Friday, February 12, 2021

Bell County Courthouse - Looking Back & Going Inside

Over five years ago I wrote a post about the Bell County Courthouse.  Since then I've visited Belton numerous times, some for dog shows with a little "wandering" afterward and on some "wandering" day trips.  Each time I come away with more appreciation for this little Central Texas town and its rich heritage which is carefully preserved. In this post I want to share what I found inside the 1885 Renaissance Revival Courthouse on a recent weekday trip.

Come with me and step inside

The interior of the Courthouse is very much a modern office facility with the usual Courthouse offices.  It is sparkling clean and very pleasant inside, but I saw no signs of original details except perhaps in the configuration of hallways and in the stairwell to the upper floors. On a future trip I hope to visit in person with one of the historians about the details of the Courthouse interior. What I was pleased to find was a large collection of photographs displayed on the first-floor walls that gave much insight into Belton and its history and that of the Courthouse. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words!

First floor hallway
First floor hallway, fanlight above door may be original

Third floor hallway

First floor stairwell

Among the photographs on display was a picture of the tower-less Courthouse after an extensive remodeling in the 1950's that included removing the dome, clock tower, and goddess due to deterioration.  I'm certain that the County Commissioners thought they were doing the right thing to modernize the Courthouse to mid-century modern standards, but today we recognize their mistake and have to accept that they were caught in the out-with-the-old and in-with-the new craze.  The interior was also updated and modernized at that time. 

1957 view of dome-less Courthouse, north and east side

Bell County Courthouse 1895, north and west side

Bell County Courthouse 1920

Bell County Courthouse 2020

Dome and clock tower, unknown date

Restored tower detail, 2015

Restored dome, tower, and goddess, 2015

The photographs on display in the Courthouse and shown here are from the collection of the Bell County Museum.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Mary Hardin-Baylor University, Luther Hall 1886-1929


View of one corner of Luther Hall, photo retrieved from plaque on UMHB campus, date unknown

When construction began on the first building of the new Baylor Female College campus in Belton, Texas the school was already established having been chartered in 1845 as the Female College of Baylor College in Independence, Texas. It was the earliest women's college west of the Mississippi River. In 1851 the school separated the men from the women and relocated the men to a location about a mile away. Both schools prospered until the 1880's when the railroad bypassed Independence and the community began to decline. The decision was made to permanently split the two schools. The male college was relocated to Waco and became what is now Baylor University; the women moved to Belton after a grant of $31,000 and a tract of land was offered to the College.

Postcard of Mary Hardin-Baylor College 

A massive three-story building built of limestone was designed in the Renaissance Revival style by architect Matthew Dow and construction was completed in 1866.  For many years this was the only building on campus until enrollment increased and other structures were added.  The building remained the centerpiece of the growing campus. A fourth story was added and, in 1919, the building was named in honor of Dr. John Hill Luther who served as President from 1878-1891.

In the early morning hours of January 26, 1929, fire broke out in the ceiling of the kitchen located in a ell of the building.  Despite the efforts of several fire companies the entire building was quickly engulfed in flames and firefighters turned their efforts to saving the surround buildings that were being showered in embers and several small fires were already burning. 

The 200 young ladies living the building all escaped safely and the practice of frequent fire drills on the campus was credited with their swift and orderly evacuation.  As the fire raged they were gathered into the parlors of nearby Burt Hall where there were several tense minutes as a roll call was taken.  They were all in their nightgowns and slippers with a few wearing coats or robes.  There was much rejoicing as the roll call ended and all were safely accounted for that morning.  Donations of clothing were quickly offered by fellow students and the following day the community began an outpouring of assistance to the women and the school.

Belton Journal Thursday, January 31, 1929

The rubble of the once grand building became a popular gathering spot for campus activities and served as a backdrop for many plays and other performances.  In 1944 the Luther family contributed funds for a memorial and plans were developed.  In 1954 the rubble was cleared and stones from the original building were re-assembled to replicate the arches of the building's façade. A bell tower and memorial wall completed the tribute to the campus' first building.  Dedication of the memorial was in May 1955.

Stones from Luther Hall replicate the arches of the building. 

It appears that the memorial faces the circle driveway just as the original building did. I wished that I could walk through the arches and suddenly be transported inside this long gone building! 

The Baylor Female College Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 1990.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Onion Creek Post Office and Stagecoach House

The high bluff overlooking nearby Onion Creek made it a convenient location for a post office and stagecoach stop along what is now known as the Old San Antonio Road running from Austin to San Antonio, Texas. Water from the creek provided refreshment for the stagecoach horses and the sight was conveniently located near the highway. Ground was broken for the small, limestone post office in 1875 along with a two room dog-trot style house.

The post office was finished in 1876 and served residents of the community and stagecoach passengers until 1880 when the Postmaster moved the post office to the nearby developing town of Du Pre, renamed Buda (pronounced BYOO-dah). in the late 1880's. The completion of the International & Great Northern Railroad lines to San Antonio and Laredo ended the necessity of a stagecoach stop.

These very large oak trees to the side of the house probably saw the stagecoaches arrivals and departures.

T.E. McElroy and his wife bought the house and surrounding 234 acres and developed a successful livestock and agricultural program while eventually adding over 1,000 acres to the ranch. In 1906 Ann and John Severn purchased the ranch from the McElroy estate and continued the ranching operations.  Upon their deaths the house and property saw several owners and the eventual sale of individual tracts of land.  In 1998 the current owners, brothers Victor and Joe Stanzel, donated the house, post office building, and remaining 51-acres to the City of Buda with the stipulation that the house be restored and used for community purposes.

Renovation on the house revealed answers to questions about its transformation from the 1875 two room dog-trot style cabin to its current appearance.  Updates are traced to 1885, 1900, 1920, and 1950.  The Severns were very influential citizens and are thought to be responsible for the 1920 renovation; the house has been restored to that time period with the exception of a mantle painted by artists that rented the house for a time in the 1970's.

Evidence found during the renovation process indicates that the house was originally oriented to face the tributary of the creek located to what is now the rear of the house. The two rooms on either side of the front door comprised the original two room dog-trot cabin.

Each renovation seemed to change the structure even more while making it useful and modern for the residents.  As a result, it assumed some strange characteristics that added interest to the house.

I stumbled upon this property on a recent visit to Buda and had no idea of its historical significance until I returned home and began researching it.  I did not make many pictures, so a return trip when the weather cools off is on my go-to list. The surrounding park features many amenities as well as walking trails through the former stagecoach stop and ranching property.

The house serves at the Buda Visitor Center, but is currently closed due to the COVID pandemic.  However, from reading the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places designation about the evolution of the cabin to modern home I am sure it will be worth exploring.

The remains of a watering trough are located a short distance from the house.
This one room building tweaked my imagination as to its original purpose.  There is a vent pipe visible on the back of the roof indicating that there was some type of wood burning stove inside.  Possibly the ranch office, but I'll have to find out on the next visit.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Now you see it - now you don't

Alamo Plaza Bandstand, photographed May 1, 2018
Earlier this month the bandstand on Alamo Plaza was relocated. This is part of the plan of the Texas General Land Office and the City of San Antonio to restore reverence to the 1836 battlefield. 
May 18, 2020,the brown brick base is all that remains
Just over five years ago I had posted The Battle of the Alamo hasn't ended.  Since that time the powers that be have introduced and modified several plans for the area around Alamo Plaza, often referring to the area as "hallowed ground".  

Public outcry has been vocal, but ignored. In fulfilling their idea of restoring the 1836 footprint they intend to destroy other footprints with no regard for the complete history of this area. 
Alamo Plaza, former site of historic bandstand, photographed May 18, 2020
Part of the plan calls for the relocation of the bandstand to another area of town. This icon of Alamo Plaza was constructed in 1976 as a replica of the original one that was built around 1890. The plan calls for the bandstand's removal because it “does not architecturally relate to the period of historical structures surrounding it."

The nearby Cenotaph will be moved to the area where the bandstand was located. We are also in danger of losing the old Woolworth Building (directly across the street).  The plan calls for it to either be gutted or completely replaced for the creation of a "world class museum". 

The Woolworth Building has been on Texas' list of Most Endangered Places since 2016.  It is recognized as a significant contributor to the Civil Rights Movement in San Antonio. Photographed May 14, 2020

I'll share more in upcoming posts. The Battle hasn't ended.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Bandera County, Texas Courthouse

The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Bandera County, Texas Courthouse begins with the statement

The three-Story rusticated cut limestone courthouse built in 1890-91 with a central clock tower, is the focal point of the Bandera public square, and the dominating architectural feature of the town

And, indeed it is dominating.  From anywhere in this charming Hill Country town that calls itself "The Cowboy Capital of the World" the Courthouse's clock tower can be seen. However, don't look up to see what time it is as the clock face is actually painted on the tower.  Time in Bandera is frozen at 10:10.

Bandera County was created in 1856 and the town of Bandera was designated as the county seat.  From 1877-1891 the county used a coursed rubble limestone building built in 1856 as its makeshift courthouse.  The completion of the current day courthouse in 1891 was a sign of Bandera's post-Civil War prosperity.

B.F. Trester, Jr. of San Antonio, Texas was chosen as the architect. In recent years an intriguing mystery about Trester and the design of the courthouse came to light in the discovery that an identical architectual twin existed in Boone County, KY.  Today, the Boone County Courthouse is altered in appearance, but it's still easy to see the similarities.  To read about this mystery and see comparison pictures click here.

On Friday, July 11, 1890 County Commissioners accepted the bid of William Braden and Sons to construct the Courthouse according to Trester's plans for a sum of $19,914.00. Sometime between that time and February, 1890, Trester passed away at the age of 40 years and County Commissioners appointed A.B. Frankel as supervising architect. 

Trester's death was just one of the delays that would plague Braden in completing the project.  These trials, including the walking off the job by Braden are detailed in The Bandera County Historian, Fall 1991 issue that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Courthouse's completion. 

This article describes how Braden used itinerant Russian rock masons to cut the limestone blocks from a quarry across the Medina River. Sand for the mortar was dug from along Indian Creek and hauled to the construction site by two local men. The blocks were lifted in place "in four-man slings up staircase-like scaffolds"; as a result there were no lifting holes drilled into the stone blocks.

During 1966-67 the interior underwent a remodeling, although I couldn't tell what might have been remodeled as it seemed to retain many of its original features.  I did notice the wall-to-wall carpet in most areas of the building.  At the same time a one-story addition to the east side of the building altered its façade.  The windows were replace with modern aluminum frames.

Hallway of 1966-67 addition
I966-67 addition in foreground
In 1998 work to stabilize and repair the clock tower/cupola was undertaken after receiving an emergency grant from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program.  Temporary shoring was used to stabilize the ceiling above the judges' bench in the district courtroom.  The tower and cupola were reinforced and the metal roof replaced.  Work was completed in 2006.  Just to note I could not find any reference as to when and why the tower had been painted silver. To see before and after pictures click here.

District Courtroom, August 2018
A very kind bailiff or deputy sheriff took me into the courtroom and into several offices to see the original fireplaces. 

 The Courthouse was designated as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1972 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. 

Monday, May 6, 2019

Texas & Pacific Railroad Hospital - revisited

Two months after I started writing this blog in 2013 I posted about the Texas & Pacific Railroad Hospital I had discovered on a visit to Marshall, Texas the previous summer in July, 2012. Over the years I've received comment notifications from time to time, but did not ealize until today it is the most viewed blog post I've ever written with 2,435 views.  Click on the link above to read that post.

While I'm surprised I'm also pleased that so many people have read this post about a building that has been left to decay. From the comments I'm sure it is a place filled with many memories for the people of the Marshall area who were so closely connected to the railroad.

I tried to pull up more current information and found pictures, but no news items or related stories.  There were several pictures with comments that those who ventured into the building experienced paranormal type experiences and heard mysterious noises! Now I'm anxious to go back to Marshall and try to find some local sources that will tell me more about this intriguing building.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Liberty County Courthouse

South entrance - the original doors and transoms have been replaced 
Each of the Texas Courthouses have an interesting story or two to share and I'm always excited to visit, explore and research each one! The Liberty County Courthouse is remarkable in that it has had very little change to the exterior since its completion in 1931 and its interior remains remarkably intact today.  This courthouse is the seventh one to occupy the courthouse square laid out in 1831 and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. That's impressive, so come on, let's go exploring!
The discovery of oil in Texas created many boomtowns in southeast Texas and brought new prosperity to existing towns like Liberty at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1925 the Liberty County Commisioners, encouraged by the county's oil driven economic boom, requested Houston architect Corneil G. Curtis to prepare a comparison of repairing and updating the existing 1895 courthouse versus replacing it. His report thoroughly examined both scenarios, but he favored a new, modern courthouse of fireproof construction.

The progressive minded commissioners agreed and asked for the submission of bids. However, the bids were considered to be too high and no action was taken for three years; yes, government moves slowly. A second request for bids in September 1930 led to the awarding of the construction contract to M.H. Ryland of Uvalde in November.  The new courthouse would be completed in December 1931 at an approximate cost of $250,000.

There had been considerable opposition to the demolition of the existing courthouse, but the "demands of progress" overcame the protests. The 1895 courthouse was vacated, demolished and replaced with a new, modern building demonstrating the County's progressive attitude of moving forward into the modern world.

Curtis' design incorporated the era's most current and progressive architectural trends and is now considered one of the earliest examples of Art Deco architecture in Texas. Interestingly it is also referred to as a "modernistic" (or Modern Classical) example of Art Deco in that the interior is relatively unchanged from the courthouse designs of the late 19th century while the exterior reflects the modern influence.

The two story courthouse is constructed of concrete and steel and finished with Texas Cordova Cream limestone. A low earth berm surrounds the windows of the raised basement to give visual height to the flatness of the site. A two story addition, built in 1956, covers most of the west side of the courthouse including the original west entrance, but overall does not detract from the original courthouse design.

Central first-floor corridor, looking west
The interior is a traditional four entrance plan with corridors that divide each floor into four quadrants. Stairways at each end of the east-west corridor provide access to the upper and lower floors. The original exterior doors and transoms have been replaced, but the building retains most of its original integrity including beautiful mosaic floor tiles and marble wainscotting.
Original mosaic tile flooring
Marble wainscoting and original steam heat radiator in east stairwell
District Courtroom
The double-height District Courtroom retains all of its original furnishings, finishes, and light fixtures.  The courtroom's walls mimic the exterior with flat pilasters and and an "egg-and-dart" band at the top.  This room is considered to be an excellent example of Art Deco design.
District Courtroom light fixture - bronze with faceted glass
While the exterior follows the Art Deco concept of geometric massing, flat unornamented surfaces and stylized forms of ornamentation it also picks up on the Texas theme with low-relief sculptured panels featuring longhorns, covered wagons, water lilies pine trees, oil derricks and the Texas Lone Star.  Some of these can be seen in the photo below.
Lone Stars, covered wagons and longhorns are etched on pilaster tops.
Eagle over the door represents the building's Federal government function.
Liberty bells are embossed between first and second floor windows.

Northeast corner
The waves along the dado represent the nearby Gulf of Mexico. 
The thin strips of stone set between the larger blocks of limestone give visual appeal.
North entrance