perhaps the most absurd piece of Texas courthouse history is the story of a horny toad with an unshakeable spirit. In 1897, a horny toad named Ol’ Rip was entombed in a time capsule and reportedly awoke 31 years later when the capsule was opened. Warner Brothers’ well-dressed, singing frog is rumored to be inspired by this strange event.
Leon County Reinvents Bathroom Chic
Male visitors to Leon County Courthouse receive a pleasant, yet shocking, surprise upon entering the restroom. The only one of its kind remaining in Texas, the men’s restroom in Leon County’s Courthouse features a fully functioning fireplace. According to those involved in the courthouse’s 2007 renovation, the fireplace is a reminder of the area’s humble beginnings.
Broken Wings in Harrison County
Featuring a statue of Lady Justice atop its dome, Harrison County Courthouse was an architectural marvel to behold in its day. Unfortunately, years of wind damage led to Lady Justice’s upturned wings being removed in the 1930s. Since then, the wings have been replaced but positioned downward to avoid future damage.
Courthouses Play Host to Hollywood
Nearly 20 major motion pictures were filmed in Texas county courthouses in the years since 1946. Specifically, hits like Powder, Lone Star and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? can be linked to a Texas county courthouse scene.
Last, Not Least
Perhaps the least startling of these fun facts is Texas’ reputation for housing nearly 900 courthouses since gaining independence in 1836 and subsequently joining the Union 9 years later. To date, 871 buildings have been constructed to serve as the community’s courthouse, well over 3 courthouses for each Texas county. The next time you happen by a Texas courthouse, think about the people, events and historical context from which each building was created.
* Some information courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission