Texas’ Favorite Architect

Written by Kay Boothe

September 28, 2021

Texas’ terrain stands as varied as the people calling the Lone Star State home.

Coastal plains give way to the hills of Central Texas and piney woods of East Texas. The Panhandle features the endless plains of the Llano Estacado; all while rugged mountains define much of West Texas.

God designed and blessed Texas with beauty and abundant natural resources. At the end of the 19th century a man named J. Riely Gordon used many of those God-given resources to design courthouses and other public buildings across the state.

By Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Courthouse squares across Texas would not be the same without the influence of Gordon and his designs. Though not born in Texas, the mark he left on the state still can be seen today as 12 of the 18 courthouses designed by Gordon still stand.

Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio, Tx.
Courtesy of Renelibrary

Born in 1863, Gordon came to Texas 11 years later when his parents moved to San Antonio. Without the typical formal education in design, Gordon learned the intricacies of the process; learning how air flows, access points for light and combining functionality with art. He learned much of these studying engineering while working for a railroad and the study architectural styles while apprenticing under W.K. Dobson and J.N. Preston.

One of Gordon’s earliest designs was the Wilson County Jail in Floresville. Gordon was commissioned to design the building in 1887; it was during this time the young architect also designed the Federal Courthouse and Post Office in San Antonio.

By Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the old Wilson County Jail designed by Gordon is a historical museum for the county and is undergoing some renovations, but it serves as a glimpse of the burgeoning career of a young man about to enter his prime and become renowned across the United States for his design abilities.

As 1890s rolled around, Gordon came into his own, he also was selected to represent Texas in the Worlds Columbian Exposition in 1893.; Gordon’s Romanesque designs blended with natural Texas stones, built into the aspiring towers spoke not only to the ascendance of a young architectural wizard, but spoke to the spirit of Texas that was on its way up. The latter half of the 1800s saw Texas, and most Southern states, in upheaval after the Civil War and Reconstruction. There was no money to be had or made; times were tough, but the cattle industry helped begin a resurgence in Texas; and by the early 1900s with oil being discovered across the state Texas soon would become the energy capital of the country, if not the world.

By Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s no coincidence the Gordon designs and the Texas ascendancy happened at the same time. Gordon rode his work in Texas to national fame. He kept his practice in Texas until 1902, in San Antonio and then Dallas, before relocating to New York, in spite of his relocation he still kept offices in Texas.

His early courthouse designs, as noted reflected the Romanesque design features, with the Ellis County Courthouse located in Waxahachie being his most notable work.

By • Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

This courthouse features contrasting colors of masonry work, statuary around the courthouse. In the James Michener novel Texas, he described the courthouse as, “A fairy tale palace…replete with battlements and turrets and spires…and miniature castles high in the air… one of the finest buildings in Texas.”

In 1897, the courthouse cost $130,000 to build, bespeaking of the wealth of the cotton center of Texas at the time. The courthouse features turrets with curved glass, arches and recessed door openings. The finished courthouse rose more than 130 feet above the surrounding area.

The Lee County Courthouse, located in Giddings, looks like a smaller version of the courthouse in Waxahachie, but still features Gordon’s unique style.

In Gordon’s later years, his work featured the Classical Beaux-Arts style. The domed structures of these courthouses can be seen at the McLennan County Courthouse in Waco and the old Harrison County Courthouse located in Marshall.

The old Harrison County Courthouse in Marshall, Texas. Built in 1900, iot is the signature landmark of Marshall and is frequently used to represent East Texas in travel literature. It became a historical museum and government office building when a new county courthouse opened in 1964. The building, noted as being the location of the first sit-ins in Texas, was designed by J. Riely Gordon.

Gordon’s work spread across the country, including the Arizona state capitol building.

No matter where it is, his work resembles a man maturing and entering his prime along with a state he once called home.

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