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Two Texas Courthouses
and Their Pennsylvanian Inspiration
The DeWitt and Lavaca County Courthouses
by John Troesser
The Allegheny County Courthouse
& Jail of Pittsburgh
Architect - Henry Hobson Richardson
Photo Courtesy Mary Ann Sullivan**
(jail not shown)
TE Post Card Archives
Richardson died in 1886 - before his massive two part work in
Pittsburgh was completed. The courthouse is complete with a generous
courtyard and a "matching" jail - connected to the courthouse
by a replica of Venice's Bridge of Sighs." The jail had generous
quarters for a warden and a large central octagonal tower.
great epitaph of a place."
The January / February 2001 issue of Preservation Magazine
featured an article called Jailhouse Conversion by Allen
Freeman. The article covers three topics - the recent $34 million
conversion of the former jail into a [Family Law] courthouse, a
1902 scandal in which the jail warden's wife (Kate Sofffel) helped
two inmates (The Biddle Brothers) escape death row and some background
and details of Richardson's career.
made this escape truly scandalous was the fact that Mrs. Soffel not
only helped the brothers escape - but she "escaped" with them. The
incident was made into a 1984 movie with Diane Keaton playing the
title role of Mrs. Soffel. Mel Gibson played the more seductive of
the brothers. We don't know how the movie ended, but in real life
all three were shot - the brothers mortally. Mrs. Soffel survived
her wounds and served time in (another) prison before dying in 1910.
who was understandably proud of his "twin" buildings in Pittsburgh
died at age 47 of Bright's Disease - after a career of only 20 years.
Allen Freeman calls the jail building "Richardson's great epitaph
of a place."
Richardson's work was admired by architects all over the U. S. and
at least two in Texas were impressed enough to flatter Richardson
with striking (but smaller) imitations.
DeWitt and Lavaca Counties are Central Texas neighbors
and the construction of their courthouses both in the same year
of 1897 may have been coincidence (since county rivalry
in Texas is unknown and non-existent).
It's interesting to note that these two counties are between Gonzales
and Victoria Counties - who both have Richardsonian Courthouses
of their own. The dates are Victoria
1892 and Gonzales
1894. Both were designed by J. Riely Gordon.
Gonzales' Jail was designed by E.
Heiner, Architect of the Lavaca County Courthouse.
starting date of 1897 displayed in Roman Numerals
County Courthouse was built on land donated by the heirs of Mary
Hallett. After a colorful fight with a rival town (the now defunct
town of Petersburg) Hallettsville
became the county seat in 1852.
The previous Hallettsville courthouse was sold at auction and dismantled
in 1897 to make room for the new one. The $80,000 cost of the new
courthouse was financed by bonds. The contract was let in June 1897
to Eugene T. Heiner
of Houston who at one point
is said to have had his wages garnished to pay creditors. He fared
better than A. O. Watson did in DeWitt County - since Watson is said
to have been driven into bankruptcy. The official dedication of the
building was July 4th 1899 although the cornerstone and decorative
emblems show the date 1897.
The height is 170 feet and the clock faces are seven feet across.
Like the DeWitt County
Courthouse in Cuero
- the building strongly resembles the Allegheny County Courthouse
building in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania - widely regarded as the archetype
of Richardsonian architecture.
Since La Grange declined the honor of having the film version of "The
Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" filmed on location in La Grange,
the people of Hallettsville volunteered their town for the courthouse
DeWitt County courthouse tower
County Courthouse is said to have driven architect A. O. Watson
into bankruptcy. Watson also helped design the Llano
County Courthouse in 1892. This sturdy and stately Richardsonian
building sits on an entire city block. Although the expansive lawn
is square, the courthouse faces residences and not the standard
commercial buildings that usually surround a courthouse.
The lobby of the DeWitt
County Courthouse courthouse has a good display of photographs
- much of it involving courthouse history.
Ann Sullivan of Bluffington College provided the first image in this
article. For more images of the Allegheny Courthouse and an outstanding
gallery of other architectural jewels, go to http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/pittrich/pittrich.html
* The postcard shown is not of
the Allegheny County Courthouse. It shows a much smaller building.
There are dozens of courthouses patterned after Allegheny County and
similar Richardsonian designs. I have been unable to pin down the
one on the postcard. - Timothy C. Engleman Saxonburg, PA, March 28,