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 Texas : Architecture : Courthouses : Decatur

Wise County Courthouse
County seat - Decatur, Texas

Text and photos
by Sam Fenstermacher


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Wise County courthouse tower
County - Wise
County Seat - Decatur
County Population (2000) 48,793


County Courthouse
Constructed 1897
Architect J. Riely Gordon
Designation National Register Listing - 1976
Texas Historic Landmark - 1963
Wise County courthouse chimney

Wise County History

The first known inhabitants of Wise County were probably Wichita Indians. When the Coronado expedition came through the area of present Decatur in 1540, there were several Indian villages between the Trinity and Red rivers. The history of white settlement in Wise County began with Sam Woody who moved to Deep Creek in 1854, and his original log cab remains as a historic site today in what is now Cooke County.

Wise County was officially established by The Texas Legislature on January 23, 1856 with land drawn mostly from Cooke County, and was named in honor of Henry A. Wise, a United States Congressman from Virginia who had supported the annexation of Texas. The location of the county seat of Wise County was selected by a county election and, although the town was originally named Taylorsville early town pioneer Colonel Absolam Bishop petitioned to change the town's name to Decatur after becoming disappointed with President Zachary Taylor. Decatur remains the seat of Wise County government to the present.
Wise County Courhtouse
Wise County Courthouse today

Photo courtesy Sam Fenstermacher, March, 2004
Wise County Courthouse, Decatur Texas

The courthouse as it appeared in 1940

Photo Courtesy of TXDoT

The Courthouse

The present courthouse is the forth constructed in the county. The third courthouse was destroyed by fire on January 8, 1895. The burning of the third courthouse set off a controversy over the location of the county seat. An election was held in November of 1895 to see if the new courthouse should be constructed at a new location. Voters confirmed by a wide margin that Decatur was to remain the county seat.

Plans for a courthouse were accepted from several architects, but on May 10, 1895 the contract was awarded to San Antonio architect J. Riely Gordon who agreed to also superintend the project for a fee of 5% of construction cost. The contract for construction was awarded to J.A. White who had the lowest bid of $95,000. Construction was to begin before June 1, 1895. In January of 1897, the building was completed and received by the commissioners court for a cost of about $110,000.

The Wise County Courthouse is one of several designed by architect J. Riely Gordon in Texas in the last years of the nineteenth century. This courthouse is often compared to the Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie Texas. Like that building, the Wise County Courthouse is based on the cruciform plan and the Romanesque Revival architectural style which were both used with great success by J. Riely Gordon in Texas.

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Wise County Courthouse stone columns
1895
Materials used on the courthouse exterior include Texas granite in two colors and terra cotta used extensively in the friezes, turrets and dormers. Marble wainscots, stone flooring of contrasting color tiles, and oak doors and trim accent the interior. A winding cast iron staircase in the building's center provides access to the upper floors. Good natural ventilation and lighting are provided by a glass skylight.

The interior of the Wise County Courthouse was remodeled in 1960, but the exterior of the building still retains most of its original details. The building's exterior was sandblasted several years ago in an effort to clean it up and modern plate glass windows and entrance doors were installed. These minor changes while not in keeping with the history of the building do little to detract from this charming old courthouse and the surrounding town square. Anyone who's a fan of old Texas county courthouses or the architectural works of J. Riely Gordon should certainly consider a trip to come and see this grand old building.

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More Information
Wise County on the Web - http://www.wisecounty.com/

Bibliography:
"WISE COUNTY."http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/
The Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/WW/hcw14.html, 2004.
Texas Historical Commission, Texas Historic Sites Atlas., 2003.


Copyright 2004 by Sam Fenstermacher
All rights reserved
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