1910 Courthouse Restored to Classical Revival, Beaux-Arts Beauty

Check out our slideshow to see pics of the newly reopened courthouse.

You may have missed Harris County's 1910 courthouse the past couple of years. The building, off Fannin and Preston downtown, has been shrouded by fencing and dwarfed by neighboring more modern court buildings since 2008, when it closed for a renovation that would restore it to the Beaux-Arts beauty it was when it first opened 100 years ago.

This morning, district court dignitaries, architects and others gathered in the building for a ribbon cutting and re-dedication meant to honor the courthouse as it was originally conceived. One of the biggest aspects of restoration was the replacement of ornamental plaster detailing that lent beauty and interest to the courthouse's interior.

Tomorrow at 7 p.m., master plasterer Matt Henson will speak about his role in the work and the courthouse's architectural history.

A courthouse has stood on the site since 1838, but the various buildings have gone through several iterations. According to retired Judge Mark Davidson of the 11th District Court, who spoke at the event, the first five drafts of the Texas constitution prevented counties from borrowing money from the state, so Harris County's early courthouses were rather humble. After the state passed an amendment allowing for the issuance of bonds to the county, the "golden age of Texas courthouses" began.

The 1910 courthouse (which was actually formally dedicated in 1911) served just 115,000 residents. It had no air conditioning, and water troughs for horses remained on site until the 1940s, long after Texans were riding horses to court. The building was constructed of sparkling pink Texas granite with lush marble walls and floors inside. At the time, it was a main hub for Houstonians and citizens of Harris County, some who fought the repossession of their houses between those walls during the Depression Era, and others who watched trials for entertainment in the absence of television or modern luxuries.

In 1954, the courthouse underwent a renovation that completely changed its interior, desecrating it, according to some. While adding modern luxuries like air conditioning, much of the ornamental plaster was destroyed or covered up, and the center rotunda that now offers views of the stained glass dome was filled in, enclosing the double marble stairways that are the center piece of the courthouse.

Those changes have now been reversed (as best as possible in the absence of complete documentation of the building's original construction) thanks to experts like Henson and engineering firm Walter P. Moore, whose Web site has more pictures detailing the challenges faced during the project.

Building Arts Distinguished Lecture Series Presents Plaster Restoration of the 1910 Harris County Courthouse by Matt Henson Sr., Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 7 p.m. in The Heritage Society Tea Room, 1100 Bagby, Houston, TX 77002. Complimentary parking is available behind the Kellum-Noble House; Visitors should enter the lot from Allen Parkway inbound. No cost for members, nonmembers are $5.

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