This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 25, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
One advantage of living in Wharton (I lived there in the mid and late 1960’s) over East Bernard was the quick trip to the County courthouse for your license plate renewal. No thirty-minute drive to the courthouse. However, being a person who loved design in all areas (including architecture), I was not happy with the looks of the courthouse edifice in those days. I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t.
I was not surprised to eventually learn that the magnificent 1888 structure was designed in a Second Empire (Napoleon III) and Italianate style, but major alterations in 1935 and 1949 had altered its looks drastically. Even the splendid clock tower had been removed.
Wharton was my fourth Texas town, and third Texas County, in which to work as an educator since I first began my teaching career in 1957. My first teaching job was in Bellville, Texas (in Austin County), and I not only liked the overall design of the town (the way it was laid out), but I especially loved the beautifully designed courthouse, also built in 1888, right in the center of the highway through the town square. And would you believe that this Austin County Courthouse, as well as the Lavaca County courthouse, was designed by Eugene T. Heiner, who designed the 1888 Wharton County edifice! The courthouse was one of many things I loved about Bellville.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story in Austin County. One night in 1960, a group of my students came to my apartment to announce the horrible news that the red glow and smoke seen from my front window was the Austin County courthouse burning to the ground. We were all in shock!
That’s still not the end of the story. While I was still teaching in Bellville, a new edifice was finished in 1961. It was//is a slab-style, contemporary box style, piece of modern architecture. Some liked it; some thought it was ugly; I won’t judge either reaction. But the new structure could not possibly replace the splendid Second Empire beauty of the first one in my heart.
The warm feelings that a stately, well-designed old courthouse stir up within me began in my youth, growing up in Lee County, Texas. When my family moved from Dime Box, where I was born and lived for 13 years, to Giddings, to what seemed like a “big city” to me back then, I immediately fell in love with the Lee County courthouse. To me at the time, it was the most stately and elegant building in the whole world! And we could see it every day from our home! It was built in 1898 in Richardsonian Romanesque style, with large arches and a clock tower, and still stands in its original magnificence! And the clock tower is still outlined in Christmas lights every Christmas, a sight that brings tears to my eyes.
Histories of courthouses are never simple and uncomplicated. Being a columnist rather than a historian, I don’t do “complicated,” but to avoid outrage from those who are historians, I must add, after reading conflicting versions of Lee County history, that a first Lee County courthouse was built in Giddings in 1878 and destroyed by fire in 1897, destruction by fire being a factor in many courthouse histories. Like the 1888 Wharton County courthouse, the 1878 Lee County edifice was done in Second Empire style.
The history of the Wharton County courthouses (yes, there was more than one) is even more complicated than Lee County’s. Let me say a few things about them, but if you want a detailed account, and I mean detailed, read Annie Lee Williams’ The History of Wharton County (the first book I was told to read when I started teaching at WCJC). Wharton County was created in 1846, and the first courthouse on Monterey Square (the typical Spanish name given to a plaza-like public square) was anything but majestic, and by the time it was finally finished, Wharton County decided to built a new one in 1851, a brick one, and plant China berry bushes around the Square. After that structure came the grand 1888 Second Empire edifice.
To make this tale of three Texas County courthouses short, I am happy to report, as most of the folks in Wharton County know, that our 1888 Wharton County courthouse was fully and totally restored in 2007 to its original Second Empire beauty and splendor!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.