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The Trinity County Courthouse History and Architectural Description

The 1914 Trinity County Courthouse is an excellent example of an early 20th century Beaux Arts style courthouse in a rural Texas county.  The Courthouse is the centerpiece of three County Government buildings located on a square in the center of town. The linear planned, 19,000 Square foot Courthouse building has a three-story central section flanked by two-story wings. The load bearing masonry walls, faced in red brick, rest on a raised concrete perimeter beam and slab.

The entry portico, balustraded parapet, cast concrete masonry accents, and painted metal cornice work defines the Beaux Arts Classical style.

Though the exterior brick is in good condition, the windows, doors and metal cornice are in poor condition and the electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems pose a fire hazard and should be replaced.

The Courthouse has undergone only minor alterations over it’s life, including the addition of an accessible ramp on the back side and the addition of air conditioning and lay-in ceilings on the interior. The central corridors and stairwells have never been air-conditioned and retain their original finishes.

The courthouse is flanked on the west by the Jail and The Rock Building to the east.  The compact, rectangular planned, two-story jail, constructed of dressed fieldstone, evokes the solidity, security and power of the Richardsonian Romanesque style.  The “Rock Building”, built of local random laid fieldstone, is more residential in scale with the exception of the crenellated, arched entry portico.  Both buildings were built by the Work Projects Administration in 1939 and are in fair condition.

The Courthouse serves as a powerful centering focus on the prominent site, and is flanked by two historic Works Progress Administration buildings that, like the courthouse, have been in continuous use as a county agency. Together, these buildings create a place that provides an important local government function, creates a community focal point and provides a sense of local identity within its historic context.

Site

The courthouse square is the focal point of the community.  The square is slightly elevated, with cultivated and landscaped lawns and flowerbeds (re: Site Plan included in this section).  The courthouse has an imposing presence on the square that overlooks the main street of the downtown Groveton Square.  It is located at the intersection of two major highways, US 287 (West First Street) and SR 94 (West Second Street).  Existing American elm trees are lined across the front and at other locations around the grounds. There are two Texas Historical Markers on the front side of the site near the street parking lot between the jail and the courthouse.  The 1982 Texas Historical Marker titled “Trinity County Seats” and the 1991 Texas Historical Marker titled “Groveton”.  Two other monuments are located on the south side between the jail and the courthouse.  One designates the 1929 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey magnetic station for the Center of Trinity County.  The other monument marks a time capsule buried in 1979 by the Trinity County Historical Commission to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Texas Historical Commission.  A decorative concrete bench located at the northeast corner of the site was placed there in 1982, marking a time capsule placed by the Pineywoods Heritage Society to commemorate the Centennial of Groveton as the Trinity County Seat. The courthouse sidewalk system accommodates access around the perimeter of the courthouse and to the three buildings.

Trinity County Courthouse

The Trinity County Courthouse, designed by architect C. H. Page, was built in 1914.  Mr. Page was ordered by the Trinity County Commissioner’s Court to design a courthouse that would incorporate a previous building that had been built on the site in 1908, known as the records vault.  The records vault building was designed by in 1908 by architect, L. S. Green in the Beaux Arts style.  The courthouse designed by C. H. Page seamlessly incorporated the 1908 records vault wing (re: Courthouse Building Photos included in this section).

The cast in place concrete foundation, painted white, forms a plinth for the building. The white plinth, masonry accents, cornice and wood windows stand out against the red face brick. The footprint of the courthouse building is more linear than rectangular and incorporates characteristic features of the Beaux Arts style including brick pilasters, window surrounds with decorative white cast stone detailing, parapet at the roofline, a wide dentilated cornice and accent band, a pedimented main entry portico with balustraded parapet above and pedimented secondary entries.  

The building has a three story central section flanked on either side with a two-story wing.  The north and south elevations are 15 bays wide and the narrower east and west elevations are only 1 bay wide with brick pilasters separating each bay. 

Each elevation of the courthouse wings and center volume are similarly detailed and arranged.  The south side of the building facing West First Street is the focal point of the building.  Wide steps leading to each of the three front entries are flanked on either side with concrete plinths.  There are three entrances on the south elevation and three entrances on the north elevation. Each doorway has massive wood doors, embellished with concentric raised circles, set beneath a transom window covered with decorative metal grilles, a white metal pediment, and flanked by brick pilasters.  The main entry features a three-story portico with four Tuscan columns and pilasters and a pair of copper clad doors. 

Each elevation features symmetrically placed windows.  Most of the original wood sash windows are intact throughout the building.  Window frames, trim and mullions are painted white.  Each window has a brick surround with white cast concrete and corner accents.  The windows on the first floor are single 12/2 double hung separated by brick pilasters.  The second-story windows are two sets of 4/4 sash windows separated by a center mullion.  The third-story windows are smaller pairs 4/4 sash windows separated by a center mullion.  Air conditioning units were added to the some of the windows over the years.  The 1908 wing has the original iron bars installed on the first floor windows. 

The 1914 courthouse is a linear central hall plan with offices on either side of the hall (re: Courthouse Floor Plan in this section).  Stairs at the east and west secondary entrances provide access to the upper floors.  Marble wainscoting of the first floor main entry is original to the building.  The light fixtures in the main hallway appear to be historic gaslights, which have been electrified.  Further research is being conducted to accurately date the electrical fixtures through out the building.  Most of the original office doors with overhead transoms are in place throughout the building. 

The current Trinity County Courthouse is the first to have electricity and indoor plumbing and was originally heated with steam. Individual offices now have window type heating and cooling units.  Two original fireplaces are located in the first and second floor of the original 1908 wing.  They have been sealed, but the original mantels and surrounds remain.

To reduce heating and cooling costs, lay in ceilings in the offices and courtroom and central air conditioning for the courtroom were installed in 1961 (Welch, June and Nance, Larry, The Texas Courthouse, p. 324).   The historic plaster ceilings and wood crown moulding remain above these suspended ceilings throughout the building. Hallways remain as originally constructed, having never been air conditioned.

Above the lay in ceiling in the courtroom is a treasure of historic plaster truncated arches, elaborate plaster crown molding, clerestory windows and vintage light fixtures.  The light fixtures are not original to the courtroom; rather they appear to date around the 1940’s. 

Though plans were drawn up for an elevator in the 70’s it was never installed.

With the exception of a fire escape, handicapped ramp on the north elevation, and the addition of window air conditioning units, the exterior appearance of the courthouse remains as it did upon completion in 1914.

The Courthouse Architect

C.H. Page and Brothers was an Austin-based firm that has evolved into the present firm of Page Southerland Page.  Over a period of more than sixty years in architectural practice, Charles Henry Page and his brother Louis, designed hundreds of churches, schools and private buildings.  The Page Brothers designed the Anderson County, Williamson County and Nueces County courthouses, which all date to the same period as Trinity’s Courthouse.  The Architects went on to design in the Moderne style in the 1930’s, which is demonstrated in the Hunt County, Orange County and Travis County courthouses.  Despite sharing Classical Revival styling, Trinity Courthouse is quite different from these other courthouses.  Trinity’s floor plan is much more loosely arranged and the overall footprint of the building is much more linear than rectangular.  This linear organization may be due to an attempt to locate the courthouse as close to the center of the public square and on axis with the intersecting streets as possible.  Because the new courthouse (1914) courthouse was built on to the 1908 records storage structure that was located to one side of the old courthouse, the location of the new structure on the site was limited.  Given the budget and building program, the architect may have had to “stretch” the building out from the existing records storage facility toward the west to get as close to the center of the site (re: Sanborn Maps in this section). 

The Jail Building

Constructed of dressed fieldstone laid in an ashlar pattern the Jail projects the solidity, security and weight of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, but with very little detail or ornament.  The jail building is located on the square to the west of the courthouse.  The two-story Jail Building was built in 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under President Roosevelt.  Architect, O. L. Hazelwood was hired by the county on February 13, 1939 to “Supervise the work generally and see that the intent of the plans and specifications are carried out.  To act as Owner’s agent in any conference with WPA officials concerning methods of construction or materials purchased.”

A bronze plaque over the front door reads “Works Progress Administration 1938-1939.”  The bronze statue of a lion at the jail’s entry is a familiar fixture, which locals associate with the historic stone building, although its origin remains unknown. The jail was built primarily of rough laid stone with subtle detailing, sculptured in concrete, at the entry level and between the upper and lower windows (re: Jail Photos included in this section).  The stone corners of the south part of the building are chamfered and there is a concrete band around the entire building at first floor windowsill height.  The building is three bays wide and seven bays deep.  It clearly represents the appearance of a rural East Texas Jail in substance and fortitude.  All the windows and sashes are metal and covered with the original iron security bars set in the concrete masonry.  The first and second-story windows in the front volume are separated by concrete spandrels. The front door on the south elevation is a solid metal door.  A solid metal door, covered with iron security bars is on the east elevation. The roof is a low-sloped, hipped metal with painted metal gutters and downspouts.  There is no soffit and the gutter covers the fascia.  The front elevation and volume is slightly larger than the rear elevation.  The current floor plan for first floor holds the kitchen, control room, Sheriff’s office, dispatch, restrooms and storage rooms (re: Jail Floor Plan included in this section).  The stairway to the second floor is in the center of the floor plan.  The second floor current floor plan holds an office, holding cell, and four separate holding cells.  There is a separate in-mate exercise area on the north elevation.  The structure has one access gate to the high chain link surround and chain link-covered roof.  On the west elevation is an employee and service dirt parking lot. 

The Rock Building

With the exception on the crenellated, arched entry portico, the “Rock Building” is residential in scale and proportion.  Known as “The Rock Building” to Courthouse employees was built in 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under President Roosevelt.  The original name to identify the building was the A. and L. Building (Agriculture and Library Building).  There is a bronze plaque on the front entry porch that reads, “Works Progress Administration 1935 to 1937”.  Ben R. Richards was hired by the county as supervising Architect of the A. and L. Building on November 10, 1936.  No original plans are known to exist for this building.  The rock building is located on the southeast corner of the courthouse square and is constructed at the street level. The fall in elevation from the courthouse to the rock building occurs just east of the courthouse and slopes down to the street level of the rock building site. The exterior load bearing walls are solid rough stone, with wide, smeared finished mortar joint (re: Rock Building Photos included in this section). The stone structure is in sound condition although little original interior fabric remains.  Built as a single story building, a second floor was later added in a portion of the attic space and dormers were installed on the south side.  The building has three sections, front, middle and rear.  Masonry walls are built on a perimeter foundation with a small crawl space under the floor.  The roof is a composition shingle roof, gable parapets, flashing with gutters and downspouts.  The three dormers that appear on the south elevation roof are sheathed in texture plywood and have aluminum windows inserted in painted wood frames.  The main entry doors on the south side are glass and aluminum storefront and there is an exterior wood door on the north side.  The massive, crenellated arched stone entry porch, juxtaposed against the more residential proportions of the flanking gables and small dormers creates a curious composition at the main entry on the south side of the building.  Timber lintels span the openings.  The roof of the entry porch is drained through stone scuppers on the front of the parapet and the soffit is painted wood.  The east and west parapet walls of the front (south) section are covered in layers of roofing mastic while the top of all the other walls are covered by a roof overhang.  The gables, window frames and trim of the building are painted in an antique white color.  The windowsills are cast concrete and there are painted lintels above all the windows. 

The windows that are placed symmetrically around the building are 6/6 wood sash windows separated by center mullions.  The interior offices on the first floor are entered from a central hall that begins at the front entrance (re: Rock Building Floor Plan included in this section).  The stairway to the second floor is located within this hallway.  The second floor offices are accessed through a reception area at the stairway entrance.  The second story offices are located in the front section of the building and an attic space is located over the middle and rear sections of the building.  The Rock Building first floor currently holds the Groveton Public Library, offices for the District Attorney, Probation Department and Department of Human Services.  The second floor holds the offices of The Game Warden and County Extension Agent.  Compact, well-trimmed evergreen bushes extend across the front of the building, and sporadically around the parameter of the building.  

The Trinity County Courthouse, Jail and “Rock Building” have undergone very little modification over the years while continuing to serve their county government function. They have provided continuity, community identity and focus that binds a community. Through good preservation practice and system upgrades, these buildings and this site can continue to provide that vital community function.