The Harris County Courthouse has history dating back to 1836. During this year, brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen founded the city of Houston. When they founded the city, a county seat moved east from Houston to Harrisburg. In 1839 the name was changed to Harris County. There have been a total of five Harris County courthouses sitting on the same plot of land since 1839.
Made up of six stories of neo-classical design, The Harris County Courthouse fills an entire city block. The site it sits on was originally intended by the Allen brothers and has not changed since 1837. The brothers had stated they wanted the city to contain nine miles, having the courthouse in the middle. On the very first map of the city, that is where the courthouse sat.
Over the coming years, the courthouse underwent many renovations. Early on, the courthouse was meant to undergo a Greek Revival renovation, but changes were halted due to the Civil War. At the end of the war, the building was demolished.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the Courthouse Square was a park. In 1878 there was a competition to design a new courthouse. A four-story Victorian Gothic building was constructed. This sat as the courthouse for 25 years before being demolished due to claims it was overcrowded and a fire hazard.
In 1907, a $500,000 bond was approved for new construction of the current courthouse; 15 designs were submitted throughout the U.S. These architectural companies were bidding for the chance to build a new courthouse. After a long battle and a tie-breaking vote, The American Construction Company became the contractors.
The courthouse has undergone many renovations since 1907, but the structure and initial design remains the same. In 1950, a renovation went underway to provide a massive overhaul to the courthouse, removing some of its more historical aspects. Those features have since been restored in an ongoing attempt to bring the courthouse to its originally intended state.
Fun and Interesting Facts
- The Cooke County Courthouse was designed by the same firm, and has a lot of similarities to the Harris County Courthouse. The only major difference is the size.
- A monumental case, Texaco, Inc. v. Pennzoil, Co. was held in the Harris County Courthouse. This had the largest civil award in history: $10.35 billion from Texaco.
- During renovations, one of the building’s historic steel vault doors were discovered. They were relocated to an office suite for some time, but have since been relocated to their original position along the first corridor.
- The original mosaic tiles still line the floors in the courthouse. A renovation in 1950 covered them with vinyl but that has since been removed, restoring the original tile.
- During the most recent renovations, a large stone that had been covered in dirt and vines was uncovered, only to discover that it was the original cornerstone from 1883. It is now on display inside the courthouse.
- The lead contactor of the 1950 renovations was Manhattan Construction. This company since changed to Vaughn Construction of Houston, which led the most recent renovations.
Growing Needs of Harris County
While the historical Harris County Courthouse still does a lot to serve its county, the needs of the county have brought on the growth of other buildings. In 1969, the Family Law Center was built just north of the original courthouse. In 1979, a County Administration Building was built, allowing for more space for administrative work that can be done outside of the courthouse.
More recently, a Criminal Justice Center was built as well as a Civil Courthouse. These additional courthouses help meet the civil needs of the county. In 2011, a Jury Assembly Center was built across the street from the courthouse. This assembly center has an above ground entrance which leads to underground assembly rooms. These rooms connect to a tunnel system which links all of the court buildings in the area.
These expansions to the court system work to meet the needs of the county and host Harris County public records. As years go on more expansions will be made, adjusting and adapting to the ever growing Harris County.