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.
On 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.
The 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 a new 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.
Masons 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.”
The 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.
But 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.
“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.”
On September 9 the county began advertising for bids to build a new courthouse. Clip is from the September 30 Fort Worth Standard.
Back 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.”
On October 28 the Fort Worth Standard announced that work on the new courthouse had begun.
When 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.)
This engraving is from the 1882 city directory.
As 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.”
About 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.)
Fast-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.
On 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.
On Sepember 22, 1894 the Gazette reported on the progress of construction. The exterior walls were up; the clock tower would rise soon.
Stone 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.
On 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 120 years and counting.
Some photos of courthouse no. 4:
A 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.
And inside, on a stair railing on the fourth floor, an iron worker inserted a spring from a stove handle.
With 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.