Laying Down the Law

Laying Down the Law

The Courthouses of Central Texas
By Brantley Hightower
University of Texas Press, $45.00

Texas, with its 254 counties, each containing a courthouse, has far more than any other state. (Georgia, with 159 counties is a distant second). San Antonio–based architect Brantley Hightower’s slender book, The Courthouses of Central Texas, which showcases 50 examples, is a succinct tribute to one of the most admired groups of buildings in the state.

In March 1957, Architectural Record published an article, “Lockhart, Texas,” written by the English critic Colin Rowe, then teaching briefly at the University of Texas. It remains today perhaps the single most penetrating critique of the Texas courthouse as a generator of urban form. According to Rowe, while,

The place of origin of the type is presumably a matter of academic interest… it is just possible that its place of culmination is in central Texas… where the brilliance of the atmosphere lifts the most modest architectural statement to a new potential, the idea becomes completely clarified; and for the unprejudiced eye, the eye which is willing to see, a number of small towns do present themselves as very minor triumphs of urbanity… As a form of emotional complement to the interminable terrain, the impact of these four-square, geometrical, concentric little towns is discovered to be one of remarkable intensity. They have, all of them, something of the unqualified decisiveness, the diagrammatic coherence of architectural models…

Hightower seems to have been taken by this concept of the “diagrammatic coherence of architectural models.” His presentation of the courthouses as a united collection of “incongruous architectural artifacts” (18) is scrupulously regular. Selected from the counties surrounding San Antonio, Austin, and Waco, they are presented in chronological order in a neat succession from the first, built in 1970, to the last, built exactly 100 years later in 1970. Each courthouse is given a two-page spread, which includes a single black and white exterior photograph, an elevation drawing of the principle facade, a site plan showing the courthouse and the immediate surrounding blocks, and a short descriptive text giving key dates and names. The drawings are all to the same scale, in the elevations 1 inch equals 18 feet and in the site plans 1 inch equals 222 feet. (The irregular scales are presumably a result of fitting the drawings to the pages of the book.) Although the site plans indicate the main circulation corridors of the publicly accessible ground floors, in the manner of the famous 1748 Nolli Map of Rome, the book contains no interior photographs.

Hightower begins and ends the book with short explanatory chapters. In the first we learn about the main types of courthouse squares that are named after the specific towns in Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that they first appeared. In the Shelbyville square, which is the most common, the courthouse sits in the center of a single block. The Harrisonburg square is shifted over half a block so the courthouse faces a single incoming street. The Lancaster square is shifted in two directions so the courthouse faces four oncoming streets. Finally, the Two-Block square is, as its name indicates, the result of combining two blocks so that the square functions more as a public park. We learn that the reason that most of the courthouses were built in the last three decades of the 19th century was because in 1874 the Texas Legislature passed a law allowing counties to issue bonds to pay for municipal buildings.

In the concluding chapter we learn about the architects, particularly San Antonio architect J. Riely Gordon (1863–1937) who designed some 18 distinguished courthouses in Texas built in the decade between 1890 and 1902 when he relocated his practice first to Dallas and then to New York. (Of these, however, only six were built in counties included in the book.) Gordon’s designs were unique for their sculptural, centralized massing and floor plans typically containing a central square atrium connected by four angled hallways leading to quarter-circular entrance porches. The atrium, which connected to a central, windowed tower acted as a chimney drawing air up and through the building for surprisingly effective summer cooling. We also learn the reason that so many of the old courthouses look oddly fresh and new is a legacy of the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program, initially sponsored by then governor George W. Bush in 1999. Between 1999 and 2014, 180 grants were awarded to 96 counties, resulting in the full restoration of 59 courthouses across the state.

Because Hightower’s book follows several others about Texas courthouses, the question inevitably arises: What justifies this re-presentation? Hightower’s critical engagement of the subject is more implied by his methodology and selections than stated directly. He writes somewhat contradictorily, for example, that “it may seem misguided for a small community to make such a large investment in architectural spectacle.”(141) But isn’t precisely the point of these buildings to be eye-catching landmarks? He continues, “As compelling as the courthouses of central Texas may be, they are products of a time and a culture that no longer exists.” (146) But if they don’t embody repeatable, universal design values able to transcend their original context then why should an architect working today bother studying them?

As an author, he seems to have been most interested in the documentation, which visually is extremely satisfying and noteworthy in its refinement. However, to what larger end is this series of elegant drawings? Although he advocates for architecturally defined, human-scaled public urban space, it is not clear how this is to be achieved based on his portfolio of courthouses. As a contrast, when architect Clovis Heimsath wrote his manifesto-like book about the vernacular architecture in central Texas, Pioneer Texas Buildings: a Geometry Lesson (1968), he concluded quite strongly:

We can talk about the geometry of these early Texas buildings and that is their glory, but it is the poignancy of the environment they create, set in the Hill Country, that is the “why” of this book… I want these houses to speak out against the sham of current American domestic architecture. The fraud is so appalling, it becomes the aesthetic sin of the age by its very magnitude: that we snug Americans can live in our endless four-square rooms with our endless eight-foot-high ceilings while the outsides say everything stylistically under the sun is a fraud—we want it, so we have it. (153)

Heimsath’s selection of diagrams and photos provided a design methodology for generating new forms created through geometric re-combinations of the base components of the buildings he documented. Hightower as an architect begins a similar process in a series of evocative diagrams where he layers the courthouse elevations over each other to create the shadowy outlines of an ur-courthouse form. However, this exercise only appears on three pages before it is abandoned. It is at points like this, where the author starts to manipulate his carefully gleaned data in intriguing ways, that one wishes he would have continued. What would have made this book—significantly written by an architect instead of an historian—more meaningful is if it presented a method for synthesizing the architectural and spatial elements of the courthouses and their urban precincts to make new designs that possess the pleasing qualities of the old.