James Riely Gordon, architect, son of George Muir and Sarah Virginia (Riely) Gordon, was born at Winchester, Virginia, on August 2, 1863, and moved with his parents to San Antonio, Texas, in 1874. After some study with his father, who was a civil engineer, he learned applied engineering by working with the International-Great Northern railroad. He studied architecture with W. K. Dobson and J. N. Preston and worked in the office of the supervising architect of the United States in Washington, D.C. Although his period of practice in Texas lasted less than two decades, during that time Gordon designed hundreds of buildings of various types for Texas, other states, and territories. He worked in San Antonio from 1884 to 1900 and Dallas from 1900 to 1902. He maintained several offices in Texas, one in Shreveport, Louisiana, and another in Phoenix, Arizona.
His first major job was to supervise the construction of the Federal Courthouse and Post Office in San Antonio (1886–89). His design for the Texas Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892–93) won a medal of merit. Remembered primarily for his courthouses, Gordon designed no fewer than eighteen for Texas. In 1984 twelve were still standing, in Bexar, Comal, Ellis, Erath, Fayette, Gonzales, Harrison, Hopkins, Lee, McLennan, Victoria, and Wise counties. Ten were still serving their original purpose. His most important structure built outside Texas is the Arizona Capitol, done for the territorial government (1898–1900). Although most of Gordon's commercial buildings have not survived, the fronts of the Staacke and Stevens buildings in San Antonio have been saved by the San Antonio Conservation Society, and the Riverside Building has been adapted to modern needs. Of many important examples of Gordon's work in Dallas, only the John Deere structure remains. The best preserved of all is probably the Nolte National Bank in Seguin (1896). Among his fine homes, the most splendid was that for Mrs. Henrietta King in Corpus Christi, but it, like most of the other big houses, has been demolished. One of the most handsome surviving residences was built for George Kalteyer (1892–1893) at 425 King William Street in San Antonio. It has been restored with sympathy and care.
During his career in the state, Gordon progressed from a charming and eclectic style in the Moorish manner into a highly effective Romanesque style somewhat like that of Henry Hobson Richardson. Gordon's version of this style is seen at its best in the courthouses of Wise, Ellis, and several other counties. During his last years in Texas he worked in a Classical or Beaux-Arts style. The Harrison and McLennan county courthouses are outstanding examples.
At the beginning of 1903 Gordon transferred his center of operations to New York. There he had a distinguished career, which included thirteen terms as president of the New York Society of Architects. He was married on October 9, 1889, to Mary Lamar Sprigg of Virginia. They had a daughter. Gordon died on March 16, 1937, in Pelham Heights, New York, after a stroke. He was a Democrat and an Episcopalian. His records, plans, and other papers are at the University of Texas at Austin.