Harris County Courthouse and Jail
The Harris County Courthouse Square underwent a number of renovations and courthouse constructions between 1837 and 1941 with five different courthouse buildings placed there and one jail. Maurice I Birdsall undertook construction of the first timber-framed two story courthouse building on January 18, 1838 sized 24 ft x 36 feet for $3800, completing the building in three months, April 1838 (HCCM As/9). A log jail also constructed by Birdsall on the northeast corner of the Courthouse Square comprised 24 feet square of 23 inch diameter logs. The jail interior had two rooms, both ten feet in height with a second floor added later. In less than six years, Harris County had outgrown the first courthouse building, putting the structure up for sale at auction. A. C. Allen claimed the building as the Allen’s personal possession and moved it across the street for a short time as the Houston Post Office. The Allen’s later donated the building to friends for a store and home that was moved to Washington Road on the north side of Buffalo Bayou.
Out of meeting space, the Commissioners rented space around town from 1844 to 1851. The City Hotel served as the official Courthouse in 1849 with the Brick Store of M. Carnivaugh used occasionally (HCCM: Ab/73). Even the Schrimpf’s Hotel became an official court building during May 1850 and through February 1851 (HCCM: Ab/89, 98).
A second two-story court building of brick having four entrances and a Cupola came through the design of F. J Rothaas, the brick of William H. King and carpentry work by James A Thompson. The brick was hand made at the King Brick Works situated on Sawyer Street, north side of Buffalo Bayou. Total price for the structure on October 15 1851 came to $15,000. The County rented jail spaces for prisoners until constructing a new jail in 1856 at the northeast corner of Preston Avenue and Austin Street, designed by George Henry having six cells in a two storied brick structure. For the first time, the area around the court building had brick pavement also supplied by King Brick Yards and completed in July 1858 (HCCM: Ab/ 203).
The brick courthouse lasted nearly nine years before the County outgrew the limited space and contracted with N. DeChaumes for a $25,000 new and third building in 1860 to face Congress Avenue of two stories and 117 feet by 85 feet styled in Greek Revival. The walls, roofs and floors completed when the Civil War stopped construction. The County converted the building first for a cartridge factory, then officer’s quarters and guard stations. Cannon balls made from iron were stored in the building. The basement became a guardhouse of Union prisoners of war. The upper floors were converted to a hospital for Confederate wounded near the end of the war. Following the war and for the next fifteen years, renovations were undertaken annually of the court building.
By 1868 construction, bids were received for fencing the courthouse square by Draper & Cole Company. Approval for additional fencing came in 1869 to Brown and Crawley (HCCM: C/79; 100). As landscaping residences and tree plantings became popular after the Civil War in Houston, the County hired local nurseryman Alfred Whitaker to improve and landscape the building grounds in December 1870. Between 1870 and 1880, the courthouse square saw many trees planted, gaslights installed, iron fencing and iron benches placed along with numerous hitching posts around the court building. Whitaker planted trees and bushes receiving thanks and accolades from the local newspaper for the beautiful plantings. Working on the grounds through 1873, Whitaker took pride in a green and healthy landscape. During one bad winter and dry summer, the plants suffered and began dying. A second landscape nurseryman, a Mr. Hare, took over the work for a few months and then gave up. Peter Jenks Mahan then put his prowess and nursery stock to the test in May 1873 servicing the county yard for the next two years. Mahan was assisted by James Monroe for tree planting and S. Schnelzer for yard cleaning (HCCM: C/133,135, 167, 185, 215, 234, 332, 378). In May 1876, John McNamara charged $62.00 for courthouse square yard work (HCCM: C/429).
Hitching Posts and fences became necessary for horse containment on the square in June 1876 with the County Judge authorizing the placement of 80 posts at “convenient places” around the square citing that the posts have “ball and ring attached” for the purpose of hitching horses (HCCM: C/441). Fences replaced in 1876 by James H. Sands and again two months later by W. Williams (HCCM: C/443, 446, 450,). Whitaker came back to landscape the courthouse square in February 1877. The Judge and Commissioners allocated $400 for all landscape and improvements for the square. James Monroe was paid $140.00 for groundwork and F. Schuler paid $45.50 for landscape work (HCCM: C/ 499, 504). The next January 1878, the courthouse trees were pruned and J. Marchand hired for landscape work during the summer. The County continued to pay for shrubbery trimming and fence repairs through 1880 when a new courthouse building came under consideration (HCCM D/25, 80, 178).
A new and fourth courthouse became necessary by 1883, the County contracting with Britton and Long and Edward J. Duhamel of Galveston for the design work. The building became a four story brick Victorian Gothic cruciform in shape with a tall spire rising from the center. The structure was finished in August 1884 for a total sum of $98,000. It was not until October 1896 that the County constructed a new jail on Capitol Avenue between Bagby and Buffalo Bayou located on the grounds where the “hanging tree” presently survives, sometimes known as the “Stanley Oak.”
The fifth and last Courthouse constructed to date on courthouse square came about in 1910 for half a million dollars being a five story granite and brick exterior by Land and Witchell of Dallas with Charles Erwin Barglebaugh being responsible for the design. Barglebaugh also designed the Hogg Building still standing near the southwest side of Market Square. In 1927, the Niels Esperson building constructed a pneumatic tube for the rapid transmittal of valuable documents to the Harris County Courthouse, a half mile distant. Drinking troughs for horses on the San Jacinto Street side of the Courthouse Square were removed in April 1941.
Wyatt C Hedrick, a Fort Worth designer, developed plans for a Harris County Criminal Courts and Jail building in 1927 at 624 Bagby Street of eight stories in the Greek classic style for $750,000. The structure rose from a two story red granite course of Grecian fretwork belt to an Indiana limestone cornice. A parapet wall with ornamental stone cresting formed the main entrance of two Doric columns of polished granite supporting an entablature of two-story balustrade portico. The rear façade had a central jutting pavilion extending the full height of the edifice. Granite steps near the immense spreading oak tree (Hanging or Stanley Oak) lead to the main doorway. Prisoners were kept on the fourth floor with the insane and male prisoners on the fifth floor. The eighth floor was reserved for a chapel and exercise room.
Janet K. Wagner and Thomas McWhorter
Harris County Historical Commission