New Book Highlights Noted Courthouse Architect
Most Texans have seen his buildings. They picturesquely loom over the square in numerous county seats from La Grange to Gonzales. Now, James Riely Gordon, who designed some of the most elaborate courthouses in the nation, is getting his due with a new book by Chris Meister, "James Riely Gordon: His Courthouses and Other Public Architecture."
May 16, 2012
A 327-page tome on courthouse architecture might not seem like a fascinating read to most, but Meister, through a combination of detective work and storytelling, takes the reader through Gordon's life and architectural career, which was fraught with more political machinations and backstabbing than you can shake a drafting square at.
Gordon, who was born in 1863 in Virginia, grew up in San Antonio and came of age during a time of upheaval and change. His career would span the nation, and he would see the expansion of the railroads, the emergence of architecture as an organized profession and participate in the "golden age" of Texas courthouse construction, Meister writes.
Completely self-taught, Gordon worked as a draftsman for relatively unknown architects in San Antonio before working his way to his first commission, the Val Verde County Jail in Del Rio, which was built in 1886 and is still used for offices.
At the time, the young architect was described in newspapers as handsome and brilliant but also as a low-down scoundrel who conned newly formed counties and newly appointed officials into laying out big money for public buildings.
By the time of his death in 1937, a lot of mythology and misinformation would exist about Gordon, who is credited with designing 50 courthouses and additions around the country, 31 of which were actually built and 21 of which exist today.
Meister, a graphic designer from Michigan, was living in Houston 20 years ago when he started taking weekend trips with this wife and children, often through county seat towns, he said.
The designer in him started to wonder who had built all of these courthouses, the ones with whimsical, storybook turrets and towers, the ones with dragons and gargoyles.
"I always had an interest in architecture, and I'd stop and check out the courthouses," Meister said. "A bunch of them struck me as unique, and I figured out they were done by the same architect."
When Meister began his research, there were no books about Gordon available, just a few scant articles, like his New York Times obituary and an entry in Whithey & Withey's "Biographical Dictionary of American Architects," both of which turned out to be full of errors.
Meister began digging for original documents, letters, newspaper articles and anything else about Gordon. He traveled all over Texas, perusing dusty archives, and took trips to Washington, D.C., to examine records there.
"I wasn't really sure what to think about Gordon when I started," Meister said. "He came across as a bit of a scoundrel from the townspeople's point of view, and initially I thought that might be true. That inspired me to dig into the story. The more I dug, the better he looked. (Courthouse architecture) really was a cutthroat area of architecture. It wasn't just competition by other architects, but also the local politics. Often the courthouse became their political football."
Meister became immersed in Gordon's signature architectural style in Texas: the Richardsonian Romanesque. The style was like a blank canvas for Gordon, who adapted it to the materials and stone that were available locally. While the style wasn't ground-breaking, regional touches meshed well, and Gordon was able to push the envelope in terms of aesthetic elements and engineering.
Later in his career, Gordon was invited to design the Texas State Building at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1892-1893. That design put Gordon on the map as an architect of public buildings, and he won commissions in Mississippi, Maryland and New Jersey.
"You really couldn't ask for a better subject, in my opinion," Meister said of his journey through Gordon's life. Along the way, Meister was able to lay to rest many errors, misinformation and outright lies about Gordon.
It turns out Gordon was not to blame for drastic cost overruns in the Bexar County Courthouse project. Officials in Denton County were not bribed on Gordon's behalf. And he didn't recycle a courthouse design while competing for the Mississippi Capitol project.
While researching the book, Meister came to realize that many of the historic courthouses in Texas were in bad shape. The courthouse in Gonzales had been condemned, and the county offices were operating out of an old grocery store, Meister said.
He gladly turned over his research to the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, which has worked to restore late 19th- and early 20th-century courthouses around Texas and has saved more than a few from the wrecking ball.
In the book, Meister writes that Gordon used to tell prospective clients that a courthouse should be built to last a hundred years.
All of Gordon's courthouses that are currently standing have passed that mark, and here's hoping they stand a hundred more.
Esther Robards-Forbes is a reporter for the Westlake Picayune.