Building the Denton County Courthouse

Edited by Bullitt Lowry
Compiled by David Strother

(From a book published by the Denton County Historical Commission- 1987)


by David Strother
Denton County has had five county courthouses since the legislature created the county in 1846. The first true courthouse was a small log structure built in Old Alton. Prior to that time the court had met under a tree at Pinckneyville.

In 1857 the state legislature moved the county seat to the city of Denton. In that year the citizens of the county built a new courthouse on the north side of the present town square. It was a two-story wood building, approximately twenty feet wide and forty feet deep. The county and district clerks occupied the two offices on the second floor, while the lower floor served as the courtroom. On Christmas Eve, 1875, fire destroyed this courthouse along with the greater part of the county records.

In 1877 the county completed a new brick courthouse in the center of the town square. It cost $40,000 and was one of the first brick buildings erected in Denton. In 1895 this structure was demolished, and construction of the present courthouse on the Square began.

The Courthouse on the Square, built in the period from 1895 to 1897, served as the seat of Denton County government for eighty-one years.

This book attempts to tell the story of the Courthouse on the Square, one of the most beautiful county courthouses in Texas. At first glance, the decision of the Commissioners Court in 1895 to build a new courthouse for Denton County seems strange. The brick courthouse was only eighteen years old. In addition, 1895 was a depression year, a ripple from the Depression of 1893, which made building a new courthouse a burden on the county's finances.

Whether the expense of building a new courthouse was burdensome or not, the Commissioners Court had no real alternative to demolishing the brick structure and building a new courthouse: the brick courthouse was falling apart. In August 1894, the Denton County grand jury condemned the structure as unsafe. The building purportedly was struck by lightning in mid-September 1894. One month later, the commissioners hired the architectural firm of Flanders &. Moore to inspect the courthouse carefully. J. E. Flanders reported to the Commissioners Court that the brick courthouse was in need of extensive repairs, including the "rodding" of the building and the removal of the large dome that rested on top of the structure. The estimated cost of the repairs was between at $2,000 and $3,000. The Commissioners Court took no action on the architect's report.

On February 16, 1895, the Commissioners Court received a petition signed by every county officer. The petition, in part, stated that the cracks in the walls had become worse and that the building might collapse at any time. The petitioners asked the court to either repair the building or build a new courthouse.

The commissioners decided to postpone the matter for a month. On March 30, 1895, the commissioners again postponed taking any action relative to the safety of the brick courthouse. It seems clear that the commissioners were trying to avoid making an unpopular decision. Many people favored repairing the brick courthouse, because building a new one would be a costly undertaking and might run the county into debt. On the other hand, repairing the brick courthouse would be only a temporary solution. Finally, on May 6, 1895, the Commissioners Court decided to erect a new courthouse by a vote of four to one.

On May 15, 1895, the Commissioners Court authorized the issue of $100,000 in bonds for the construction of the courthouse, each bond valued at $1,000. At the time, the commissioners thought that $100,000 would be more than enough to cover the cost of a new building.

In June 1895, the commissioners began looking for an architect. About fifteen architects eventually submitted plans, and on June 24, 1895, the court began examining them. The commissioners were dissatisfied, and on July 2, 1895, they rejected all the plans that were submitted to the court, among them the plans of James Riley Gordon.

That same day the court voted, three to two, to employ Gordon as architect for the new courthouse. During the same session the court decided to adopt the Romanesque style of architecture shown in Gordon's plans. The commissioners were still not entirely satisfied with Gordon's plans, but the two parties came to an oral agreement whereby Gordon would have two weeks to change his plans to make them satisfactory to the court, and if he did not, he would not charge the county for his services.

Gordon returned to Denton with his revised plans on July 22, 1895. The commissioners spent the next three days examining his plans in detail. They suggested some minor changes, and on July 25, they met to vote on whether to accept Gordon's revised plans. Before a vote could be taken, Commissioner C. W. Bates asked that Commissioner J. M. Miller be allowed to make a statement. Miller proceeded to say that he had been offered money to vote for Gordon's plans. Architect Gordon demanded to know who offered the money. Miller refused to divulge any names, saying only that the attempted bribe occurred in late June, and that Gordon did not offer any money himself. Gordon demanded an investigation. The court took a short recess, and when the commissioners returned they voted to rescind the order employing Gordon as architect. This whole episode may have been a ploy by Bates and Miller to keep Gordon from becoming the architect of the courthouse, because a month earlier they had been the only numbers of the Commissioners Court who had voted against his employment. Whether it was a ploy or not, Gordon was no longer the architect for the new courthouse.

Following his removal, Gordon sued Denton County for services rendered as architect in the amount of $3,325. His attorneys argued that the Commissioners Court order of July 2, 1895, employing Gordon as architect entitled Gordon to be paid for drawing the courthouse plans. The attorneys for Denton County argued that the order employing Gordon was not read over in open court, signed by the county judge, or attested by the county clerk, all of which were required by law, until after the order rescinding Gordon's employment had been passed. Therefore, the order employing Gordon was cancelled before it became a valid final order, and Denton County had no obligation to pay Gordon for his services. The jury agreed with this argument and returned a verdict in favor of Denton County. Gordon appealed and the Texas Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision.

While the commissioners were searching for a suitable architect, Denton County was busily preparing for the construction of the new courthouse. On July 6, 1895, the county contracted with Benjamin Brand to tear down the old brick courthouse for the sum of $575. Broken bricks from this courthouse were subsequently used in ballasting North Elm Street.

When the demolition of the brick courthouse began, the various county offices had to find temporary quarters. The commissioners rented the first floor of the May Building for use by the county clerk, tax collector, treasurer, assessor, and surveyor. The district clerk and county judge found space on the second floor of the Paschall Building. Both buildings were on the north side of the square.

In February 1896, work was completed on a "corrugated iron building," which was used as a temporary courthouse. Frank Craft built the structure, located on the northeast corner of the town square, for $127. That structure housed most of the county records, and it also quartered some of the county offices that were previously located in the May Building.

On August 9, 1895, the Commissioners Court hired W. C. Dodson as architect for the new courthouse on the square. The estimated cost of the building was $80,000. This estimate was far too low. By the time it was completed, the building had cost Denton County almost $150,000. Dodson was paid a total of 5 percent (for studies, drawings, specifications, and supervision) of the actual cost of the building; his 5 percent amounted to approximately $7,500.

By August 16, 1895, the brick courthouse had been torn down, and the commissioners began searching for a suitable quarry within Denton County from which to obtain limestone for the construction of the new courthouse. They also received bids from various companies to furnish bricks for the building. Most of the stone used in building the courthouse came from a quarry on the farm of William Ganzer, about seven miles northwest of Denton, although some came from other parts of the county. J. Crouse got the contract to quarry and load the stone on wagons for transportation to the construction site. The Denton Lumber Company got the contract for furnishing bricks for the courthouse at $7.20 per 1,000 bricks. This company also furnished cement at $3.50 per 400-pound barrel.

The construction of the courthouse began late in October 1895, with the laying of the two-feet-thick cement foundation. By November, about a dozen stone cutters were cutting stone for the basement.

Even at this late date the commissioners had not settled upon the material for the outside walls of the courthouse above ground level, although they were thinking of using brick. They ultimately chose to use limestone in the construction of the walls.

On November 16, 1895, the court hired Tom Lovell as construction superintendent for the courthouse, paying him $150 a month for his services. One week later, the stone cutters went on strike. They demanded $4.00 per day for nine hours of work, instead of ten hours. The stone cutters relented after three days and agreed to $3.60 a day for nine hours' work.

The Commissioners Court awarded several contracts for building materials during November and December 1895. For example, the Denton Lumber Company furnished sewer pipe, Long & McCormick provided hot-air flues, and Christopher & Simpson of St. Louis, Missouri, furnished all the iron and steel material. R. S. Johnson got the contract for furnishing sandstone for the courthouse trimming. The grey sandstone came from Mineral Wells and cost eight cents per hundred pounds. David Hughes of Fort Worth, Texas, got the contract to furnish eighty-two red Burnet County granite columns for the sum of $3,525. William Whyburn furnished the caps and bases for these columns.

They were bought from the Pecos Red Sand Stone Company for a total of $2,600.

By the end of 1895, approximately thirty stone masons, cutters, setters, bricklayers, and laborers were working on the courthouse. One month later, more stone masons arrived. Still more workers were needed, because on April 24, 1896, the commissioners advertised for fifteen or twenty "non union" stone cutters to work at forty cents per hour for six or eight months.

Even with the stone cutters' strike and the lack of workers, the construction of the new courthouse on the square progressed smoothly. By February 1896, the basement was almost complete, and it was time to lay the cornerstone.

The laying of the cornerstone took place on Saturday, February 8, 1896. It was a bright, sunshiny, winter day, which facilitated the gathering of a large crowd for the occasion. The exact number of people who attended the ceremony is not known, but 250 to 300 members of Masonic lodges were in attendance. The cornerstone was made from blue granite, and the names of the county judge, the county commissioners, the architect, and the construction superintendent were engraved on its face. Several papers and documents were placed inside the cornerstone, including a copy of each of the city's newspapers; a copy of the constitution of the State of Texas; the Masonic constitution; a list of practicing lawyers in Denton County; several Confederate bills; and, not least, a list of the members of the Juanita Cornet Band.

After the laying of the cornerstone, construction of the courthouse progressed more rapidly. On July 3, 1986, the Pilot Point Post-Mirror reported that "the stone walls on the new court house building are reaching the top of the window casings on the third floor."

The Commissioners Court awarded the remaining building contracts during the latter half of 1896. Julius Peterson plastered the inside walls for $868. J. O. Bell painted the interior of the courthouse for $2,225. Long & McCormick furnished the plumbing fixtures, and the Waco Electric Supply and Construction Company provided wiring and fixtures as well as speaking tubes, mouth pieces, and whistles for the courthouse offices.

The cost of building the new courthouse rose continually during 1896. By November of that year, the county had spent $108,000, which was $8,000 over budget. Other contracts, then still uncompleted, ultimately raised the cost of the building to about $147,000.

The increased cost of the courthouse became a local campaign issue in the November elections of 1896, and two new members were elected to the Commissioners Court on a platform demanding economy in county government. The new Commissioners Court tried to find ways to cut costs. For example, in December 1896, Tom Lovell, the construction superintendent, ordered red sandstone caps for the columns on the courthouse tower. On December 23, the court countermanded Lovell's order and directed that sandstone caps be obtained from the Ganzer quarry. During that same meeting the court hired Benjamin Brand as the new construction superintendent for the courthouse. Since the Commissioners Court Minutes contain no order firing Lovell, it appears that Lovell chose to resign rather than install what he believed to be an inferior grade of sandstone.

By the beginning of 1897 the courthouse was very nearly complete. One of the last tasks to be completed on the building was to install a tower clock. Nels Johnson of Manistee, Michigan, got a contract to install one of his "century tower clocks" for the sum of $1,200. It had four illuminated dials, each with a diameter of five feet, three inches, and although the clock was converted to electric power in 1939, much of the original mechanism is still in working order today.

The Courthouse on the Square was completed on May 21, 1897. Built on the highest elevation within the city of Denton, it could be seen from miles around. When completed, the courthouse had three main entrances, one each from the east, west, and south sides of the building. In the center was an octagonal rotunda. On the second floor was the district courtroom, with circular gallery on the third floor overlooking it.

The courthouse has undergone relatively few changes over the years. In 1949 an elevator was installed in the center of the building, and in 1955 a floor was built over the district courtroom to provide additional courtroom space where the gallery had been. In 1965 the south entrance was closed.
In 1970 the courthouse was named a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on December 22, 1977, and the city of Denton designated it a Historic Landmark in 1982.

The restoration of the courthouse, now being carried out, will return the building to its original, turn-of-the-century appearance. The district courtroom, which is being restored to house the Commissioners Court, will regain its gallery. The south entrance will reopen, with new steps made from stone quarried in the same site as the original stone. The octagonal rotunda will once again be open from the first floor to the third. The completion of the restoration work is planned for 1987, the ninetieth year of the grand old structure.

David Strother

The Public Documents