“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXVII– The Courthouses of Travis County

During my “starving artist” period, some time in the last century, I found myself doing just about anything to make a buck. Shortly before working as a sorority house security guard, but right after the funeral home telemarketing gig, I hired on with the County to work Election night. I went to an office downtown, fully expecting to dazzle the officials who were doing the hiring with the details of all my years of political campaign work, but they didn’t care–they were just looking for warm bodies.

The people hired for the night were a mix of overly-earnest middle-aged and old people who wanted to Do Something for Democracy, and jaded young people who were just in it for the money. When several lawyers rushed into the office, intent on doing Serious Business, a couple twenty-something mouth-breathers giggled, and one said to the other, like Beavis to Butt-Head, “Huh-huh, guys in suits!”

The ballot boxes were brought in by truck and unloaded through the back door of the Stokes Building. After the ballots were counted, the latest returns were written on a white erasable board, and I was given the tally sheets, which I carried across Eleventh Street, then across Guadalupe, then up the front steps of the Courthouse and into the County Clerk’s office, where the tallies were formally received and notarized. (In those days, before we faced the threat of “tare-ists,” you could enter the Courthouse through the front door, and without the tiresome body cavity search.) Pleased though I was to be carrying out such an important responsibility–for $5 an hour–those dozens of trips back and forth took a toll, and I soon had blisters the size of cocktail onions on my feet. The Courthouse became to me less a cool Art Deco monument and more an engine of pain.

Most of us nowadays tend to regard courthouses as places to flee after wriggling out of jury duty, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they were the elaborate brick and stone manifestations of a community’s highest ideals about itself. In most county seats the courthouses occupied pride of place in the center of town, but in Austin the State Capitol naturally took center stage, while the Travis County Courthouses have been erected seemingly at random all over downtown.

Like much else in early Austin, the business of Travis County was initially conducted out of a log cabin on Congress Avenue. From 1855 to 1858, a stone Courthouse was constructed near Republic Square, on West Fourth Street, with S. M. Swenson as Contractor. No architectural drawings exist of the structure, but it apparently occupied the whole block, was two stories high, and cost $25,000. The jail was in the basement, and is referred to in all the sources I came across as “the dungeon.” This building served as Courthouse until 1876, and was later used as a lumber warehouse, before being demolished in 1906.

Republic Square was considered “too remote” a place to conduct County business, and enough people complained about the location that a new Courthouse was built on land leased from the State at the southeast corner of Eleventh and Congress. The Courthouse, new jail, jailer’s residence, and heating plant cost $163,000. Designed in the Second Empire style by the firm of Larmour and Wheelock, and measuring 106 by 98 feet, the Courthouse had towers on each corner, several offices, one court room, and two vaults on the first floor, a court room, library, and various offices on the second floor, and several more offices on the third.

Several notorious trials were held in this Courthouse. In 1926, controversial Ft. Worth Baptist minister and political reactionary J. Frank Norris was tried there for murdering lumberman D. E. Chipps in his church office, but a jury acquitted him on the grounds of self-defense.

In 1929, Lehlia Highsmith, a stenographer for the State Supreme Court, was stabbed to death with a penknife in front of her house after a UT football game. Appellate Court Judge John W. Brady was charged with the crime. At his trial he trotted out a string of prominent character witnesses, but it was eventually discovered that Brady was a white-knuckle, black-out drunk, who suffered from alcohol-induced dementia. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but the second resulted in a conviction. After two years in prison, Brady was pardoned by Ma Ferguson.

And not surprisingly, the ubiquitous O. Henry did time in the Travis County Jail.

As early as 1915, this Courthouse was criticized as an unsanitary, dilapidated fire-trap, with sewerage problems and dangerous electrical wiring, but it wasn’t replaced until 1930. Ownership of the 1876 Courthouse reverted to the State, which tore off the old mansard roof and replaced it with a modern flat one. For its new role as a State office building, the structure was renamed the “Walton Building,” in honor of attorney William “Buck” Walton and, since it housed the Game and Fish Commission, Izaak Walton, author of “The Compleat Angler.” The Walton Building was demolished in 1964, but not before a mother pigeon, who had captured the public’s attention, was allowed to hatch her nest of eggs. The site of the 1876 Courthouse has been a parking lot for the last forty-two years.

In 1930, a $1,000,000 limestone Art Deco/Art Moderne courthouse was constructed between Guadalupe, San Antonio, Tenth, and Eleventh Streets. Precinct offices were assigned to the ground floor, county offices and courts occupied floors two and three, district offices and courts took over floors four and five, while floors six and seven housed the jail. Many additions and extensions have been made to this Courthouse, starting in the 1950s, so that now the 1930 structure is only a part of a large complex of buildings.

In 2005 the Travis County Courthouse was renamed in honor of Heman Sweatt (1912-1982), who, in 1950, became the first African-American admitted to the UT School of Law. Sweatt had been denied admission in 1946, so he filed suit in Travis County District Court, and eventually the case, Sweatt vs. Painter, made it to the US Supreme Court. Sweatt’s victory was a landmark in the American Civil Rights movement.

—June 29, 2006

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