El Paso County Courthouse
- By Judge Herb Marsh, Jr. and Judge Robert Dinsmoor
- Thirty-one years is a rather short time for an elegant and magnificent
courthouse to exist. In the annals of great architecture such buildings
have barely reached infancy. But that - thirty-one years - was the
lifetime of one of the "largest and finest county courthouses of its time
in Texas." It
was built in El Paso after the city became the county seat of El Paso
County in early 1884.
- The history of this grand structure began in the 1880's when the county seat was still located in the lower valley at Ysleta. Once a thriving community and the seat of political power in the county, it began to lose its influence to the slowly-emerging community to the west - the city of El Paso.
- Ysleta had been the county seat since 1878, but it lacked a real courthouse. The grand jury met in a small, inadequate room provided by the sheriff. The jurors became so dissatisfied with the substandard accommodations that they issued a report stating that the quarters were alive with vermin and in a reprehensible condition. The jurors chastised the sheriff for allowing the room to fall into such a state of disrepair. To remedy the situation, the commissioners court decided to build a small two-level courthouse on some donated land.
- Built entirely of sandstone, the first floor consisted of five rooms which served as county offices. Although the completed structure measured approximately 140 by 280 feet, it was still so small that the county judge and the grand jury had to share the same office. To finance the project, the court issued bonds totaling $14,000 at 8% interest. By September, 1882, the courthouse was nearing completion, but its use as such would be brief.
- A political power struggle was ensuing between the residents of Ysleta and those of El Paso. The latter did not appreciate the half-day journey to Ysleta in order to serve as jurors and witnesses. Nor did the growing list of El Paso attorneys. It had been fewer than five years since Ysleta had succeeded in becoming the county seat, taking the honor from San Elizario in an election. By law, a county seat could not be moved more than once every five years, and by 1883, five years had passed since the last election. Ysleta was anxious to hold another election and retain the county seat. Having more qualified voters than El Paso, the citizens of Ysleta felt they could keep El Paso from becoming the county seat. They also knew that a two-thirds majority was needed to move a county seat further than five miles away, which El Paso was.
- But El Pasoans were determined to move the county seat. It would give El Paso prestige and easy access to the courts and county government. By November 3, 1883, 110 citizens had signed a petition requesting the election, and County Judge Marshall Rogers ordered that it take place on December 3rd.
- As was customary in those days, whenever there was an election, opposing factions rounded up all the men they could to vote. One Frank Faudoa was notorious for gathering supportive voters in all the nearby communities. To obtain their support, he would give them a reward from a bag of silver dollars he carried, then transport them to the polls in his buggy. Later, they were treated to barbecue, beer, music, and dancing. For Frank, this election would be no different.
- El Pasoans knew they had to make the supreme effort in order to succeed. On November 7, 1883, El Paso's Lone Star newspaper printed the following editorial:
- There is no registration required nor any uexatious pre liminaries...the large body of Mexicans...have to go before the clerk of the district court and declare their intention to become citizens of the United States and then, if they lived the legal period in the state and county, they are entitled to vote...every ballot counts....H
- On election day, businesses closed, the Santa Fe Railroad offered free rides to voters, and people who owned buggies and wagons were kept busy transporting voters. Many residents from Juarez came to the aid of El Paso, as did residents of San Elizario, still stinging from the loss of the county seat five years earlier. People, whether qualified to vote or not, were rounded up and voted. Although there were fewer than 1000 qualified voters, by the day's end, the vote stood at 2252 votes for El Paso and 476 for Ysleta.
Needless to say, citizens of Ysleta were outraged, and threatened to seek indictments against those responsible for the fraudulent election, but El Pasoans felt that their time had come. No criminal charges were ever filed.
- In celebration of its victory, El Paso decided to build a court house that would be unparalleled in Texas. So, on August 25, 1884, the county signed a contract for such a courthouse to be constructed within the next fifteen months.
- By way of preparation, the Commissioners Court converted the Ysleta courthouse into a school, housed the county government temporarily in the Lessor Building and other nearby structures, and used the furniture from the Ysleta building in the newly-leased offices. A citizens petition asked for a 25-cent tax on each $100 of taxable property to pay for the new edifice.
- On February 20, 1884, the Court announced that it was ready to accept bids for the new courthouse and jail. Bids for construction and for the land were submitted. W. S. Hills bid was accepted for the latter - a lot bounded by San Antonio, Kansas, Overland, and Campbell Streets. The new jail was to be located across the street.
- The temporary jail became so overcrowded that the guard, Charles Linn, often had to run criminals out of town to make room for others. Women inmates fared even worse. It was hard for a woman not to escape when her quarters had a door frame, but no door, and the only window had no glass!
- Unfortunately, the construction of the new courthouse resulted in a scandal. The $135,000 bid of Britton and Long of Houston to build the new courthouse and jail had been accepted and it required that the courthouse be completed in fifteen months and the jail in seven. In May, 1885, certain citizens claimed that the construction company was performing substandard work. Among the complaints were that 1) stone, not brick (as specified in the contract) was used for the foundation; 2) sand, not concrete, was used under the vaults; 3) inferior iron work was prevalent; and 4) piles and girders were not constructed as stated in the plans. Some alleged that the contractor bribed officials to look the other way. Attorney James B. Hague decided to set a trap. He scheduled a meeting to accept a bribe of $2,500. Only after the money had been exchanged did the contractor realize that hidden witnesses had observed the criminal activity. Then, Hague, to the cheers of spectators, donated the bribe money to charity.
- Subsequently, the Commissioners Court conducted a full evidentiary hearing and found that fraud had indeed been committed. The county attorney issued warrants for the arrest of the individuals alleged to be responsible.
- On January 20, 1886, the Commissioners Court accepted the courthouse as completed, and it was dedicated on February 15, with a dance held in the new building topping off the celebration.
- According to the plans, the building was to have a mixed architectural style with a predominating Renaissance influence. There were three floors - the first held county administrative offices, including those of the county surveyor, county judge, and the county attorney. The county court was located in the north west corner, occupying a space 40 x 20 feet. The west end of the second floor housed the 34th District Court in an area measuring about 65 x 40 feet.
- At the center of the second social life floor was a 20-square-foot
opening through which light passed from the imposing dome located
above the third floor. Since El Paso did
not yet have a federal courthouse, the United States court and
other federal offices were located on this floor. The building
also contained offices for District Judge T. A. Falvey, the district
attorney, the sheriff, and the tax collector. The jury room
stood adjacent to the sheriff's office.
All the ceilings were fifteen feet high, and the walnut
staircases were six feet wide. The walls and hallways were made of
pine and dark maple, and illumination was provided by gas light
until electricity was installed in 1909.
Coal and wood-burning stoves provided heat in winter. These,
and the abundant use of wood throughout the building, made the
potential for fire great. It was a common hazard of the times. On
April 8, 1890, a fire, started by a gas jet in the bell tower of the
dome, was fortunately extinguished by some alert citizens even
before the fire engines could arrive.
Two alabaster statues of a woman, holding a pair of balancing
scales, called "Blind Justice," were lifted and placed on top of the
building. They survived the razing of the courthouse, and today, one
stands near the entrance of Ascarate Park. The "Goddess of
Justice" disappeared but was found in 1936 and placed on the east
lawn of the courthouse built in 1917.
Other improvements were added - olive-colored curtains were
hung, cottonwood trees planted, and plumbing was installed in the
fall of 1890. Since the primary mode of transportation consisted of
horse-and-carriage, hitching posts were added.
El Paso continued to be a boom town. By 1899, the 34th
District Court had become so burdened with work that a second
court had to be created - the 41st District Court with James Goggin
as judge. In addition, the Texas Legislature established a special
court which became the forerunner of the 65th District Court. By
1910, the population of El Paso had reached 40,000, and in 1911, the
Legislature created the Eighth Court of Civil Appeals and placed it
in El Paso. Needless to say, the 1886 courthouse was beginning to
burst at the seams, and its end was not far off.
In 1913, Judge A. S. J. Eylar led a movement to construct a
new county building. Many El Pasoans also wanted a structure large
enough to enclose a large-scale auditorium. An editorial in the El
Paso Herald-Post supported the construction of one large enough
to hold conventions and concerts.
for a new courthouse, designed by the architectural firm of Trost & Trost, were
accepted by the Commissioners Court on September 23, 1915. The new courthouse
would also include a jail and a farmers market. The wings of the building surrounded
the 1886 structure which was then razed to make room for the 2,900-seat auditorium.
With the demise of the original courthouse, there was no longer a monument to
symbolize the hard-fought struggle to gain the county seat.
The auditorium's first use occurred on April 17, 1918 when
William McAdoo, the United States Secretary of the Treasury,
appeared at a patriotic gathering during World War I to hawk Liberty
Bonds for the war effort. Thus it was that the auditorium became
known as Liberty Hall.
Everyone would probably agree that the Trost courthouse was
majestic, even though it bore no resemblance to the one it had
replaced. Twelve mammoth columns across the front presented an
elegant and grand appearance. It was a more-than sufficient building
for its time, but later its very design would eventually limit its
usefulness. The auditorium, which was situated between the two
horseshoe wings, split the building in half.
Forty years later, in 1955, when a major remodeling job was
undertaken to add more space, it also obliterated the imposing face
of the building by completely removing the colonnade. The result
was the most bland and uninspiring front to ever grace a public
building. Many people spoke against this rape of the old building,
but the voices of preservation and foresight were not as organized
and vocal as they are today.
As part of the remodeling program, another horseshoe shaped structure was wrapped around the outer walls of Liberty Hall to make way for more office space. Several stories were added to the top of the original Trost building to house the sheriff's department and the county jail on one side, and the city police and city jail on the other.
The primary reason for remodeling was to bring El Paso city government into the building as a co-tenant. As part of the project, the 1888 City Hall, located near the intersection of Kansas and San Antonio Streets, was demolished. The city then moved into the remodeled building which became known as the El Paso City-County Building.
In 1979, city government moved into its own new ten-story City Hall, west of the downtown area. The move did provide some additional space for the county, but it was not a permanent solution. The growing court system and expanding county offices required continual remodeling which resulted in crazy-quilt floor layouts and an endless maze of corridors. Sometimes, a single department would be scattered in several locations and on different floors. Courtrooms and their office personnel were disbursed in hodgepodge fashion throughout the building.
Overcrowding was only part of the problem. By the late 1980's,
the building was plagued with an obsolete heating and cooling
system, an overloaded electrical system, grossly deficient elevator
service, and too-numerous-to-mention fire code violations.
Fortunately, the extent of these problems was not lost on the
public. Unless one happened to work in the courthouse, it was
almost impossible for the ordinary citizen to find the appropriate
office or department. More importantly, every week hundreds of
prospective jurors had to assemble in Liberty Hall to report for jury
duty. The desperate condition of the Hall, which had not been used
for any other public purpose for almost twenty years, convinced the
voting public that something new was needed.
In 1985, County Judge Pat O'Rourke formed a blue-ribbon
citizens commission to formulate what needed to be done and to
galvanize the public's support. His successor, Luther Jones, then
led a bond issue election that was overwhelmingly approved. The
mandate was that the new courthouse would be built on the same
site as the existing one which had been the official seat of county
government since 1885.
the bond election, architects presented two proposals to the county government.
One called for the standing courthouse to remain intact, but to raze Liberty
Hall, and build a twenty-story court addition on the site. But during the inspection
of the old courthouse, it was discovered that the floor-to-floor heights varied
by as much as twelve to eighteen feet. If a new building were located on the
site, it would somehow have to match these differing heights, or the old building
and the new one would have to be connected with a series of ramps. Another problem
confronted the architects - the old building's column spacing was not in keeping
with modern office standards. This proposal would have also required the leasing
of outside office space during the construction period, and necessitated two
massive moves of the courthouse occupants and the office furnishings - one move
out of the old building and another back into the new building.
- The second proposal called for the complete demolition of the building on the south half of the block, right up to the original back wall of the courthouse. All offices in the old courthouse would continue to function, and the construction of the new one could proceed without interruption. Only one move would be required; then the old building on the north side of the block could be demolished to make way for a new main entrance. This proposal was finally accepted.
- Before work began, a geologic survey was made and it revealed a water table between 55 and 60 feet which was high compared to nearby buildings. The reason for this phenomenon is unknown, but deeply-entrenched pillars of concrete proved to be the solution. The construction figures speak for the enormous size of the project. The building is fourteen stories high, counting the basement and the mechanical floor, and contains over 405,000 square feet of usable space. Thirty thousand cubic yards of concrete were used in its frame, and some of the piers underground are over one hundred feet deep and six feet in diameter.
- The floor plan called for the high-traffic offices to be placed on the lower floors. These included the district and county clerks, the district and county attorneys, and the Commissioners Court and its offices. The upper floors would house the sixteen trial courts and their offices, the Family Law Courtmasters, the Eighth Court of Appeals, the County Law Library, and a ceremonial courtroom. Three of the floors are vacant and reserved for future use. The building is so designed that two additional floors can be added.
- The typical layout of a courtroom and its offices consists of the judge's chamber and conference room, a jury room, and offices for the court secretary or coordinator, the bailiff, and the court reporter. Outside the public entrance to each courtroom are two small interview rooms and a witness room.
- In order to accommodate the large number of criminal cases, a prisoner-holding cell is shared by each two courts. The cell is separate and secure from any other part of the building, and can only be reached by elevators used exclusively for transporting prisoners.
- The main entrance on the north side of the building presents a striking view of the entire office. Made of Texas red granite, it extends up wards to the height of the fifth floor of the main building, and is built in the traditional shape of a southwestern mission parapet. The entire structure is sheathed in sky-blue glass forming a backdrop for the red granite entrance.
- The top floor, or thirteenth story, is known as the Mechanical Penthouse. All the heating and cooling equipment is controlled from the building manager's office located there. If any kind of malfunction occurs, the system sounds an alarm and then prints a report for its maintenance. With the use of state-of-the-art controls, part of the building can be cooled, while the rest might be heated.
- To the public and courthouse personnel, one of the most tangible improvements is the elevator service. Five high-speed lobby elevators are in constant use, and gone are the days when taking the stairs was faster. Each elevator has an audio voice which announces each floor and the "up or down" direction.
- It has never been an easy task for county government to dedicate huge sums of money to projects the size of new court houses. Sometimes it is a wonder that the project ever got completed at all. Nay-sayers, stonewalling, back-biting, grand-standing, obstructionism, and even outright scandal have always been part of the day-to-day fare in seeing a project like this through to its end. Everyone has his or her own opinion, and wants his or her contribution, great or small, to be a matter of public record. In effect, much of the work becomes construction-by-committee, and changes in the master contract seemingly occur on a daily basis. And there is, of course, no project of a comparable size that ever comes in under-budget, no matter how noble the intentions were in the beginning
- But this is how democracy is supposed to work. Somehow, after all the hand-writing and head-butting are over, the finished product turns out to be a proud monument, and that is no less the case here. It is an enjoyable building to work in, and the county has a fitting place for its governmental functions. The future has been adequately provided for, and the public can now see the end result of all its patience and contributed tax dollars. The building is primarily for the public's use, and it has something now with which it can be very pleased.