This was our twenty-sixth Courthouse in Texas to visit. That means we are at 10.2% of our goal with 89.8% left to go.
Titus County has technically had five courthouses. Four of them built prior to 1870. The fifth (and current) courthouse dates from 1895, although you would never know it. Looking like a cross between the Battleship Texas and a geometrically challenged Mexican pyramid, the Titus County Courthouse is one you’ll never forget.
Sometimes, facts need facing. Some buildings are just plain ugly. To borrow a phrase from Susan DuQuesnay Bankston, some buildings are so ugly “they’ll wrinkle your pants if you walk in front of them.” The current Titus County Courthouse is one of these. Calling it “The Ugliest Courthouse in Texas” is not done to be cruel – nor is it just our opinion. The words spring involuntarily from the lips of most first-time viewers. We have even heard it from several Titus Countians, and in fact, its ugliness is sometimes bragged about.
The building started out as a rather above-average building when it was first built in 1895. If you think of courthouses as schoolgirls, then the 1895 courthouse was the girl next door. Pretty, but not fancy. It was a composite of typical contemporary designs. It was not a “wedding-cake” courthouse, and it was not ostentatious.
The primary purpose of a courthouse is not to look good. It is to provide a place for justice to be administered and to keep juries out of the rain. And while we are on the subject of inclement weather, we’d like to say that in Texas, it was a major factor in courthouse design. After the first six or eight towers were blown off their moorings, some counties got smart and voluntarily dismantled them before disaster struck. By the time the Great Depression made it’s appearance, many courthouses in Texas had already been altered to the Modern style – which was in vogue at the time. Efficient and modern streamlining = good. Ornamentation and decoration = bad. The Federal Government needed to create make-work projects and what better place to start a make-work project than in the center of town?
Across Texas Beaux-arts and Victorian masterpieces were dismantled or destroyed to make way for the clean, sleek lines of Modern and Art Deco. Here in Titus County, however, the courthouse was not razed. County commissioners figured it was easier and less costly to remove just enough of the old so it could be covered by the new.
In 1940 the courthouse received the first of several remodeling projects. It was new and shiny, and people just knew that they would get used to it – given enough time. Then, in the early 1960s, when the country was in the throes of “urban renewal” fever, another remodeling took place. The nearly windowless design was completed by 1962 and had all the success of an operation performed to correct bad plastic surgery. A third remodeling was done in 1990 and by then this architectural Frankenstein was gaining a statewide reputation.
Oscar Wilde once said, “The one thing worse than being talked about – is not being talked about” and so we are happy that Titus County has its distinctive landmark. Perhaps the next time a make-work project is needed, County Commissioners can peel off the layers of progress and reveal a hardly used beauty.
The second ugliest courthouse in Texas? Our survey is not complete, but according to exit polls, the Ector County Courthouse of Odessa is a front-runner. Coincidentally, it is another “severely improved building” – an 1938 design encased under a new facade.
In the mid-1890s, as Titus County completed its fifth and present courthouse at Mount Pleasant, county officials hung a large bell in a tower atop the building. As it tolled the hours and half-hours, the bell became a beloved fixture in the town. From the bell’s sounds, people set their clocks, opened their businesses, and planned their schedules.
But in 1940, the county removed the bell tower to add a fourth floor and, in the sixties, slapped an aluminum skin on the courthouse, earning it the title of “the ugliest courthouse in Texas.”
Although the bell no longer rang out the hours and half-hours, it was placed behind a glass case on the first floor of the courthouse. But, thanks to Claude Alexander and the Titus County Historical Commission, the bell will soon ring again across Mount Pleasant’s courthouse square.
The first courthouse was a log house built in 1847 on the present courthouse square. The second courthouse was built in the early 1850’s and the third came in the heels of the second in 1859 and lasted only eight years.
The fourth courthouse was built after 1867 but burned just after midnight on September 21, 1895. Local legend has it that a county employee was trying to cover up something and did so by burning down the whole building. Other say it was set on fire to break one of the Belcher boys out of jail. Belcher was being held there for murder.
Luckily, the county had just finished a two-story fireproof vault. The county clerk and a helper had carried an armload of records into the vault after closing time on September 20, and all the remaining records were to be moved into the vault the next morning. The county’s records prior to 1895 were destroyed, but individuals who had personal copies of deeds re-filed them with the county.
After the county’s ill-fated experience with aluminum siding in the sixties, the metal skin was removed in the 1990s and the building was restored to its 1940s appearance–much to the relief of everyone.