Southeast Texas Day 1

Granbury to Galveston is an approximate four and a half to five hour trip. That figure is assuming one takes the most streamlined route and without making too many stops. Our trip would take about fourteen and a half.

We started the day off early, leaving the Granbury city limits around seven. Carousing through familiar towns like Glen Rose, Meridian, and Clifton, we came to Waco where we switched highways to get us to Milam County, our first stop. In June of 2012, when I first visited the courthouse here, in the seat of Cameron, I didn’t take full advantage of the photograph opportunity. That’s the pattern for many courthouses in the early stages of the project. Milam County was a redo.

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The courthouse is a beautiful work of Larmour and Watson, one that has also received the “tower-treatment” from the Texas Historical Commission. When it was originally built in the late 1800s, the courthouse was recognizable by its tower and statue of Justice. However, the tower was removed sometime in the 1900s. Until the restoration courtesy of the historical commission, Cameron’s courthouse lacked its stately detail. But thankfully, it’s back.

At the time of my visit, the courtroom was in use, so I was unable to see in it, but the rest of the courthouse interior was visible to me. It’s a beautiful building.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 10.28.09 AMThe newest courthouse of the day, Burleson County (#163) was one county to the southeast of Milam. At the Milam-Burleson County Line rests the small town of Milano, through which we passed. The avid country music fan that I am, I was aware of Milano’s role in a tragic end of one of Nashville’s biggest stars.

On November 5, 1960, Johnny Horton, singer of such hits like “North to Alaska” (my favorite of his), “The Battle of New Orleans”, and “Sink the Bismark,” was involved in a head-on car collision over the railroad overpass bridge in Milano. He died en route to a local hospital. Knowing we’d be going right through Milano, I was curious about seeing the site. The original overpass bridge was demolished in the eighties and a new one erected in the same place. While it’s not the same bridge Horton was on at the time of the crash, I did have the chance to go through the same vicinity.

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Trivially satisfied for the time being, we moved on to the seat of Burleson County, Caldwell. The courthouse there is a 1920s model that ranks low on the impressive scale. But the interior is pretty unique. While in Caldwell, we got a light rain that made photography only a slight issue.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 10.32.06 AMWe had a second redo coming up next, Lee County (#52) where a J. Riely Gordon courthouse is serves the small town of Giddings.

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The building is very beautiful from the outside, but is severely damaged on the inside. In all different spots along the first floor, long cracks run down the historic walls. This is caused by the building’s foundation shifting, which is a serious problem. This courthouse has already been restored, a THC renovation in the early 2000s and another renovation for emergency structural issues only a few years ago. It’s time Lee County had some more help.

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While I was there, I climbed the central, winding stairway (common in Gordon’s designs) and was able to go all the way to the top, stopped only by a large door that leads to the open-air tower. A small skylight allowed me a partial view of the tower, and that was interesting enough for me.

After descending the stairs and getting back to the ground, I finished taking the pictures I needed of this historic building and we headed on, to Fayette County (#53). The city of La Grange’s massive courthouse was also designed by Gordon, but is different from the rest of his collection.

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Typically in his courthouses, entrances are found at the corners and staircases wind upward in a central chamber. The Fayette County courthouse does not have these features. Similar to most other courthouses, entrances are at the center of each side. This courthouse’s main entrance is in fact one of the most ornate I’ve seen yet. En lieu of a central staircase, Gordon created a central atrium (similar to his Erath County courthouse in Stephenville, Texas). From each floor, patrons can look out on this central space and (in today’s time) enjoy the plants and fountain that have been installed.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 10.35.13 AM A massive skylight keeps the area from the sky, but I understand that was not always the case. In Gordon’s original design, this part of the courthouse was open to the elements. Curious.

The courthouse here is very beautiful, inside and out. And the picturesque town of La Grange adds to its appeal. Aside from my personal hometown courthouse in Hood County, I believe this one is my favorite.

We stopped for lunch at Bistro 108, just off the square. I noticed where there that the historic Fayette County Jail was just across the street. I made sure to get some pictures of it before we left. It’s now the La Grange Chamber of Commerce.

Our next stop was in Columbus, Colorado County (#54). On our way southeast to the city, I spied a billboard advertising Fayetteville, a small town to the east. I happened to know that this was the county seat of Fayette County before La Grange. I also knew that a retired courthouse was still standing out that way. I hadn’t planned on visiting the town today, but as we passed the turnoff point for the small city, I thought, why not?

Turning around, we started the six mile stretch down a county road to Fayetteville. It’s a very small town that surprisingly still boasts a modest square. In the middle is a small, white boxy wooden building with a tiny tower. This used to be the Fayette County courthouse.

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Glad I got to see it, but better things were on the way. The courthouse in Columbus, for example, is one of the state’s finest. Recently restored (opening day was May 17 of this year), this towering structure is very impressive.

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At the time of my visit, the courtroom was being utilized for some reason, still unknown to me. Another courthouse patron informed us that trial court was not occurring, but he didn’t share what actually was going on. Anyway, that meant I wasn’t able to get inside the courtroom. That was unfortunate, especially because this courthouse was get restored. But from the third floor, a single window looks out on the spacious room, and I took some pictures from there.

The same man that told us it was not a trial court also told us about how the county was giving away souvenirs in celebration of the courthouse restoration. Downstairs, were magnets of the courthouse and nails from the building removed during the renovation People could take them, for free! These made interesting additions to my collection of oddball things I’ve gathered here and there on courthouse trips.

With four redos behind us (and Caldwell & Fayettville), it was time to really focus on new courthouses. The first was Wharton County. The courthouse in the city of Wharton is the design of Eugene Heiner, a Houston architect who designed many of the area’s courthouses. Most followed a similar design pattern that resembled this to some extent:

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(Photo Courtesy: THC)

However, over the years this design gradually disappeared. Nearly every courthouse in this portion of Texas is not original. Heiner’s beautiful works were demolished or burned, scarring numerous counties with modern replacements. The same thing happened with Wharton too. During the 1920s the building was heavily renovated, removing its tower and adding on additions. It became somewhat unrecognizable from its earlier form.

In 2006, the Texas Historical Commission’s Historic Texas Courthouse Preservation Program launched its biggest effort yet: the full restoration of the Wharton County courthouse back to its Heiner form. Today, the courthouse looks like it would have in Heiner’s day, the only one of this particular design left. His others in Falls, Brazos, Montgomery, Matagorda, etc. Counties are long gone to history. I’m thankful the state was able to bring this beauty back to Wharton.

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It really shines! The courtroom was locked when I visited and no county employees could be found to help out. Too bad…

#165 was next, Matagorda County. As we approached the county line, we found a crop duster flying by, which made for a cool picture. You can bet I’ll use this photo as the “cover picture” for the Matagorda County page.

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If only the courthouse was as unique as the photo I took. It’s a 1960s travesty that looks nothing more than a big metal box.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 10.37.25 AMTo top it off, my camera died in the middle of photographing this courthouse. I had to resort to my iPhone camera and I was not happy about it. We still had one more courthouse to go!

That was in Brazoria County, where an impressive three courthouses stand side by side in the city of Angleton: one from 1927, 1940, and 1976. The oldest is now a museum, but it’s the best looking of the three.

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The other two are connected with a large atrium. One is Moderne and the other is modern (note the difference, one word is a style, and one is just an adjective). The 1940s and 1970s buildings are both huge, towering structures. I tried my best to photograph with just a phone camera, but I don’t know how well I was able to capture these buildings. You’ll have to be the judge of that.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 8.36.58 PM Three courthouses, all in a row

We were getting hungry, as the time now was about 6:30. We figured there would be a good stop for seafood somewhere along the road to Galveston, so we asked around. A game warden recommended the “Red Snapper Inn,” a small restaurant in Surfside Beach. We decided to head there.

Surfside is a small town on the cusp of the ocean, in extreme southeast Brazoria County. As was passed over the large bridge into the beach community, the Atlantic spilled out before us. It was quite a sight, even if the water wasn’t as clear as it is further south in Corpus or Padre.

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The Red Snapper was just off the road. We pulled in for an excellent dinner and then left, the sun beginning to set.

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We took the “Blue Water Highway” across the thin barrier island Surfside is situated on all the way to San Luis Pass where a causeway crosses over to Galveston Island and Galveston County. We were here!

Another twenty minutes or so of passing home after home on stilts and we had reached our hotel in Galveston proper. We went to bed after this long day of courthousing. Tomorrow would be more relaxed.


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