This was our eightieth Courthouse in Texas to visit. That means we are at 31.5% of our goal with 68.5% left to go.
Early settler Moses L. Choate founded the town of Springfield near the Trinity River in the Texas Piney Woods in the 1830s. When Polk County was organized in 1846, cut from northern Liberty County, Springfield was chosen as the county seat, not only for its central location, but because of Choate’s offer of land in exchange for renaming the town Livingston after his home town in Tennessee. When San Jacinto County was organized in 1870, the town of Livingston found itself on the southwest boundary of the county, but it has remained the county seat.
The county’s first courthouse was a $10.00, one-room log cabin built by Texas Revolutionary War veteran John English in 1846. It was built on a hill where all the subsequent courthouses were built. This was only meant to be a temporary courthouse. The second courthouse was completed in 1847 and was a larger, one-story log cabin measuring 26’ x 22’ x 20’. It was built by James Andress, a local civic leader and innkeeper, at a cost of $347.00. Andress moved the first courthouse down the hill and attached it to his inn where it was used as a kitchen. The Andress Inn was demolished in 1911, but a Texas historical marker south of the current courthouse identifies its former location. The county’s third courthouse was a 40’ x 40’ two-story structure built of brick in 1854, costing just under $6,000. Thirty years later, the third courthouse was so thoroughly renovated, receiving a new stone facade, that a new courthouse emerged. The renovated 1854 courthouse became the county’s fourth courthouse in 1884. It was built of stone and brick and designed by popular Houston architect Eugene T. Heiner in his familiar Second Empire style. The renovation cost $17, 500 and the contractor was W. C. Wells. A white fence was built around the courthouse square at this time to keep roving livestock off the grounds. In 1902, downtown Livingston was destroyed by fire, reportedly caused by a disgruntled liquor salesman upset with the county’s ban on the sale of alcohol. The 1884 courthouse was the only downtown building that survived.
Within ten years, the county had outgrown the 1884 courthouse which led to the building of an annex. In 1905, a 23’ x 43’ courthouse annex was built of locally made red brick on the southwest corner of the courthouse square. It was designed by Houston architect Lewis Sterling Green. The annex still stands today as the county’s oldest government building. Green used the same design for the 1908 Trinity County records building in Groveton which was later incorporated into the current Trinity County courthouse designed by the Page Bros. of Austin.
The construction of the county’s fifth and current courthouse began in 1923. Houston contractor Isaac Young had cleared the foundation by July and the cornerstone was laid on November 12, 1923. The brick and concrete courthouse was built in the Classical Revival style (in the case of this courthouse, also referred to as Texas Renaissance) with Beaux-Arts details such as large entrance columns, arched windows, a cross-axial floor plan and a flat roof with decorative balustrades. The county hired the Houston architectural firm of McLelland and Fink to design the building. Born in Scotland, John McLelland practiced in other areas of the country before settling in Houston in 1911 where he designed several public schools. He was the city architect of Houston from 1919-20 and he died suddenly in 1929. Little is known about his partnership with Fink. This courthouse was the first courthouse for Polk County to have electricity, indoor plumbing, a furnace for steam heating, telephones and drinking water from another source other than from roof run-off. The courthouse was used for political and social functions and contained a community auditorium, library, post office, American Legion Hall and a jury dormitory with showers. The building’s total cost was $178,740 and it was completed in 1924. The first commissioners court was held on October 6, 1924.
Although still resembling its original exterior configuration, several changes have been made to this building over the years. When the ceilings were lowered to add air conditioning ducts in 1957, the top part of the arched second floor windows were painted white. The frieze displaying the words “Polk County Court House” was originally buff colored with white letters but was painted white with black letters in the 1950s. An exterior elevator shaft was added to the northwest corner in 1968 and more air conditioning units were added in 1970. A proposed restoration plan includes the return of the building’s original exterior features, including the removal of the elevator shaft, restoring the lampposts on the brick pedestals flanking the staircases and restoring the original oak doors with transoms. On the inside, the original offices would be restored as would the two-story district courtroom with upper balcony.