September 2011  

Harris County 1910 Courthouse Rededication

A dedication ceremony and ribbon cutting were recently held to mark the reopening of the Harris County 1910 Courthouse, one of the county’s most significant historical structures.

Dedicatin Ceremony & Ribbon Cutting
The 1910 Courthouse was the fifth in a series of county courthouses to occupy the courthouse square.  The previous one was demolished, although the cause is not recorded. (It likely
Original 1910 Courthouse
Original 1910 Courthouse

was too small and in disrepair.)  At that time the fear of losing records to fire or water damage was significant and well founded.  Demolition took place in December 1908 and January 1909, and construction of the new courthouse began shortly thereafter.  There were five courtrooms in the 1910 courthouse, as well as all the county offices – county attorney, county clerk, tax assessor, tax collector, district clerk.  All county functions were housed there except for the jail.  Although Commissioners Court accepted the courthouse as completed on August 8, 1910, the building was not finished. Nonetheless, county offices moved into the courthouse, and a grand opening ceremony was held on Nov. 15, 1910. Installation of the interior marble was finally completed in January 1911, and a formal dedication ceremony was held on March 2, 1911.

Renovations to the courthouse and its grounds since 1910 slightly altered the building’s exterior appearance.  The most significant outside alterations occurred in 1954, when the main building entrance was moved down to the first floor by enclosing the entry loggia (porch) at the second floor level and removing the monumental staircases – where horses used to be tethered at iron hitching posts – on the Fannin (west) and San Jacinto (east) side elevations.  Other alterations included replacing the original wood-framed windows with metal-framed ones and removal of the brick and terra cotta railings at level three and at the base of the dome. 

Renovations to 1910 Courthouse
Photo courtesy of Texas Historical
Commission - 1955

The 1954 renovations also made significant changes to the interior of the courthouse.  The most notable changes in the major public spaces were the infilling of the central rotunda and enclosing the original double stairways at the upper levels, modifications to the two major two-level courtrooms on level three, and the relocation of the elevators from the center of the building to the west side lobby.  The two major courtroom balconies were removed during this renovation, and new concrete and steel floor slabs were extended at the balcony level to add usable space over each courtroom.  The rotunda was closed to create usable space in the building’s upper levels, completely blocking the view of the courthouse’s domed skylight. 

Before the 1954 renovations, the courthouse was heated but not air conditioned.  The introduction of air conditioning units, ductwork, piping, and conduits, as well as suspended ceilings with contemporary lighting fixtures had a profound effect on the interior appearance of the courthouse, covering up the ornamental plaster detailing above.  Some of the original materials remained in place on the lower floor lobbies and corridors, but much of the interior marble was removed from the walls and rotunda columns, and most spaces received new finishes.  The original wood casings and interior wood doors were also removed, as well as most of the interior hardware and furnishings. 

The current courthouse restoration project – the first such historical restoration undertaken by the county – began in 2003 with Harris County Commissioners Court’s authorization for the preparation of a master preservation plan by the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department.  The plan’s proposal was to restore the building exterior and the public spaces within the interior to their 1910 condition.  In 2004, the plan was submitted to the Texas Historical Commission, and the preservation project was approved.  The commission later awarded the county grants – $5 million for construction and $1.5 million for design – that helped offset the county’s approximately $65 million courthouse restoration costs

Restoration of the Courthouse Dome Renovation to the building exterior consisted of restoration of the courthouse dome, installation of new wood-framed windows and reconstruction of the monumental staircases to the second floor entrances on the Fannin and San Jacinto side elevations.  On the inside, the suspended corridor ceilings were
removed and the ornamental plaster detailing was painstakingly restored.  New marble, from the same quarry in Georgia that furnished the original marble, was installed in the corridors Top of the Open Rotunda
and the courtrooms, and the double stairways on the upper levels were reopened to public view.  The two-level courtrooms were restored to their impressive full height, and the center rotunda was reopened through level six with installation of a new shallow-domed stained glass skylight at the top of the open rotunda. 

In 1957, the First Court of Appeals moved into the 1910 Courthouse following the state legislature’s requirement that Harris County provide court facilities in Houston.  In 1967, after it was created by the legislature, the 14th Court of Appeals was also given a home in the courthouse.  Both courts moved out in 1983 because of overcrowding.  As a result of the recent renovations, however, the First and 14th Courts of Appeal once again occupy the restored 1910 Courthouse building. 

The restoration, according to Dan Reissig, manager of capital improvement projects architecture with Harris County’s Department of Public Infrastructure, “shows people how you can take a 100-year-old structure and rework it to become not only a beautiful building but also a useful resource for the community.

The Newly Restored 1910 Courthouse
The Newly Restored 1910 Courthouse