Eugene Thomas Heiner: The Forgotten Hero

Eugene Thomas Heiner’s obituary probably best described the man and his work:
“Mr. Heiner was a man of a bright, sunny temperament and by his congenial nature he made friends of all with whom he came in contact. He was shrewd and energetic in business and in his calling as an architect, he leaves probably more public buildings in Texas as monuments to his memory than any other architect in the State."
How is it that an architect who designed 19 courthouses and 17 county jails in Texas, including Wharton’s, could disappear from the pages of history, as have many of his buildings?

Born in New York City, Heiner began his architectural training in Chicago and finished his studies in Berlin.In 1876, Heiner won first prize in a design contest at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and used the money to move to Dallas, were he met his wife, Viola Isenhour. Viola’s great-grandfather’s brother was the great-great-grandfather of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.In 1878, Eugene and Viola moved to Houston, where they had four daughters: Mabel, Viola, Jennie and Hazel.

     Heiner was the first professional architect of Houston and was a founding member of the Texas Society of Architects, formed in 1886.Heiner continued to win many of his commissions through competitions such as the 1878 Galveston County Jail, the 1880-81 Galveston County Courthouse and the 1895 New Houston High School, which was the largest school building of its type built in the South. Heiner also designed many large commercial buildings in Houston and Galveston as well as on the growing Texas A&M  campus.

     By the mid 1880’s, Heiner had become a leading figure in Texas architecture. His reputation prompted Governor Ross to appoint Heiner to investigate alleged faulty construction practices at the State Capitol Building, which centered on structural deficiencies in the design of the dome. On November 27, 1887, The Houston Daily Post, said of this matter:

“The selection of Mr. Heiner of this city, as one of the architects to investigate the work on the new capitol at Austin, is a compliment to Houston and a very high tribute to the professional skill and personal standing of that gentleman. The work required will necessarily be of a delicate nature, as very large interests are involved, but those who know Mr. Heiner, and understand his probity of character, his great skill and his eminently fair and impartial nature will approve the selection. The reply made by Mr. Heiner to the telegram of the governor is characteristic of the man. He said to Governor Ross that he is a Texan, and if the State stands in need of his services it could have them without charge. Houston is proud of this generous, enterprising, public spirited and patriotic citizen.”

One of the reasons not much was known about the achievements of Mr. Heiner was because his wife, Viola, died prematurely in 1889, resulting from complications in childbirth.

Consequently, after Heiner’s untimely death in 1901, their daughters were separated and sent to live with family. In the process, much of the documentation of his life’s work was lost.

Another reason Heiner and his buildings have been overlooked was because during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Victorian architecture was looked down upon as being too grand. In an era of “Less is More,” the clean lines and flat roofs of the International Style were becoming more popular. Consequently, courthouses once designed to excel above all others were sometimes replaced with buildings intended to be as cheap as possible giving taxpayers the most square footage.

In the process, many Victorian courthouses like the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse, which he designed, were denatured into more Modern statements.

They often were covered with stucco, brick or tin – only to become sleeping giants waiting to be rediscovered and awakened from their sleep, such as the life of Eugene Thomas Heiner, himself. 

Eugene T. Heiner, architect of the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse, made a reputation of successfully blending various styles together to produce designs that were uniquely original.

The Wharton County Courthouse was a blend of Second Empire and Italianate styles. It was constructed with brick walls trimmed with Austin limestone and picturesque Mansard roofs surmounted by a central clock tower.

The centrally located courtroom was two stories tall and had an ornate pressed metal ceiling. Surrounding the square was an iron fence used to keep horses off the courthouse lawn.

Another important aspect of the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse was its placement on the now 153-year-old political neutral ground of Monterey Square. Created in 1846, the square was named in tribute to the Spanish influence on early Texas.

The idea of a public square as a place to organize communities goes back to the days of early Greece and Rome. In Europe, buildings were organized along the sides of squares or piazzas, often incorporating some type of tower element.

But the notion of placing the courthouse in the middle of the square was an American idea. Courthouses were meant to be in plain sight, centered on the square, so that the inside goings on could be as transparent as possible.

This arrangement also provided a buffer zone between public and private space. We should remember that Monterey Square itself is not solely a part of the town which surrounds it: it belongs to everyone in the county, just as Washington D.C. is not a part of any of its neighboring states and belongs to you and me.

Another determining factor that shaped the 1888-89 Wharton County courthouse was the progressive ideas of the Victorian period which celebrated county courthouses as being, “Temples of Justice.”

On March 31, 1888 The Wharton Independent newspaper (whose theme was “independent in all things, neutral in nothing”), in reference to the courthouse designed by Mr. Heiner, said it best when it proclaimed:

“It has been truly said that the glory of a people is inspired by the genius of their institutions, by the monuments they build and the edifices they erect….

“How meet it is, then, in this era of progress, that we people of Wharton should set up in our gateway a structure that shall proclaim to the world our advanced ideas, our high conception of patriotism, and our love for the beautiful in art. It is the lofty gift of Progress blindly battling against Retrogression. It is the munificent production of a free people living for a nobler future. It is the beneficent outgrowth of intellect, and worship of genius that confers the priceless blessings we enjoy.

       “Great high temple of Justice, thy name is Progress And progress is the true sovereignty of Honest Manhood! Progress! Thy handmaiden is Justice and thy kinsmen Law!

“Build, build high this temple of justice, that the virtues of our people may endure forever. Rear it that it may overlook the waters of the blue ocean and that the maddened waves may pale beneath its sight.

“Build high the altar that lawlessness may be checked and the people may have peace and quietude which civilization honors and which intellect inspires. Build it of the solidest granite, to the end that we may carve upon its everlasting sides the name of Peace, Progress, and Prosperity as strong as monuments of brass and as enduring as pillars of steel.”