County courthouses, symbols of self-government, are among the most substantial and attractive public buildings erected in Texas. In county seats, county courthouses occupy prominent positions on public squares, land often donated by town founders as sites for governmental structures. According to law each county is obligated to construct a "convenient building for holding courts." Spaces for courtrooms, offices, storage vaults, and other functions are essential. To accommodate changing needs and artistic tastes, many counties have erected three or more courthouses since their organization.
The county courthouse provides space for the state judicial system and for public business. The Texas Constitution provides for district courts with jurisdiction over felony criminal offenses and over civil suits and other matters. County courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanors and minor civil matters. The county commissioners' court, consisting of county commissioners and a presiding county judge, all elected by popular vote, conducts county business. Among other officials using county courthouses are the county tax assessor, county attorney, district attorney, justice of the peace, sheriff, county clerk, and district clerk. Because being a county seat gives a community prestige, competition among towns seeking the honor has often been spirited; "county seat wars" were common during the settlement of Texas.
As they brought other traditions, immigrants also brought architectural customs into Texas. Although the first governmental activities of any county were ordinarily conducted in a residence or a temporary log structure, soon work was underway on a hall of justice that reflected the origins of settlers in its style. During the Republic of Texas era, courthouses, small in size and enhanced by simple decorative features, were patterned after court buildings in the south and southeast United States, with a courtroom on the ground floor and offices, usually four, on the second. No examples of this type of courthouse remain.
In antebellum Texas, courthouses became larger and more substantial in construction. Brick or stone often rivaled wood as the building material of choice. Cubical in form and generally with a hipped roof and a cupola, the courthouses displayed simple Greek Revival details, similar to those of public buildings in Virginia and other southeastern states. Offices were on the first floor, and courtrooms were typically located on the second floor. Ordinarily the first floor was divided into quadrants by corridors extending through the building and meeting in the center. These allowed entrances on four sides, providing equal prominence to all sides of the public square on which the building was located.
After the Civil War, during which virtually no construction occurred, these antebellum architectural traditions of interior spatial arrangement were continued, but as the economy recovered, decorative features progressively reflected a transition from Classical simplicity to Victorian ornateness. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, courthouses were crowned with the mansard roofs of the Second Empire style or were enhanced with bracketed cornices and other features of the Italianate mode. The Parker County Courthouse, Weatherford (1885), by the firm of Dodson and Dudley, represents the former style, and the Wilson County Courthouse, Floresville (1884), by Alfred Giles, the latter. Floor plans with second-story courtrooms, often two stories in ceiling height, continued in use, but buildings were larger and more complex.
At the end of the nineteenth century, numerous prospering counties replaced earlier halls of justice with large, picturesque edifices. Buildings appear in Romanesque Revival styles, with polychromy and Roman-arched openings; in Renaissance Revival style, with Classical details based upon Renaissance buildings in Europe; and in composite styles, with forms and features from manifold modes combined in a single building. The Fayette County Courthouse, La Grange (1890–91), by J. Riely Gordon, exemplifies the Romanesque; the Tarrant County Courthouse, Fort Worth (1893–95), by Gunn and Curtis, the Renaissance; and the Coryell County Courthouse, Gatesville (1897–98), the composite.
Early in the twentieth century, following national trends of design that were heavily influenced by the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the teachings of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, Texas courthouses conformed to the Neoclassical Revival style or Beaux-Arts Classicism. In planning they still largely followed earlier practices with symmetrical compositions of forms and spaces, although they often had rotundas providing impressive interior centers of circulation. On the exteriors, columns, pediments, and domes are characteristic features. Excellent examples include the Hays County Courthouse, San Marcos (1908), by the younger Charles Henry Page and Brothers, and the McLennan County Courthouse, Waco (1901–02), by J. Riely Gordon.
Beginning in the 1930s some courthouses were designed in Moderne style, with a decorative vocabulary based upon clean forms, repetitive lines, and new materials. Buildings continued to be symmetrical in composition, but Classical details were stripped away and new arrangements of forms appeared. Representative is the Travis County Courthouse, Austin (1930–36), by Page Brothers. After World War II former eclectic principles of design for courthouses were rejected by modernizing architects. Functionalism and economy produced entirely new types of courthouses. An example is the addition to the Brazoria County Courthouse, Angleton (1975–77), by Wyatt C. Hedrick.
Nineteenth-century courthouses are now protected, to a limited extent, by a law intended to encourage their preservation. This law was passed after concerned legislators and citizens became alarmed over the destruction of old courthouses to make room for the new.