Second Empire Courthouses of Texas

The style, inspired by French design, incorporates intricate detailing, deeply sculpted pillars and wide, winding staircases.

By Liz Carmack, Sr. Communications Specialist

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The architectural style known as Second Empire is based on French design elements that were prominent during the Second French Empire and reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870). In fact, the style is sometimes called French Second Empire. The style became popular throughout Europe and the United States during the mid to late 19th century.

The style’s most prominent feature is the mansard roof. Mansard roofs are hipped and double sloped, with a nearly vertical lower slope and flatter upper slope that is not usually visible from ground level. Buildings designed in this style often include dormer windows in the upper floor, set into the mansard roof. 

The style also includes Italianate details such as decorative brackets and molded cornices. Second Empire interiors often have extensive custom molding and intricate detailing, deeply sculpted pillars and wide, winding staircases. These buildings also commonly include a square central tower.

The Texas courthouses designed in this style and featured here are located in Caldwell, Concho and Hill counties. In addition, this style of courthouse can be found in Brewster, Colorado, Fannin, Hood, Lampasas, Goliad, Matagorda, Maverick, Newton, Shackelford, Uvalde and Wharton counties.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of photo essays highlighting architectural styles of Texas county courthouses. Photos are by Laura Skelding and Amber Novack, and text is by Liz Carmack. Thanks to the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program for its assistance with this series.

Caldwell County Courthouse

1893 – Lockhart Photos by Amber Novack.

The 1893 Caldwell County Courthouse has been featured in movies such as “Waiting for Guffman” and television series including “The Leftovers.” 

Although famed San Antonio architect Alfred Giles is sometimes given the credit for the building’s design, records show it was designed by Henri E. M. Guindo, who was sporadically at Giles’ firm. It was built by Martin, Brynes & Johnston.

The three-story building is constructed of rusticated Muldoon blue limestone accented with Pecos Red Sandstone lintels, arches and stringcourses, according to its Texas Historical Marker. It sports a black slate mansard roof and a high central tower that houses a four-sided Seth Thomas clock and a 900-pound bell. 

Pavilions, outward projections of the building’s center, define the entrances at all four sides, while porticos distinguish its east and west entries. On the north and south facades, two secondary towers flank the arches at the main entrance. Recessed bays flank the entrances, and pavilions terminate the facades at each corner. 

Further exterior ornamentation includes round, flat and segmental arches that span the openings for each floor. Contrasting stringcourses, cut stone pilasters, a strongly articulated cornice at the center and corner pavilions embellish its exterior. 

Concho County Courthouse

1886 – Paint Rock Photos by Luara Skelding.

There is a reason the Concho County Courthouse and Blanco County Courthouse look strikingly similar. The same architectural plans — drawn by F. E. Ruffini — were used for both, according to the building’s Texas Historical Marker. The Lampasas firm Kane and Cormack built the Concho County Courthouse in 1886.

The two-story stone building of Second Empire style is constructed of cream-colored ashlar masonry with cut stone quoins and a cut stone stringcourse, which separates the two floors and forms a base for the tall, narrow window openings. Ornamental brackets carry a wide metal cornice at the base of its mansard roof. The roof rises in three sections and features framed circular dormers and a metal trim that contrasts with the cornice. Mansard pavilions with wrought iron cresting accent the entry bays, and a triangular pediment marks those entrances. The north and south entries are flanked by projecting bays with cornices slightly higher than the adjacent walls.

Inside the courthouse, historic detailing includes wooden staircases at either side of the east-west hall that rise in a graceful curve, as well as pressed metal ceilings.

Hill County Courthouse

1890/rebuilt 1999 – Hillsboro Photos by Luara Skelding.

The Hill County Courthouse was designed by Wesley Clark Dodson. In 1993, shortly after its 100th birthday, the building succumbed to fire, leaving only the exterior limestone walls standing. Local residents rallied to rebuild the courthouse and the county undertook a six-year restoration project to do so, funded largely by a federal grant and donations. In 1999, the county rededicated its courthouse, which retains its distinctive historical features.

A distinctive landmark in the county seat of Hillsboro, the courthouse’s central clock tower extends seven stories, while the building itself is three stories tall with a basement and attics. A hipped roof covers the main building, and pyramidal mansard roofs with decks and molded caps top the corner pavilions. 

The rusticated limestone courthouse is symmetrical and basically square with four identical five-bay facades, each with end pavilions and central raised porticos. Gables and dormer windows adorn the pavilions. The second- and third-story windows are divided with carved limestone panels. The windows in the porticos repeat this scheme but are slender and tall, with an arch pattern and huge keystone uniting the group above the third story. 

A high-relief belt course in a pattern of flowers and leaves wraps the building at the top of the first story. Further embellishment includes cast-iron balconies above the doors; banded, dressed limestone pilasters edging all projecting corners and framing the doors; banded, dressed limestone columns and bases; and dressed limestone trim around the windows doors and cornice.