uncle ran a grocery store in our home town. It was on 6th Street, but the actual
address really didn't matter. When people asked where the store was, we just told
them it was on the courthouse square. That was enough. Everybody knew where the
With its ungainly dome squatting atop walls of a singularly
unattractive dirt-colored brick, it definitely was not a beautiful building. But
its ugliness was irrelevant, like the looks of a beloved family member, because
the courthouse was more than mere bricks and mortar.
the midst of the vast, windswept West
Texas landscape, the courthouse was the architectural paperweight that kept
the town from blowing away. Built in 1910, just a few decades after the first
settlements were established in our part of the state, it offered tangible evidence
that our town was here to stay and that the residents were a civilized lot who
knew what a public building ought to look like. More than that, it was a symbol
– however clumsy – of the stability of democracy and the solemn grandeur of The
Don't laugh. Converting abstract ideals and values into tangible
reality was once considered a valid – even essential – function of architecture.
Our courthouse was the product of an age when buildings were designed to serve
an important symbolic function, and architects worked hard to make them “fitting.”
Public buildings were intended to embody the awesome majesty of government itself
and to make you feel both insignificant (a mere mortal in the presence of something
mighty) and ennobled (a commoner doing business in a setting worthy of royalty).
A grand symbol demanded a grand setting, so many public buildings – especially
courthouses – were sited in the middle of town, in a landscaped square where the
town's most important monuments were installed. (On our own courthouse lawn, a
windmill and a bandstand were joined every year by a big red thermometer that
charted the progress of the annual Community Chest campaign.) Newspaper accounts
described new public buildings with phrases like “highly artistic,” “a noble specimen
of fine architecture” and “a credit to the town.” People took pride in them.
Whatever happened to that idea?
Today the notion that a public building
should be edifying is as outmoded as a bustle. Here's how I know: I went to a
post office the other day and couldn't find the front door.
It was in
a medium-size Southern city – but not downtown, where a post office should be.
I parked in the vast asphalt lot, headed inside to buy some stamps – and stopped
in my tracks. The facade of the building, probably built in the 1970s, was a featureless
grid of glass and aluminum panels, any of which could have been a door. But which
On closer inspection, two of the panels proved to have tiny metal
plates inscribed “Push.” I pushed, and found myself in a bare-walled, low-ceilinged
space that had all the charm of a car-rental agency. I thought of my hometown
post office, distinguished by a handsome stone arcade and a lofty lobby with brass
grillwork and a WPA mural,
and the real meaning of the tired phrase “they don't build them like that any
more” came flooding in.
I'm starting to sound like Andy Rooney, so I'll
close with a great courthouse story:
old courthouse in Eastland, Tex., was torn down in 1926, officials were surprised
to find a horned toad sealed inside the cornerstone. They were even more surprised
when the animal, which presumably had been entombed for 30 years, revived. The
miraculous lizard was named “Old
Rip” and sent on tour – but not for long. Maybe three decades of stuffy solitude
had left him ill-equipped to handle all that fresh air, or maybe it was the stress
of show biz that did him in. Whatever the cause, six months after his resurrection
Old Rip died. Today, the specially-commissioned casket that holds his embalmed
remains is on display at the courthouse.
Anyone in Eastland
can tell you where to find it. Everybody knows where the courthouse
Courtesy Dwight Young
This article originally appeared
in the Jan/Feb 1997 issue of Preservation magazine, published by the National
Trust for Historic Preservation.
Shoe Horses, Don't They? January 12, 2005 Guest Column
Road Trips Through History
by Dwight Young
of Essays from Preservation Magazine.