Modern masterpieces

Underappreciated mid-20th century courthouses represent a bold postwar Texas

By Sharon Fleming, Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program Texas Historical Commission

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In the late 1800s, Texas courthouses were powerful symbols of prosperity in their communities. County government leaders aspired to build the most appealing public image with the grandiose and bold architecture of Victorian-era courthouses. Stylistically, these stately buildings reflected the historical eras of the past, representing the county’s enduring significance in Texas.

By the early 20th century, the success of industrialization impacted the dependence on historical precedents. The world was changing rapidly, with population shifts to urban areas and advances in science, agriculture, and business. The architecture that began to evolve with World War I and continued after World War II celebrated the pragmatism of a new era, and a new optimism came along with it.

Many Texas counties reinvented themselves in the mid-1900s by drawing inspiration from older courthouses while boldly using modern materials and systems. More than a quarter of the state’s historic courthouses date to between 1930 and 1960. The Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP) strives to raise awareness of these Modern architectural achievements and promote their recognition within the context of their own distinct place and time. THCPP staff members believe these mid-20th-century courthouses merit the same preservation ethic as older 19th-century structures while recognizing they have been historically and architecturally underappreciated.

Austin County Courthouse, Bellville, 1960

Fort Worth-based architect Wyatt Hedrick’s firm was once the third largest in the country and designed several highprofile Texas buildings, including Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Memorial Center and Mineral Wells’ Baker Hotel.

The Austin County Courthouse is often criticized due to its monolithic appearance and its setting, isolated from the surrounding historic downtown streetscape. However, its admirers value the massive slabs of black granite anchoring the ground floor, thin crystal quartz stone panels, and slim steel columns.

The Modern character of the courthouse is complemented by four highly stylized metal clocks and letters announcing the county name. Also of interest is the lack of windows, deliberately designed because studies at the time indicated large expanses of glass burdened the air conditioning system and impaired the efficiency of workers due to fluctuations in light intensity.

Photo: Courtesy Texas Historical Commission

Many of the state’s residents and visitors may be unaware of the practical reasons for architectural style shifts over decades. The imposing towers and domes of 19th-century Texas courthouses addressed the functional intention of being clearly visible on the landscape, while the tall central space facilitated ventilation and air movement. By the 1920s, the advent of modern air conditioning methods made the vertical architectural elements obsolete.

As the world transitioned into the moderation of Depressionera 1930s, new courthouses were conceived as more functionally straightforward, with simple rectilinear forms that celebrated the promise of a brighter future. Some, built with federal assistance programs, took their aesthetic cues from abstracted geometric forms and patterns. Known as Moderne or Streamline Moderne, these designs drew inspiration from the transformational imagery of the time — ocean liners, diesel locomotives, automobiles, and airplanes — while asserting a strong monumental public presence on the town square.

During World War II, Texas engineering and architecture firms were hired by the U.S. government to design sprawling campuses of buildings, training grounds, artillery ranges and airfields. By the 1950s, young architects were graduating from universities eager to put their design philosophies and knowledge into practice. Most found their clients were eager to reject the traditional styles and embrace the optimism of the new Modern architecture that employed contemporary materials and a rationalist aesthetic.

THCPP staff believe that fostering an appreciation for courthouses of the mid-20th century requires a new mindset. They point out that materials like drywall and metal wall cladding are now associated with inexpensive buildings. However, 75 years ago, the invention and use of these prefabricated materials dramatically changed long-standing construction practices and design. They were part of an important shift in midcentury thinking that can be challenging to appreciate today.

The architecture of postwar Texas was innovative and daring, and drew on the International style of architecture growing popular in Europe. Driven by new technologies such as reinforced concrete, steel and glass that allowed for thin and expansive walls, these new courthouses took on an entirely new look from the imposing old buildings of the past.

 

Kaufman County Courthouse Kaufman, 1956

Architect A. Warren Morey is perhaps best known for designing Texas Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. His U-shaped design for the Kaufman County Courthouse articulated the ethereal quality, transparency and lightness of a metal-and-glass-curtain wall juxtaposed against the stoic quality of a windowless brick facade.

Notable interior highlights include a green marble wall featuring several black porcelain-style water fountains. The second floor houses the main courtroom.

Photo: Courtesy Texas Historical Commission

One preservation challenge many Modern courthouses face is their “crisp and clean” appearance, which can be demanding from a preservation standpoint regardless of the building’s age. This can be intensified when combined with experimental technologies, such as prefabricated components, and and the need for funding to support them, resulting in preservation efforts becoming more urgent by the day.

According to THCPP staff, an important shift in public opinion is beginning to take place: Courthouse preservation in Texas is becoming more Modern. A courthouse preservation master plan is currently pending approval for the 1956 Kaufman County Courthouse, and discussions are ongoing with Waller County representatives about preserving their 1955 courthouse. In addition, the 1960 Austin County Courthouse recently received funding assistance from the National Park Service’s Hurricane Harvey grant program for roof replacement.

More than three dozen postwar Modern courthouses were built across Texas, yet they remain the most threatened — ironically, because they are so new. Having already passed the 50-year threshold to be considered officially historic, it’s likely that with the help of nonprofit organizations like Docomomo (dedicated to preserving modern-era resources), a little more time and a new generation of admirers, they too will endure.

 

Waller County Courthouse Hempstead, 1955

Architect Herbert Voelcker attended Texas A&M University in 1909 and later founded a firm that designed 11 Texas courthouses. Voelker’s refined eclectic but traditional approach gave way to the Modern mode by the 1930s, when he began to produce designs for numerous North Texas county courthouses built with federal funding during the Great Depression.

The Waller County Courthouse represents a significant departure from the traditional Texas cross-axial plan in favor of a monumentally scaled entrance. With its monolithic brick massing and strong symmetry, the building clearly expresses its civic function.

Photo: Courtesy Texas Historical Commission

Article and photos reprinted from the Winter 2020 issue of The Medallion courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.