The Hopkins County Courthouse in Sulphur Springs Texas is another fine courthouse designed by architect J. Riely Gordon. Although this courthouse is similar to ones Gordon designed for nearby Wise and Ellis counties, its position on the town square dictated some unique variations in form. This building like the others is an excellent example of Gordon’s use of the Romanesque Revival architectural style. Enjoy the images below and please read my short history of Hopkins County and the Hopkins County Courthouse.
The Texas State Legislature created Hopkins County from land formerly in Lamar and Nacogdoches counties in March of 1846. The county was named in honor of a prominent local pioneer family. The original county seat of Hopkins County was named in honor of General Edward H. Tarrant. The town of Tarrant was created at the geographic center of Hopkins County as required by Texas law at that time. In 1847 a post office was established in Tarrant. The town of Tarrant remained the county seat of Hopkins County until the Post-Civil War Reconstruction period. In 1870 a special act of the Texas Legislature declared Sulphur Springs the permanent county seat of Hopkins County.
County Courthouse and Town Square
The Hopkins county town square in Sulphur Springs is a dramatically different place. A vintage J. Riely Gordon courthouse occupies the northeast corner of the spacious town square. This offset location is both by choice and chance. The previous courthouse was built on the east side of the original town square. When that building burned down in 1894, a decision was made to buy additional property east of the town square and build the present day courthouse on the northeast corner of the enlarged town square.
The net result of all these events in Hopkins County is a spacious public square with plenty of room for parking and public gathering. Along the eastern side of the square there’s a bandstand and a small yard with trees and benches. The parking lot and walkways on the square are paved with red bricks. This adds a vintage feel to the place, and also creates a dramatic approach to the county courthouse.
This J. Riely Gordon courthouse has two entrances rather than four. Because the Hopkins County courthouse sits on the northeast corner of the town square it has entrances facing northwest and southwest. Many other J. Riely Gordon designed courthouses of this vintage feature four entrances on the corners of the building. The position of the courthouse on the square made this impractical and dictated the use of two entrances which both faced out onto the public square.
Pink granite and red sandstone are the predominant materials used for construction of the exterior facades. Massive Roman arched at the entrances are topped by second-story poritcos which in turn are crowned by third-story open porches. Just below the roof line a band of square stones of two colors set in a checkerboard pattern adds contrast and accents red sandstone arches above third story windows.
The courthouse in Hopkins County is similar in many ways to all the other county courthouses J. Riely Gordon designed for nearby Texas counties. One notable difference is the omission of a clock in the central tower. According to a story on the Hopkins County Texas web site, citizens did ask for a clock to be placed in the courthouse tower. County officials decided a clock in the tower would be alright but wouldn’t provide funding for it. The matter was discussed avidly among the town’s people, but nothing was ever done. Hopkins County Commissioner R. Carpenter had his own opinion about the clock and he let it be known, “Get up at sunup; go to bed at dark, and eat when you are hungry, and you don’t need no d_ _ _ clock.” Soon after you come into the courthouse through the southwest entrance you’re confronted by the huge iron door of a fireproof vault. The door has been very skilfully striped of its many coats of old finish. The work is interesting because it gives you a little insight into how historians determine the original finish and markings that are concealed under decades of paint and deterioration. Still the mammoth old door has an unfinished appearance. A quick look around might also reveal to you that the beautiful stone flooring around you has been repaired rather than replaced. The color of some of the little tiles are brighter than the bulk of the flooring.
Apparently someone decided it was far better to retain most of the existing flooring rather than to replace it all. The vault door may have been left unfinished for many reasons. One possible reason might be that it didn’t fit in the budget for the most recent restoration of the building. This is all speculation, but it gives us a little insight into how these old buildings are being restored. At some point the general contractor doing the restoration work and the officials of the county government have to make hard decisions about which repairs are the most worthy. There isn’t an infinite amount of money available to complete the project. The Texas State Historical Commission will make every effort to preserve the original features of the courthouse unless they really don’t make sense in a modern public building. Although the final results of the restoration of the Hopkins County courthouse are truly grand, many tough decisions and compromises were very likely required to achieve that end.
The District Courtroom is reminiscent of the one in the nearby Ellis County Courthouse. The courtroom occupies one side of the building on the second floor with additional seating in a balcony on the third floor. This courtroom is smaller than the one in Ellis County. The seating provided for the public is curved wooden benches. Exposed concrete flooring is evident. Many smaller details of this room are also reminiscent of the courtroom in Ellis County. For example, the iron poles that support the balcony where it overhangs the main courtroom appear to be identical to those used in Ellis County.
When comparing J. Riely Gordon courthouses it often seems to be the case that they will be similar in many ways, but each plan has its own unique twist. That way each county ended up with what they wanted which was a grand courthouse like the one Gordon designed for their neighboring county, but with enough unique features and architectural details so that no one would ever dare call them identical.
Like so many other J. Riely Gordon courthouses of this vintage, a central staircase provides transport to the upper floors of the building. This staircase is immediately surrounded by a gallery that provides a connection to the various offices of the building. This design produces excellent ventilation, and ventilation was so important in Texas before air conditioning. In the case of the Hopkins County courthouse a hinged skylight in the tower provides a way to allow hot air to flow out of the building.
The way to open the vent in the tower becomes apparent as you round the last turn on the stairs heading up to the third floor. It’s here you’ll come upon a black iron spiral staircase that extends up to the skylight in the tower. This stair is quite dramatic to see as it extends up to the center of the building a great distance above. The dust on the stair treads suggests that these steps are rarely used. Because of modern air conditioning, the vent is of little use. On the other hand, the accent lights that so effectively emphasize the black spiral stair against the solid white walls suggests that in modern times the spiral staircase functions more as an artistic element than as a staircase.
Before turning your attention away from the courthouse, a few additional moments should be spent discovering the details of the courthouse’s exterior. In several places around the building the stone carvers were apparently given a little free space to show off their best work. In the center of the north and south sides of the building, below small balconies, you’ll find faces carved in stone. Up high on the west side of the building the date of construction is conspicuously encircled within an elaborately carved cartouche.
Hopkins County rededicated its historic courthouse in December of 2002. More than three million dollars in restoration work was funded through The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. This classic J. Riely Gordon courthouse has probably never looked better. Go see it.
118 Church Street
Sulphur Springs, Texas
Texas Historical Commission, Texas Historic Sites Atlas. http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/, 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Sam Fenstermacher
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