The post-Civil War Texas Legislature, anxious to promote growth and development in the Lone Star State, passed “An Act Authorizing the County Commissioners’ Courts of the several counties of this State to issue Bonds for the erection of a Court House and to levy a tax to pay the sums” which was passed at the Regular Session of the Nineteenth Legislature in 1885. This caused a rush to architectural competition around the state as counties vied for the most imposing symbol of county government. The first step in the official process was taken by the Victoria County Commissioners’ Court under the guidance of County Judge J. L. Dupree in May of 1891, with a notice requesting bids on architectural plans and specifications for a new court house to cost not less than $50,000 nor more than $65,000. Various architects’ submittals were reviewed on Tuesday, August 11, 1891 and the next day the proposal of Messrs. Gordon & Laub Architects of San Antonio, Texas was adopted. A contemporary news account stated that the commissioners “wavered for some time” between the Gordon & Laub proposal and one submitted by Mr. Alfred Muller of Galveston; however, Gordon & Laub were hired to furnish plans and specifications for the new building and to superintend its construction for 5% of the construction cost.
The firm of Gordon and Laub was just one of several entities created by J. Riely Gordon for his professional practice and only endured for a few years. Once the partnership was dissolved, soon after design of the Victoria County Courthouse, D. E. Laub seemed to disappear from view.
James Riely Gordon (1863–1937) was becoming known for his courthouse designs after having designed elaborate courthouses for Gonzales and La Grange known for their open central air shafts providing improved air circulation in the sultry Texas climate and their prominent towers establishing visual dominance over all other buildings in the small developing cities. As he had for his most recent designs, Gordon adapted the popular Romanesque Revival style to the exigencies of the Texas climate for the Victoria design. The three-story edifice he designed for Victoria County employed a modified cruciform plan with an open central court ringed by open corridors at all three floors, covered, arcaded porches, a central clock tower, turrets, and great textural contrast with the juxtaposition of smooth and rusticated masonry surfaces capped with a red clay tile roof.
Gordon was extremely busy in the early 1890s. At the young age of 28, he had been selected in a nation-wide competition to design the Bexar County Courthouse in 1891. In 1892, the year of construction on the Victoria County Courthouse, Gordon was also commissioned to design the Texas Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, probably necessitating a great deal of out-of-state travel just when the Victoria building needed his attention most. These two nationally prominent commissions were instrumental in establishing Gordon’s reputation and prominence as an architect, but caused an adverse reaction from his clients in Victoria during construction of their courthouse. Gordon designed a significant number of Texas’ county courthouse before moving his practice to New York after the turn of the century, and even patented his courthouse design.
County Judge J. L. Dupree (1849-1936) was known for having built the first highway in Victoria County in 1889 as well as for construction of the 1892 County courthouse while serving as County Judge. He held that position from 1888 to 1899, then served as City Attorney from 1901 to 1933. In 1898 he and his brother-in-law, District Judge J.P. Pool, formed a partnership for the practice of law which was prosperous and well-known in south Texas for many years.
Once set in motion, the chain of events leading to building the new courthouse proceeded quickly. The plans were adopted and construction bids were requested by September of 1891. A temporary courthouse was rented, a brick building known as the Rogers & Oliver Building on lot 3, block 116 at the corner of Constitution and Bridge Streets for $75 per month beginning November 15, 1891. One of the landlords, C. L. Thurmond, Sr., was Victoria County Sheriff at the time.
Sheriff Thurmond was authorized to advertise the sale of the old courthouse for the first Tuesday in January, 1892, to the highest bidder for cash. The winning bid was $350. The County reserved all furniture, stores and the vault door. The purchaser was obligated to remove the building and have the site cleared of all rubbish by February 15, 1892, with the Sheriff retaining 5% of the net proceeds of the sale as his fee.
The construction bid of Martin, Byrne & Johnston, Contractors, for $64,487, was declared the “most desirable bid” and the contractor was ordered to file a bond with the County Clerk for $25,000. Bonds for $75,000 were issued February 12, 1892, to finance construction of the new building and Judge Dupree was authorized to pay the contractors with bonds based on estimates of completion furnished by architects. The date when construction began is assumed to be February 15, 1892.
After removal of the old courthouse, it was decided to offset the foundation of the exterior walls of the new court house from that of the old court house by 20 feet, presumably for the sake of stability. After this, trouble began in the relationship between the County and the architects. A special session of the Court was called Monday, March 14, 1892, to accept or reject excavation made for the foundation of the new building on advice of Gordon & Laub. The architects did not appear as requested and were then summoned to be present at a called meeting on Friday, March 18. Further changes to the concrete footings at the exterior walls and open court of the new building were recommended by the architects and approved by the County. By mid-May, however, the relationship between the County and its architects had deteriorated to the point that the County ordered that no further payments be made to Gordon and Laub. The architects were accused of failing and refusing to comply with their agreement to superintend erection of the new courthouse and failing to supervise the work of the contractors from the time work began. They also were said to have neglected to furnish vouchers to the contractors as work progressed detailing the amount of labor completed.
The Victoria County Commissioners’ Court seemed to have an excellent relationship with their contractors, Martin, Byrne and Johnston. They were a local firm that, according to contemporary newspaper advertisements, specialized in construction of public buildings of all sorts. They adhered closely to the plans and specifications and the work progressed smoothly. By June of 1892 they were ordering wood blinds for the window and transoms and one of few changes to the original design had been ordered: replacing the specified red clay roof tiles with Welsh slate, a less expensive material. The red clay tile was still used at roof ridges and chimney pots. William Martin of Martin, Byrne and Johnston also was ordered to construct two dormer windows of his own design at the southeast and northeast corners of the roof.
Bids were accepted for items such as metal furniture for the Court and District Clerk’s office was accepted from Fenton Metallic Furniture Co. of Trenton, New York, which included roller book shelves, compressing file, cupboards, blank drawers in case, extra shelves, vault tables by the foot, plain shelves, and pigeon holes on August 8, 1892. G. D. Barnard & Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, was awarded the contract on wood furniture, which was to be of the best quality “antique oak,” except for some chairs which were to be made of rock elm and finished to be compatible with the “antique oak”. The bid of Pridham & Kreisle for hardware was accepted the same day and the Clerk was ordered to advertise for bids for a striking clock in the courthouse tower with illuminated dials. The clock face appears to have been added to Gordon’s color rendering of the courthouse after it had been completed, probably when his design was selected by the county. B. Heyer & Co. of Columbus, Texas was selected to provide the clock on September 1. In October, with the construction nearing completion, Judge Dupree requested cost information on completing sidewalks around the new building.
By November of 1892 it had been determined that the original $75,000 in bonds would be insufficient to complete the project and $20,000 in additional bonds was approved by the Commissioners’ Court. The next month, the building was sufficiently complete for Judge Dupree to correspond with Eugene T. Heiner, a Houston architect, regarding the possibility of employing him to review and approve construction of the new courthouse. Mr. Heiner agreed and, by December 21, had visited the building and recommended approval “without any reservations whatever.” He further commended the contractors Martin, Byrne & Johnston “for the faithfulness with which they have executed their contract.”
All that remained were odds and ends to be completed, such as extension of draining from the building by William Wheeler, securing fire insurance from A. Levi & Co., disposing of surplus furnishings from the old courthouse, seeing that items, such as a broken dial on the clock, were replaced and credited, purchasing supplies, fire wood and additional furniture, such as the roll-top desk purchased for the office of W. P. Stafford, Assessor of Taxes. It cost $62.00. Sheriff H. D. Sullivan was appointed janitor of the new courthouse for an extra $3.00 per month to keep offices and furniture clean, shrubbery and trees trimmed, grass and weeds mown, and to open and close the building at suitable hours. If convict labor was used, he was to rebate 50 cents to the County per day, per convict. The new building was officially declared the Victoria County Courthouse on January 1, 1893. This formidable task was accomplished in a mere ten and one-half months.
The County contracted for electric lights with James Kenyen in February of 1893 and W.G. Mohris was hired for regular tower clock maintenance. Room assignments were shifted somewhat the first few months, with Room 34 being designated for the use of City authorities so long as the City agreed to furnish the room with items in keeping with the furniture in the courthouse and further agreed to keep the room in good condition and to take responsibility for any damage that might occur while occupying the space.
Room No. 16, which had been originally designated as Ladies Waiting Room was to be left to the Justice of the Peace Precinct #1, with the Sheriff ordered to remove the furniture in the room to other areas of the building. By June, the Commissioners’ Court had rescinded the order setting aside Room No. 34 for the City’s use due to the City Council’s having refused to accept it, starting a long-standing feud between city and county officials that was not resolved for many years.
By late summer of 1893 the new building was considered sufficiently settled for the Victoria Daily Times to run a lengthy article extolling the virtues of the building, and all those who had a hand in planning and building it. The exuberant author declared the building “the finest in Southern Texas,” with a view from the tower “that reminds one forcibly of the beautiful fairy stories of old.” Another contemporary author said that Victoria possessed “the most beautiful court house the writer has ever seen in a country town - a model structure …of admirable architecture…”
Security and keeping operating costs down were both priorities, with the Sheriff being ordered to purchase keys for the water closet in the courthouse for all the officers of the court, and to remove lights from the hall and privy, except when court was in session or on public occasions, and not to allow horses to be tethered to trees planted on Courthouse Square. Other changes occurring over the years were beautification of the grounds by ladies of the community with flowers of their choice, and awning added over the west widows of the courtroom, installation of a telephone system in 1898, and a very specific order in 1916 to paint the exterior woodwork with white lead oil paint with “enough zinc to give a good rich white gloss, and to paint the interior walls with “cold water paint in colors designated by the County Judge.” In 1918 a fire escape was added.
On July 9, 1929, the Victoria Advocate reported that “The bid of Ed Wagner, local contractor, for replacing the slate roof of the Court House with asbestos was accepted by the County Commissioners Court this morning. Damage done by the recent gulf hurricane made the new roof necessary. The chimneys and ornamental work blown down by the storm also will be replaced.”
Judge Frank Crain remembers a glass skylight being installed in the opening at the top of the air shaft in the late 1930’s when a blind man named Jimmy Gott started a small tobacco and candy shop with a counter in the arched opening into the hall and shelves behind him in what had been an atrium space.
The courthouse sported decorations for public occasions and holidays, and in 1917 the World War I monument was installed on the east lawn, and a flag pole was added. Repairs and painting began again in 1940 under the direction of Kai Leffland, with Micke Gruy as the general contractor, and the courthouse and jail lawns were terraced and landscaped between 1940 and 1944. Venetian blinds had replaced wood shutters at the windows by the 1940s and the west entrance was closed so that the hall space could be incorporated into office space for the County Clerk with a large new vault with four-inch-thick walls.
The building’s most major alteration occurred in 1948: the central courtyard was divided into offices at all three floors and the old weight-driven pendulum tower clock was replaced with a modern electric one under the direction of electrical engineer Paul Tower. Floors and doors were added at each level and the spaces were finished for the County Tax Office at the first floor, Jury Room at the second floor, and office for the District Judge and Court Reporter at the third floor. The large granite World War II monument was installed on the east lawn of the courthouse across the sidewalk from the smaller World War I monument on November 11, 1949.
The first mention of mechanical air conditioning, other than electric fans, occurred in 1954, when an unspecified number of units were ordered for the courthouse and jail. By 1956 the large “water closet” at the first floor had been divided into a Men’s and Women’s rest room. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s as the building aged and expectations for better climate control increased, maintenance became a constant preoccupation. In 1961 a move was afoot to demolish the old courthouse, but a petition signed by leading citizens saved the building when it was presented to the County Court on July 7, 1961. By 1964 planning for a new Victoria County Courts and Office Building had begun for the north half of Courthouse Square, with scheduled completion in August of 1966.
In keeping with the County’s pledge to preserve rather than demolish the old courthouse, maintenance was continued, the building was used for additional office space for the County. Some of the offices housed in the old building during that time included the Veterans Service Office, the Victoria County Historical Survey Committee and the Victoria County Historical Society; the adjoining office then being used by the Veterans Service Officer as a waiting room was assigned to the Child Welfare Unit and the County Agent; and the Veterans Service Officer received the two offices in the center of the first floor. The Texas Department of Public Welfare also occupied the building.
In 1974, a new focus toward restoring significant spaces in the old courthouse was instigated by the Victoria County Historical Survey Committee and the Victoria County Historical Society, who asked for “minimum restoration requirements” for the District courtroom on June 6, 1974. The list included inspecting and repairing roof leaks and roof drainage, replacing broken windows throughout the building, repair or replace courtroom ceiling, provide wood blinds for courtroom windows, refinish courtroom floor, replace original light fixtures, arrange jury chairs and witness stand in original locations, refinish furniture, and inspection of the courtroom balcony for safety. The engineering firm of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc., examined the balcony and declared it unsafe for use. It was decided to rope off each end of the balcony and designate only the middle section for seating about 50 people. In the first months of 1975 limited restoration occurred to the courtroom according to plans drawn by Warren Young, A.I.A., Architects, of Victoria. In addition to the items listed previously, repairs were also made in the first floor hallways.
Since the last major work in the 1970s, the Old Victoria County Courthouse had been maintained and at least partially in use for various offices. Its status as a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its designation as a Registered Texas Historic Landmark are testimony to the building’s architectural and historical significance. The advanced age of the building and the requirements of the County for high quality office and courtroom facilities called for a major restoration effort that would protect the original fabric and character of the building while providing for the County’s office and courtroom needs. To that end, the building was vacated in March of 1995 to provide full access to the building for this study and subsequent restoration work.
The Master Plan For The Restoration Of The 1892 Courthouse
The master plan for the 1892 Victoria County Courthouse was a joint project of Victoria County, Victoria Preservation, Inc., and the Victoria County Historical Commission. A steering committee comprised of twenty-one local community leaders was appointed by the Victoria County Commissioners Court in 1994 to coordinate the project and subsequent restoration of the building. The $75,000 project was funded by Victoria Preservation, Inc. ($50,000), Victoria County ($20,000), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Trust Fund ($5,000).
David Hoffman and Co., an Austin architectural firm, was hired in November 1994 to complete the master plan. The plan was conceived with four primary objectives:
- Document the existing building to ascertain its present condition and assess the extent of modifications sustained over the last 100 years
- Determine the highest and best use for the building with the goal of returning it to full community benefit
- Determine the scope of work required to return the building to active use while incorporating the highest standards for preservation
- Achieve an estimated cost based on all of the above criteria
In order to accomplish these objectives, architectural research was undertaken to illuminate the history of the building, architectural investigations were performed to determine the condition of existing building, and a needs assessment was conducted to determine future use requirements. Planning was then accomplished to integrate the proposed new uses and contemporary functions into the historic building. A scope of work was formulated based on the proposed rehabilitation improvements and construction costs were estimated based on the scope of work.
The Restoration Of The 1892 Victoria County Courthouse