Tracing History: The Seven Courthouses of Liberty County

Liberty County Courthouse

Upon establishing the Municipality of Liberty in 1831, Jose Francisco Madero designated several plazas or squares, according to Mexican law, including a square measuring 120 varas (333.33 feet) on each side for the Casa Consistorial or Court House.  In Madero’s report of the election of the officers of the Ayuntamiento of the Villa de la Santissima Trinidad de la Libertad (later Liberty), which was communicated to the Chief of the Department of Bexar in May of 1831, he referenced the “Court Room of the Town of Liberty.” 

Madero had arrived in Atascosito in early 1831 and by March 30 had selected the league of land occupied by Juan M. Smith as the site for the location of a town.  During this period there would have been enough time to build, by May of that year, the “hewed log building” which was described by David Carlton Hardee as the first Liberty County Courthouse in 1840 in his “Reminiscences of Texas as a Republic” published in The Patron and Gleaner, a newspaper in Northampton County N.C. 

The next known description of a Liberty County courthouse was mentioned in a letter penned by Jesse D. Lum in 1891.  Lum describes the courthouse in the summer of 1843 being “a framed house, one story, 24 X 28 feet, studded with peeled pine poles and weatherboarded with split cypress boards.”  This would have been the second courthouse, constructed sometime after the latter part of the year 1840.   

The third courthouse was a two-story frame structure, 32 feet by 40 feet, constructed of cypress and pine lumber and erected on cypress blocks two feet above the ground.  The lower floor, with fourteen-foot ceiling, served as the court room.  The upper floor, with a ten-foot ceiling, was divided into four rooms of equal size.  An advertisement for sealed proposals to construct the courthouse appeared in a Houston newspaper in May of 1838, but the project did not commence until December 1842.  At that time the Board of Trustees of the Town of Liberty entered a contract with John S. Booth to construct a courthouse.  There were numerous delays and conflicts with the contractor but finally, the courthouse was built and accepted by the Trustees on Oct. 27, 1849.  All bills were paid by Feb. 1, 1850, ending a seven-year period from contract to completion on Liberty County’s third courthouse.

By December 1856, it was necessary to build a larger and more suitable courthouse and in February 1857, the Trustees of the Town of Liberty donated all of  the Town’s surplus monies to the County Court to assist in the building a brick courthouse.  Liberty’s fourth courthouse constructed of brick was financed primarily from the sale of land belonging to the Town of Liberty.  Its construction had been completed by Sept. 18, 1857, on which date the Town Trustees established the Northeast cornerstone of this brick courthouse as a permanent point for the surveying of all lots in the Corporation of Liberty on the East side of the Trinity River.  On the morning of Dec. 27, 1872, this brick courthouse caught fire destroying the entire building.  Also destroyed were most of the records.  While the county commissioners were planning a new structure, a fire occurred on Dec. 12, 1874, at Key’s Hall, the temporary District Courtroom, and the storage site for most of the salvaged records from the earlier fire.  All were consumed by fire.

Not until Nov. 13, 1876, did the commissioners appoint a committee “to consider the propriety of building a Court House.”  On March 21, 1877, this committee was authorized to prepare plans, specifications, and a contract for the construction of a “Brick Court House for Liberty County.”  In May construction began on the fifth Courthouse, the second one to be constructed of brick.  This building deteriorated very rapidly as major repairs were needed within five years after this courthouse had been constructed.

By 1895, it was decided a new courthouse should be constructed.  The existing courthouse, less than 20 years old, was condemned and ordered removed from the square.  The records and courts were moved to temporary spaces near the courthouse square until a new building could be completed.  Liberty County’s sixth Courthouse was completed and accepted on March 4, 1896.  It was of pressed brick construction and was three stories in height.  It was erected at a cost of $40,000.  This courthouse had a pleasing design and was a popular gathering place for the citizens of Liberty.  Rising from the center of the building was an observation tower which provided excellent views of the surrounding area and a wonderful spot for photography.  This tower was topped by a cupola upon which a statue, referred to as the “Goddess of Liberty,” was erected. 

By mid-1927, there was a question of making substantial repairs to the old courthouse or constructing a new building came before Commissioners Court.  After inspection, it was determined that the old red brick courthouse was no longer adequate for the needs of Liberty County including storage of records.  The commissioners ordered plans and specifications be prepared for a new courthouse and by Nov. 10, 1930, they had entered a contract. 

Liberty County’s seventh Courthouse was constructed of Texas Cordova Cream Limestone of Art Deco Design popular in this era, featuring Spanish masonic tile floors, steam heating and refrigerated water fountains, at a cost of $210,000; it was completed and ready for occupancy by October 1931.  This courthouse was renovated, and an annex constructed on the west side in 1957 to expand office space.  The current courthouse has the distinction of having the largest district courtroom in the entire state of Texas since 1931.

Historical information compiled by Linda Jamison, chairman of the Liberty County Historical Commission

1 COMMENT

  1. This is an excellent compilation by Mrs. Jamison-Henry and the Bluebonnet staff.

    There are many features of our courthouse that have become less accessible over the years, primarily for security reasons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if once or twice a year, the courthouse could be opened for a public tour on a Saturday or Sunday when it would ordinarily be closed allowing us all to see sights off-limits to most of us throughout the year. Two natural dates come quickly to mind, the Jubilee in the spring and the TVE Fair & Rodeo in the fall when weather is most pleasant.

    Things to see might include views from the roof, which are majestic; court room tours, including back rooms, judges chambers, jury rooms, and holding rooms for defendants in custody during trial; maintenance areas where walls from the old red brick courthouse are still exposed – our current limestone shell was built around the core of the older courthouse; secret nooks and crannies known only to current and past occupants, some still being discovered.

    Our courthouse is the centerpiece and jewel of our historic downtown. Thanks for aiding in celebrating its rich history and utility, not forgetting or insulting it with another half-baked remodeling idea or annex further striping functions from the heart of Liberty County, Courthouse Square.

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