Giddings, Lee County seat, was settled primarily by Wendish Lutherans in the mid-1800s, Slavic pioneers who arrived in Texas seeking religious and cultural liberty. Much of the Wendish immigration movement was driven by Prussian oppression, dominated by eastern European forces that insisted the Wends abandon their native language and adopt German, Germanize their Wendish names, and join the Evangelical Reform churches. A group of almost 600 Wendish left their homeland in 1854 and headed for Texas. Many succumbed to a cholera epidemic and yellow fever before reaching the Texas frontier, settling along the banks of Rabbs Creek in present-day Lee County, eventually forming the Giddings community we know today.
Considering their newfound independence, it came as no surprise that the Wendish Giddings community fought hard to acquire and retain the Lee County seat during a heated and contested election in 1874. The Wendish prevailed and by 1878 Lee County had built its first courthouse in Giddings, an ornate Second Empire style structure rising two and a half stories and capped with mansard roofing and a tower. The elegant courthouse served the county until 1897 when officers at the courthouse noticed a fire in the attic. Unable to quell the flames on the high floor with a water tank that topped out at a mere twenty feet, county officials began removing county records from the building before watching the courthouse burn to the ground.
The Lee County community wasted no time recovering, however, hiring the noted architect J. Riely Gordon to design a new courthouse and the San Antonio construction firm of Sonnefield, Emmins and Albright to build it. Completed in 1899, the Romanesque Revival courthouse highlights some of the signature detailing of Gordon’s familiar courthouse designs. The massive, three-story red brick building rises from a limestone base and features rusticated stone arches, blue granite steps, and polished columns. The large stone arches are typical of the Romanesque Revival style Gordon favored. The square brick clock tower rising from the center featured a distinct black and gold clock face design.
Outlasting ten decades, the Gordon courthouse managed to retain the majority of its historical integrity, undergoing few changes with the exception of a few modern modifications like central air conditioning. However, due to years of basement flooding, the building’s structure required emergency repairs, furnished by funding from the Texas Historical Commission. An overall restoration was completed under the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program in 2004. In addition to major structural repairs to the exterior, the project restored the original lightning rods, discovered in the basement, to the four corners of the clock tower and returned the clock faces to their signature black color.
The restoration returned details in the impressive courthouse interior to their original condition as well, including the multi-colored marble floor tiles, quarry tiles of varied color and geometric patterns, and the iron baluster of the stairway that encircled the three-story central lightwell. The galleried, two-story District Courtroom, perhaps one of the most dramatic architectural aspects of the courthouse, also had much of its delicate detailing restored, including its decorative stenciling – a cobalt blue design that reflects the community’s historic Wendish roots.