The current courthouse has anchored our town for over a century
She stands, solid and dignified, visible even to travelers along I-35, the grande dame of the Square. Many neighboring structures are older, but she has offered continuity of purpose over years of growth and change. Four identical colonnaded entrances face the compass’s directions as the town spreads ever outward. Like any lady “of a certain age,” she has required careful maintenance for good health, along with timely tweaks like air conditioning to remain fashionable. This is part of her story since her birth in 1911.
Predecessors: Each new structure was larger, more gentrified, and more expensive as the area grew.
In 1848, early settlers petitioned for a new county separate from the far-flung Milam District. The petition was approved, and Williamson County was named in honor of Robert McAlpin Williamson, veteran of the battle of San Jacinto, Texas Ranger, and judge, but never a resident here. Georgetown in those days could barely be called a town; nevertheless, county officials began meeting under a live oak tree where Founders’ Park now stands. By 1849, county business had a home—literally—a 16-square-foot log cabin just east of the current site. Two years later, the Commissioners Court paid $350 for the next courthouse, a frame home at Church and Eighth Street used until 1857.
The county’s third courthouse was built on the Public Common (today’s Square) early in 1857 at a base cost of $5,000. By standards of the day, it was impressive: two stories, 50-foot square, limestone walls two feet thick. However, it suffered from structural issues for most of its 20 years of use, and the fourth courthouse was built in 1877. The county agreed to a construction price of $27,400 based on blueprints by architects Frederick Ruffini and Jasper Preston. This courthouse was Victorian French Second Empire in style, similar to other courthouses in the area, and served for more than 30 years. It was razed by 1910, and the best was yet to come.
New girl in town: The county passed a $120,000 bond for a Beaux Arts (Neoclassical Revival) design by C. H. Page of Austin.
The Square was changing; electric light and telephone poles stood tall around downtown. A new century was underway, bringing prosperity and expansion. Automobiles mingled with horse-drawn vehicles, but for Georgetown’s Yesteryears, an oral history, E. C. Bouffard recalled that, when he was a youngster, there was “no pavement whatever” around the courthouse. However, nothing was as significant in 1910–1911 as the debut of the new three-story (!) copper-domed (!) Ionic-columned (!) courthouse. Elgin Brick #425 cast a golden glow, terra-cotta pediments and balustrades richly decorated upper areas, clocks all the way from Boston adorned the dome’s four sides, and Themis, goddess of divine law in Greek mythology, stood atop the elegant structure. Inside, graceful spiral stairs, terrazzo floors, marble wainscoting from Stone Mountain, Georgia, and gleaming wood surfaces and trim delighted visitors. When they gazed up at the translucent dome, visitors saw white plaster decorations encircling the second and third floor railings. The lady truly dazzled an admiring county.
Adaptations: Inevitably, needs changed as time passed.
Physical changes occur as people mature, and so it was with the courthouse. Modifications were made for safety, comfort, or necessity. The roof had to be replaced only a year after the building was completed; another roof replaced it in 1966, even after several repair jobs. Sometime along the way, the copper dome was painted white. Lights were added to the dome in 1928 and 1968. During the 1940s, the clock became electric rather than hand-wound, railings were added to the entry steps, and a women’s restroom was added. The 1950s brought an elevator where the south stairwell had been, $13,000 worth of window air-conditioning units, and a Woman’s Jury Dormitory, because Texas women could then serve on juries. Major changes occurred as the courthouse reached middle age in 1966. Part of the balustrade had fallen from the roof, some support rods had rusted through, and repair or storage funds were nonexistent. Most of the terra-cotta was removed and destroyed, despite efforts by Dr. Bob Lancaster, chair of Southwestern University’s art department, and other citizens to save the architectural details. Dr. Lancaster called it the “massacre of 1966.” Besides these gradual changes to the courthouse, the County Annex was added in 1990 a few blocks west as the population grew.
Rejuvenation: More than a nip and tuck were needed as the century mark approached.
The Texas Courthouse Preservation Program was announced in late 1999, and thus began a four-year process as Williamson County met with architects, developed a master plan for restoration of the courthouse, and sought grants and other funding. By May 2004, the county was awarded $3.75 million through the Texas Historical Commission and raised an additional six million dollars from other sources to meet the expected cost of $9 million. Work began, inside and out, in January 2006, and lasted through 2008. Details like wood floors and shellac coloration were meticulously replicated or restored, true to original design. Replacing the south staircase created a particular challenge; each floor was constructed individually in Michigan and brought in corkscrew formation. The stair replacement also meant finding a new location for an elevator. The balcony of the District Courtroom was restored, and a floor added there in 1963 for extra offices was removed. Many original furnishings are back in place so that the courtroom looks much as it did in 1923 when Dan Moody brought Ku Klux Klan members to trial. Balustrades, pediments, and a new copper roof were added as well. Structurally and cosmetically, the lady was looking good again.
Like any lady who’s lived awhile, the courthouse has a mystery or two. Why were there still ballots in that long-forgotten box? Is there really a ghost prowling the basement? Did her courts usually bear witness to justice? Inside, years from now, future citizens will discover a time capsule describing Williamson County early in the twenty-first century, but that’s only a small part of her story.
Mickie Ross and others at The Williamson Museum provided excellent material about the courthouse.
A statue of Dan Moody will be set on courthouse grounds to commemorate his successful prosecution against the KKK in Williamson County in 1923.