THERE IS SOME QUESTION whether Dallas County’s red stone courthouse belongs to the story of local government or to the history of warfare between divergent tastes as to what constitutes good architecture in a public building. If the old building itself could speak, it would undoubtedly say that the first seventy-five years are the hardest. Certainly no other structure in Dallas has ever been subject to such violent criticism, or, originally, to such extravagant praise. By some wonder it has managed to survive the sledgehammer and the bulldozer, notably in the last thirty or forty years in which the assault at times has reached the apex of aesthetic fury.
Historically, the building was born of a public catastrophe— the destruction by fire in July, 1890, of the more modest four-story white stone courthouse completed ten years before. County Judge E. G. Bower and other members of the commissioners court were determined that the newest hall of justice would not go like the one that preceded it. Thus, their first specification was that it be fireproof. So far it has proved to be fire resistant.
The design was left to one of the reigning Texas architects of the day, J. E. Orloff. Its basic material, red sandstone, was then being quarried in large amounts in Pecos City in West Texas. The blue granite seen on the first floor exterior and the blue stone trimming above that floor are from Arkansas. In describing “this magnificent enterprise,” the Dallas News said that “the Romanesque style” predominates throughout the building “from the foundations to the lantern lookout 206 feet above terra firma.” It was in the same “stylish” mode then favored in Texas, particularly in the North Central Texas area.
Worthy contemporaries of the Dallas structure that are still surviving include the courthouses at Fort Worth, Denton, and Decatur. The latter in Wise County is the best and most priceless example of the style. The people of that county have long treasured and protected their “queen of the Romanesque,” in accordance with the intelligence suggested in their county’s name.
The Dallas building is often, but erroneously, referred to as the 1890 courthouse, yet work was not started on it until well into 1891. Because of delays in construction, it was not completed and occupied until after the opening of 1893. It cost $350,000 to build, compared with $75,000 for its 1880 predecessor.
There has been only one major alteration in the present structure. That occurred shortly after World War I when the central tower with its huge four-faced clock and its three-ton bell was removed. The bell could be heard ten miles away “when the atmosphere was favorable.” Ted Dealey in his book, Diaper Days of Dallas, tells how as a small boy in the opening years of the century he could read the time on the courthouse clock—thanks to a telescope—from his family’s home on Maple Avenue miles away in North Dallas.
In its earliest years, the courthouse was a prime attraction to residents and visitors alike. Its observation tower provided an uninterrupted panorama of late-nineteenth-century Dallas. The building was then acclaimed as “unsurpassed in the grandeur of its architecture, the magnificence of its proportions and the elegance of its finish and appointments” by any other courthouse south of the Mason and Dixon Line.
The growing “sophistication” of Dallas residents and their “cultural maturity” during the years between the two world wars are often cited as an explanation of the movement to tear down the old courthouse. The first complaint was lodged against its structural safety. State Sen. Claude Westerfeld, one-time professional builder, scotched this nonsense by an exhaustive examination. As a result, he declared it to be the most solidly built structure in Dallas “and one that could well outlast the Tower of London.”
The attack was then shifted to aesthetic grounds. By 1940 the Federal Works Progress Administration’s Guide to Dallas summed up the agitation for the removal of the courthouse as both unsafe and unsightly. The government agency then went on to pronounce the old courthouse “only a decayed monument to the grandiose and ornate taste of the Nineties.” It has since been branded as an “architectural monstrosity” by some of its niore virulent critics.
The Commissioners Court headed by County Judge Lew Sterrett granted a stay of execution for the old courthouse. They came around to the view that it deserved a place of honor in the new county government building complex, in which the new county courts building is the latest jewel. The old courthouse is to be rehabilitated inside to serve as a Dallas office building for a number of state agencies. (Dallas’s first courthouse, the John Neely Bryan cabin, in which the county was organized, is to be moved to old City Park as part of the historical center established there.)
The decision to “save” the old red stone courthouse has met with increasing approval of many citizens and taxpayers. Perhaps among those most pleased are the two surviving, but inanimate, stone figures atop the courthouse roof, the two so-called gargoyles that are actually griffons—or representations of the fabled animals of Grecian mythology that were half-eagle and half-lion. They have stood guardian over the old building since 1893. It is significant that neither of them, known in local legend as “Hindsight” and “Foresight,” has as yet been lost to the government of Dallas County.
Courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam Acheson. Post card courtesy George W. Cook collection at SMU’s DeGolyer Library.