Hill Country Courthouses

By Brantley Hightower :: Photography courtesy of Brantley Hightower

The Hill Country contains some of the most picturesque landscapes in Texas. It also happens to be the home of some of the most impressive county courthouses in the state.

For most of its history Texas was a poor, rural state. Its population lived primarily on farms and ranches that were widely dispersed throughout its vast area. Early county courthouses represented an opportunity for a community to demonstrate its economic viability as well as its dedication to the rule of law. Communities would come together and invest vast amounts of time, money and effort to build a courthouse that was often the largest and most substantial building in the county. These buildings were not a reflection of current conditions but instead were built as aspirational buildings to demonstrate to the world the future the community wanted to have. As Texas became a wealthy economic powerhouse over the course of the twentieth century, that fiction became a reality.

During the late 1800s to the early twentieth century when Central Texas courthouses were constructed, the area transitioned from a mostly untamed wilderness of 820,000 residents to a booming modern business center with a population of over 11 million — today that number is over 26 million. When the Kendall County Courthouse opened in 1870, Comanche war parties were still a threat. Courthouses did not end this threat but they did establish order and a civil society.

The county courthouses of the Hill Country are compelling in part because they are so profoundly optimistic. They speak to a government that is approachable, a society that is progressive and a future that is bright.

Although each courthouse tells a great deal about a specific place at a specific time, when looked at chronologically they together tell the story of how courthouse design developed in Texas over the course of seventy years.

Kendall County Courthouse – 1870

The Kendall County Courthouse is the oldest existing county courthouse in central Texas. Although counties would often tear down older structures and rebuild them in the same location, in Boerne they simply kept adding onto their original building. An initial single-story stone structure was built in 1870, a second story was added in 1886 and a more ornate front façade was added in 1910. An annex was built across the street in 1998 that now houses most of the county’s functions.

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Bandera County Courthouse – 1891

With its blocky central building topped by a tall tower, the Bandera County Courthouse represents an archetypal design from the “golden age” of courthouse design. In addition to acting as vertical landmarks, clocks would often be placed on the faces of these towers to communicate time to the surrounding area. But this was not quite the case in Bandera: the county could not afford to pay for a clock mechanism and so it merely painted a “fake” clock face onto its tower. That remains the case today.

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Bexar County Courthouse – 1896

Rather than locating the courthouse in the middle of a public square, in Bexar County the courthouse faces a public plaza. This urban strategy reflects the Hispanic origins of San Antonio. As a result, the Bexar County Courthouse has a main façade that addresses the plaza as opposed to most other courthouses that have four essentially equal facades. This condition has allowed the Bexar County Courthouse to be enlarged over time: it has incrementally expanded to the south without significantly changing its appearance.

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Comal County Courthouse – 1898

James Riely Gordon was one of the most prolific courthouse architects in Texas. Over the course of the eighteen courthouses he built for counties throughout the state, he developed a unique design that featured a cross-shaped plan that located the building’s entrances at the inside corners where the four short wings intersect. This basic design could be enlarged and embellished depending on the size and budget of the county. The Comal County Courthouse is a good example of a stripped-down version of this design.

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Hays County Courthouse – 1908

By the beginning of the twentieth century, courthouse designs started moving away from the elaborate Victorian styles of the late 1800s and began embracing more classical approaches to design. Domes replaced towers and columned porticos framed formal entrances. The Hays County Courthouse also represents an example of a design that attempts to create interior spaces that are just as monumental as its exterior appearance. This courthouse features a dramatic rotunda that opens up to its central copper dome.

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Blanco County Courthouse – 1916

When a county was established it would designate a town to act as the county seat. But sometimes nearby towns would grow faster in population and call for an election to move the county seat to their town. This is what happened in Blanco County. Although a perfectly respectable courthouse was built in the town of Blanco in 1885, the seat was moved to Johnson City in 1890. The 1916 courthouse that exists there today features a short tower with a small dome on top that was popular of the time.

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Kerr County Courthouse – 1926

As the twentieth century progressed, county governments became less central to the lives of individual Texans as the role of city and state governments increased. As a result, county courthouses started to become less grandiose. The Kerr County Courthouse has Beaux-Arts detailing, but it features neither a dramatic dome nor a monumental tower. Like the Bexar County Courthouse, a large expansion was built behind the original building so as to maintain the appearance of its main façade.

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Gillespie County Courthouse – 1939

The Great Depression was hard on Texas but funds made available by federal assistance programs such as the Public Works Administration did help pay for the construction of some nice courthouses. The modernistic design of the current Gillespie County Courthouse is similar to other courthouses built at the time. It features abstracted classical details and massing that made use of traditional materials such as brick and limestone. The earlier 1882 courthouse sits next to it and currently functions as the Gillespie County Library.

 

Lighting Up the (Court) House

As stately and dignified as courthouses are year round, they take on a special elegance at the holidays, when courthouse lighting ceremonies are central to kicking off the season from late November through New Year’s Day. Whether the treasured buildings are adorned in simple white lights that highlight their unique architecture or are transformed into brilliant extravaganzas, historic courthouses serve as natural holiday centerpieces for the communities that delight in the annual tradition. Crowds gather in town squares for seasonal music, holiday refreshments, shopping for arts and crafts, and the requisite visit from Santa.

This year, the Comal County Courthouse in historic downtown New Braunfels is part of the annual Downtown Lighting Ceremony (November 18). In Kerrville, the Kerr County Courthouse Lighting Ceremony is the finale to the Holiday Lighted Parade (November 19). The grandaddy of all courthouse lighting ceremonies is the Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City, where more than 100,000 lights illuminate the courthouse and the surrounding grounds (November 25). Organizers emphasize that no nails or screws are used to hang the lights and no damage is caused to the iconic structure.

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Brantley Hightower is an architect in San Antonio and the founder of HiWorks. His book, “The Courthouses of Central Texas,” was published by the University of Texas Press in 2015.

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