Four Square: Four Courthouses, One Square

The plot of ground bounded by Houston, Commerce, Belknap, and Weatherford streets is the symbolic center not only of the city but also of the county. It’s the courthouse square, and the power and prestige that have resided in the four buildings that have occupied that plot since 1857 have inspired politicking, chicanery, and even bloodshed.

The first Fort Worth courthouse, built in 1857, was a modest seat of government: wood frame, three rooms, paid for by civic leader E. M. Daggett after Fort Worth, eh, outstrategized Birdville in the first do-over election for county seat in 1856.

57 courthouse foundation 8-29-57 dwhOn August 29, 1857 the Dallas Weekly Herald reported that work on the courthouse foundation was progressing.

No image of that first Fort Worth courthouse exists.

58 courthouse bill 1-30-58 TSGThe 1856 election stuck in Birdville’s craw, and, eager for a second do-over, in 1858 Birdville proponents, led by state Senator A. G. Walker of Birdville, successfully lobbied the legislature to call another county seat election. To sweeten the pot, Cowtown partisans led by Daggett promised to build a more substantial courthouse for Fort Worth—at no expense to taxpayers—if Fort Worth retained the county seatdom in the third election. Clip is from the January 30, 1858 Texas State Gazette.

In January 1859 forty-one Fort Worth partisans, among them Daggett, Abe Harris, Middleton Tate Johnson, Julian Feild, Press Farmer, Dr. Adolph Gounah, and Dr. Carroll Peak, raised $2,700 by subscription to build a courthouse of brick and stone. The two-story, eight-room building would measure fifty by sixty feet.

Contractors David Mauck and Jere Asbury promised to finish the courthouse in 1859. Most of the work would be done by Mauck’s slaves.

60 courthouse cornerstone 3-14-60 dwhMasons laid the cornerstone for the new courthouse on March 10, 1860. The Dallas Weekly Herald wrote on March 14: “Last Saturday was a gala day for the good people of Fort Worth. The corner stone of the new Court House was laid with appropriate Masonic honors.”

Senator Walker’s bill acknowledged that Fort Worth was already building a new courthouse before the third election. His bill stipulated that if Fort Worth won the election, then the contractors would have one year after the April 1860 election to finish the courthouse.

And it came to pass that the if happened, but the then didn’t, at least not for a while: In April 1860 Fort Worth won—cleanly—the election, and Mauck and Asbury got back to work on the new courthouse. But then along came a distraction: the Civil War. Work on the courthouse was suspended as men went off to war and the economy lagged.

In fact, when future civic leader Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt arrived in Fort Worth in 1865, he recalled later, the struggling town “presented a sad and gloomy picture.” “A courthouse,” he wrote, “had been started in 1860. The rock walls had been built up as high as the first story, and there the work had stopped. The very look of those walls accentuated the picture of desolation.”

66 courthouse 1876 morseThe courthouse begun in 1860 was not finished until well after Van Zandt moved to Fort Worth as the economy revived. When Colonel John Wien Forney visited Fort Worth in 1872 he observed that the courthouse was “unfinished.”  This Morse bird’s-eye-view map of 1876 shows that second courthouse.

76 courthouse fire 3-30-76 ddh 2But then upon the war-delayed courthouse was visited a catastrophe that seemed almost mandatory for county courthouses in the nineteenth century: fire. On March 29, 1876 the building and most of the records therein burned. Note that the March 30 Dallas Daily Herald refers to Fort Worth as “the Hill City,” yet another of Fort Worth’s nicknames. Also note that a “gentleman” traveling from Fort Worth to Dallas had given the Herald an extra edition published by B. B. Paddock’s Democrat. The railroad did not yet link the two cities, so that gentleman had traveled by horse.

court standard 3-30-76 page 3“Cremated!” The Fort Worth Standard of March 30 put the story on page 3, noting that “This is about the 30th courthouse that has been burned in Texas within the past ten years.”

76 courthouse bids 9-9-76 dfwsOn September 9 the county began advertising for bids to build a new courthouse. Clip is from the September 30 Fort Worth Standard.

76 courthouse plans oked 10-7-76 dwhBack to the drawing board. On October 7, 1876 the Dallas Weekly Herald reported via the Democrat that plans for a new $65,000 ($1.4 million today) courthouse and jail had been accepted. Paddock later wrote that the firm of Thomas & Werner was given the contract to build a courthouse of “surface stone gathered on the prairies in the vicinity of Fort Worth.”

76 10-28 work beginsOn October 28 the Fort Worth Standard announced that work on the new courthouse had begun.

On December 28 the Democrat reported that the cornerstone had been laid.

77A courthouse photo 1879 UTALWhen finished in 1877 the new (third) courthouse had four wings, an atrium dome, and an observation tower, as shown in this 1879 photo taken on market day at the square. To the left (east) can be seen the two-story Masonic lodge with belfry. The bell from that belfry is now at the Masonic lodge on Henderson Street. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

A view from the courthouse on Market Day in the late 1870s. (Photo from Jack White Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

77A courthouse 82 CDThis engraving is from the 1882 city directory.

77 courthouse opinion 6-10-77 ddhAs the new courthouse was being completed, the Dallas Daily Herald sent a reporter to Fort Worth and on June 10, 1877 reported that the new courthouse looked like “a cross between a Chinese joss house [temple] and a balloon” but then admitted that the building was “comfortable, commodious, and . . . sightly.”

77A courthouse muralThe courthouse appears in Richard Haas’s Chisholm Trail mural on the former headquarters of Northern Texas Traction Company on Sundance Square Plaza.

77B courthouse in 82 with new 3rd floor TCCNEAbout 1882 the 1877 courthouse was remodeled; architect J. J. Kane converted the dome into office space. The observation tower became a fifty-foot clock tower with four dials, each eight feet in diameter. (Photo from Tarrant County College NE.)

court mine fullFast-forward to 1893. The county had outgrown the 1877 courthouse. So, the county approved $500,000 ($13.7 million today) to build a new courthouse. The construction contract was let on September 23, 1893 to the Probst company of Chicago; work began on October 24.


94 courthouse cornerstone 3-18-94 dmnOn March 18, 1894 the Dallas Morning News reported that on March 17 the cornerstone had been laid. The report listed the artifacts that were placed in the cornerstone for posterity.

94 courthouse raving 9-22 gazOn Sepember 22, 1894 the Gazette reported on the progress of construction. The exterior walls were up; the clock tower would rise soon.

Under construction in 1894. Note the billboard by A. J. Roe‘s lumber company. (Photos from Jack White Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

court mine starStone carvers, the Gazette reported, had required 987 hours to craft the bas-relief of the pediment over the front entrance.

Even though the new courthouse would cost less than the $500,000 allocated, voters apparently thought that sum a great extravagance and rejected all four county commissioners at the next election in November 1894.

95 courthouse accepted 6-30-95 dmnOn June 30, 1895 the Dallas Morning News reported that Tarrant county commissioners had accepted the new “temple of justice.” The courthouse was built of red granite from Burnet County and is reminiscent of the state capitol. Note that a tunnel connected the courthouse to the county jail.

But whereas the first three courthouses had stood for a total of thirty-eight years, perhaps the extravagance that voters had balked at in 1894 is what has allowed courthouse no. 4 to stand for 124 years.

Some photos of courthouse no. 4:

court balusterA classic courthouse would be incomplete without some quirks. Outside, on a balustrade of the east wing, one of the balusters is upside down. See the V taper of the second baluster from the left? The other balusters have an A taper.

court springAnd inside, on a stair railing on the fourth floor, an iron worker inserted a spring from a stove handle.

court west endWith demolition of the adjacent Civil Courts Building, the new view from the west is the old view from the west, complete with a new portico.

look up courthouse dome horsecourt mine wellcourt mine towercourt mine stained glasscourt mine portalsJPGcourt mine handlecourt mine dome (2)court mine columnscourt mine bannistercourt mine archcourt mine 3-4court cornerstonecourt clock night 1

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15 Responses to Four Square: Four Courthouses, One Square

  1. Barney B. Holland, Jr. says:


    I was told by an old and reliable but, possibly fallible friend, that Fort Worth’s first surveyor was a man named “Gardner”. The 1874 map we have has a name on the back that, while not as legible or as neatly written as everything on the map appears to be “T. J. Gardner”.

    However, Julia Kathryn Garrett’s history, “Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph” records on Page 309-310:
    “A sign of progress in 1870 was the sight just off the public square (now Court House Square) of William Alexander Darter, peering into his surveyor’s level, and signaling to his brother, J. H. Darter, and T. C. Gambrell. They were surveying the streets of Fort Worth from the square southward, with the intersecting streets.”

    This accurately describes what is depicted in the 1874 map so it is possible that this map was created prior to 1874. I have ‘dated’ it then simply because the petition to which it is attached is dated 1874.

    Additionally, an earlier post of yours is a copy of The Standard newspaper article of March 30, 1876 stating: “The presiding officer, J.S. Morris, informed us they had secured the Darter building on Houston street for the purposes of holding court until the courthouse could be rebuilt.”

    This seems to confirm the name Darter though it does not identify his profession.

    Do you have any knowledge of an early Fort Worth surveyor named “Gardner” of are you inclined to ‘vote’ for “Darter”?

    Still researching . . .



    • hometown says:

      Mr. Holland, anything I could add would be anecdotal at best. The 1873, 1877, and 1878 Democrat, 1876 Standard, and 1877 city directory list W. A. Darter as county surveyor. That does not mean no one else did surveying or made maps. I do not find a T. J. Gardner in the city directory or the newspapers of the 1870s. The 1877 city directory lists three Darters.
      Darter’s obituary in 1929 says he “made the survey which subsequently established the lines of Main and Houston streets” and “as first county surveyor he laid out the greater part of the business district of the city.”
      Paddock writes in 1922: “In 1870 Mr. Darter returned to Fort Worth and from then on was engaged in surveying. He surveyed Houston and Main streets, through Daggett’s field and the Pioneer’s Rest in that same year. In 1872 Mr. Darter was elected county surveyor of Tarrant County, which office he held six years. He was the only one who saved records when the court house burned in 1876. During that year he made the first complete map of Tarrant County, which is still being used by the commissioner of the General Land Office as the official map of the county.”

    • Andy Nold says:

      Filed in Tarrant County Deed Records, Volume 309, Page 44 is a plat of the Pioneer’s Rest Cemetery (formerly known as Old City Cemetery). It is signed by W.A. Darter and dated July 31, 1911 who attests that he laid the cemetery out in 1870 for the cemetery board of trustees, K.M. Van Zandt, M.B. Loyd and W.P. Burts.

      Mr. Holland, I would love to get a copy of the map of Main and Houston Streets. I am currently working on a resurvey of part of Block 97 and it would be great to see the old map. Apparently there is no record of the Original Town of Fort Worth plat as I assume it was consumed in the courthouse fire.

  2. Jennifer Franklin says:

    I’m lucky enough to work at the courthouse, on the first floor. My co-workers and I weren’t aware of the quirks in the east wing balustrade or the stair railing, so thank you for including such interesting little tidbits. We’re going to see if we can find them today, during our lunch hour. 🙂

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Jennifer. Enjoy your courthouse “Easter egg hunt.” As I recall, the upside-down baluster is hard to spot.

  3. Barney B. Holland, Jr. says:


    These may be of interest to you.

    I have come into the possession of a beautiful little 1874 holographic map, (7/1/2″ X 8″) on linen, (possibly by Gardner) of the area around the Tarrant County Court House in the M. Baugh Survey.

    The map shows the confluence of the Clear Fork and a reach of the West Fork of the Trinity River in blue and identifies the A Gouhenant Survey.

    It is attached to a holographic “Petition To Open Streets” from Tidball, Boaz and other owners in Block 123 to divide the 460’x 460′ Block bounded by Elm & Pecan on the East & West with Belknap to the South and open land on the North into four 200′ x 200′ blocks in return for donating the 60′ wide street right of ways north to south and east to west through Block 123. Also Ordinance 61 “Opening and Extending Certain Streets” “Filed Aug. 13, 1874”

    Also some 40+/- Deeds, Warranty Deeds, etc. (Overtons, Boaz, H.W. Davis, etc., from the late 19th Century transactions that also may be of interest as the earlier ones were not in the Court House when in burned or made it back to the new Court House.

    Also Gov. E. M Pease’s Grant of a League of Land in Tarrant County to Hiram Little dated the 5th of March 1856 and a holographic Deed of a May 31, 1870 sale from Hiram Little to John A. Thornton of 1,303 acres for $1954.00 or $1.50 per acre.



    • hometown says:

      I’m glad that a member of a family who has been in Fort Worth as long as yours is custodian of these historic documents.

  4. Alexei Dukov says:

    Mike, thank you for your commitment to documenting Fort Worth history. I’m a member of the FW Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. One of our members, Arthur Wienman, AIA, was responsible for the restoration of the clock tower completed in 2012. I was wondering if you have ever been approached to give tours, on foot or bike, to talk about local landmarks? We would love to hear from you.
    Sharing a personal photo from the annex demolition:

    • hometown says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Alexei. I have a post on Arthur’s grandfather and mention Arthur’s tower restoration in another post. I long ago gave up all forms of public speaking (and the public has been grateful ever since). With the annex gone, I’d love to see Frenchman’s Well put back where it once was. It and Lawrence Steel’s bell surely are the oldest relics of Fort Worth.

  5. Daniel Lamb says:

    Mike, do you have any idea when the Courthouse Market opened for business. We have a baseball jersey in the Stockyards Museum that has “C ourthouse Market” on the back and a red longhorn head on the front. We are trying to determine the age of the piece. Looks to be pre 1910, but we do not know if the Courthouse Market (by that name) was in business that early.

    • hometown says:

      Daniel, I can’t tell you much. No business by that name is in the 1914 city directory, but newspaper ads for Courthouse Market begin to appear in 1915.

  6. Sharon K. Walker says:

    Interesting and extremely informative. The pictures awesomely help to tell the story. This is a wonderful production on your part. Thanks immensely, and keep up the great work on our fantastic Ft. Worth.

  7. Bev. Nabors says:

    Beautiful pictures and history, Mike. I look forward to viewing Hometown by Handlebar every time that I see one. We are so fortunate in Fort Worth to have someone like you as well as Billy Joe! Please keep them coming!!! By this time I am addicted!
    Thanks, Beverly

    • hometown says:

      Beverly, thank you so much for your words of support. I have worked on Hometown like a full-time job for almost six years now.

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