The Forgotten Hero
Eugene Thomas Heiner’s obituary probably best described the man and
“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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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.”