Hamilton County, formed in the mid-nineteenth century, knows how to appreciate its historic architecture. Perhaps that’s because two of its first courthouses, a vernacular frame structure in use during the 1860’s and its replacement, an 1871 two-story housing the county records as well as the courtroom and sheriff’s office, both burned, apparently under suspicious circumstances. Hamilton County citizens, determined to put an end to the assault on their civility and outraged by the destruction of the 1871 courthouse, offered a reward for the “arrest and conviction of person or persons that burned the courthouse of Hamilton County on the night of March 17, 1877”.
While neither an arrest nor conviction ever materialized, Hamilton County citizens proceeded to build a new courthouse, acquiring the services of the architectural firm of Mason, Martin, Byrne & Johnson. The 1886 design, typical of the Second Empire style, featured locally quarried limestone, pavilions at each corner covered in mansard-style roofing, and arches spanning the window openings. A central tower, with Classical details pressed into its sheet-metal skin, topped it off. This courthouse, fortunately, survived into the 20th century.
In 1931, the county hired architect E. M. Mills to address the aging courthouse building, now confronting issues of maintenance, fire safety, structural instability, and inadequate space. Inadvertently, the “repairs” also provided Mills with an opportunity to create one of the most inspired integrations of architectural styles in the state. Mills blended the eclectic Richardsonian Romanesque elements like crenelated square turrets and rounded arch windows, fluted supporting columns in the Neoclassical style, and the Spanish Revival, mission-inspired tower with modern, 20th century additions.
Mills, however, would not be the only one to modify the building during the 1900’s. Decades of additional modifications ensued and many of his original renovation details were lost. At the turn of the latest century, Hamilton County citizens once again utilized their ingenuity to finance a complete restoration of the courthouse, this time with some assistance from a Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program grant.
During the 21st century renovation project, the discovery of one of the more unique aspects of the 1930’s modernization featured a plaster bas-relief of Lady Liberty (also known as the Greek goddess of justice - Athena). Architectural drawings from the 1930’s construction project indicated that the relief was mounted to the wall behind the judge’s bench, yet the actual relief was missing. As the latest interior restoration proceeded, only a plaster “ghosting” appeared where the bas-relief had been installed. Luckily, Frances Ramsey, local Hamiltonian and Chair of the Hamilton County Historical Commission, solved the mystery. The relief, in an unfortunate remodeling of the District Courtroom, had been removed and abandoned mid-twentieth century. Ramsey discovered the relief at a local yard sale in the 1960’s and, recognizing the historical significant of the piece, had purchased it then kept it in storage for nearly fifty years. Thanks to Ramsey’s foresight the restored bas-relief, complete with golden laurels and black scales, resides once again in the Hamilton County courtroom.