This was our one hundred-forty-seventh Courthouse in Texas to visit. That means we are at 57.9% of our goal with 42.1% left to go.
According to the Texas Historical Commission County Atlas at http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/shell-county.htm, Austin County has had five courthouses, not counting the first courthouse that was built in San Felipe de Austin in 1837, which was the first county seat of Austin County. Founded in 1824 by Stephen F. Austin, San Felipe de Austin was evacuated and burned on March 30, 1836 in response to the news of the advancing Mexican Army during the Texas Revolution. Austin County was organized in 1837 and San Felipe de Austin was rebuilt near the site of the previous settlement. The name of the town was officially changed to San Felipe in 1840. San Felipe declined during the 1840s and a vote in 1846 relocated the county seat to Bellville which was near the center of the county.
Bellville was named for Thomas B. Bell, one of the group of settlers known as the “Old Three Hundred,” who were brought to Texas by Stephen F. Austin. Bell settled in the area of present day Bellville in 1838. He and his brother James donated land for a townsite when the county seat was relocated from San Felipe and Bellville was surveyed and laid out in 1848. The county’s second courthouse was built the same year. It was a temporary one-story log courthouse built by Benjamin L. Cheek and was accepted by the county on August 26, 1848. This structure was replaced in 1850 by the county’s third courthouse, constructed by Sam Shelburne. It was a one-story, wood frame building with a shed roofed porch. The interior of this courthouse contained a central courtroom with two offices on each side. The county’s fourth courthouse was constructed five years later. Built by Philip M. Cuny, it was completed on November 20, 1855. It was originally planned to be built next to the 1850 courthouse, but that building was sold at auction and moved. The 1855 courthouse was a two-story brick building with exterior columns and stairs which led to the jury and court rooms on the second floor. The first floor was devoted to county offices. An 1875 description of the building mentions an iron portico, part of which may have been salvaged and reused later. In 1877, an addition was built onto the 1855 courthouse and a new safe was installed. An iron veranda was added in 1880.
By 1887, construction was underway on the county’s fifth courthouse, which would be the grandest yet. The county hired Houston architect Eugene T. Heiner to design the building and Henry Kane of Gonzales, TX was the contractor. Upon seeing the 1855 courthouse in 1884, Heiner was recorded as observing that the building was “liable to fall at almost any moment.” The 1887 brick courthouse was designed in the Second Empire style which Heiner would use for similar looking courthouses in Falls and Walker counties (see Falls County Courthouse & Walker County Courthouse), built around the same time. The courthouse was three stories with a central clock tower and a Mansard roof with pedimented cupolas over the entrances on each side. The interior had a crossing hallway plan with a long axis along the east-west corridor. The upstairs courtroom stretched all the way across the second floor running north and south. This building served the county until it was destroyed by fire on April 5, 1960 (See: The Most Remembered Courthouse in Texas: Austin County’s 1888 Courthouse in Bellville.) All that remains is the clock tower bell and the cornerstone which rest on top of some of the courthouse’s original bricks, displayed in a red brick planter at the south entrance of the current courthouse.
The county’s current courthouse is the sixth for Austin County. Built in 1960-61, it was designed by Fort Worth architect Wyatt Cephas Hedrick. Hedrick joined the prominent Fort Worth architectural firm of Sanguinet and Staats in 1921 before starting his own firm in 1925 and buying out the remaining interest in Sanguinet and Staats the following year. Hedrick’s practice was active across the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s and was at one time considered the country’s third largest architectural firm. Hedrick’s popular Art-Deco and Art-Moderne designs evolved into the ultra-modern by the late 1940s and 1950s as seen in the Texas courthouses of Coke, Motley and Yoakum counties. The 1960-61 courthouse in Bellville, the last courthouse he designed before his death in 1964, is a windowless block of granite and concrete with a two-story block on top of and overlapping a smaller one-story block. There is a smaller block on the roof and a sunken basement. County offices occupy the first floor and the district courtroom spans the north end of the second floor. The courthouse sits in the center of the city square, surrounded by many older buildings. This modern courthouse is often referred to as one of the ugliest in Texas, especially considering the beautiful structure that it replaced, but it freezes in time the period in which it was built and dutifully continues to serve the county today.