Second Empire strikes back
Ever wonder why the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse is often described as Victorian? Did you know that our courthouse is related to Napoleon III of France?
Victorian architecture refers to a range of styles popular in Europe during the reign of Queen Victoria of England. One of the most popular styles of this era was Second Empire, which is most often used to describe the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse.
This style employed the use of Mansard roofs popular in France during the reign of Napoleon III.
Italianate or Texas Renaissance was another popular Victorian style that drew inspiration from the Italian Renaissance and the Roman Empire. Pediments and the use of contrasting horizontal stone bands and decorative window treatments were the most common features of this style.
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 beneficient 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.”