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Collin County Courthouse

McKinney, Texas

The Embodiment of Human Endeavor

by Guy R. Giersch
Stroll down the east side of the square. Stop. View for a few minutes the towers of the courthouse and you will wonder why they are allowed to remain in their present unsightly condition. The panes in the windows are broken out; the shutters are torn off and lie in the debris in the attic, the rain blows in at the openings.

Bats in the belfry? No one can say, but it is known that hundreds of English sparrows and pigeons find a roosting place in the towers. If Collin County is not able to build a new Temple of Justice … then we can at least put in some window-panes and patch up the holes.

On top of all that, the roof leaks, the floors are warped, and county records are getting soaked.

You would think you were reading a recent report but this came from the May 5, 1921 edition of the Weekly Democrat-Gazette. The same could have been said of conditions prior to the start of restoration and rehabilitation of the Old Collin County Courthouse.

The 1874 Collin County Courthouse in 1908, before remodeling,  McKinney, Texas
The 1874 Collin County Courthouse as it appeared in 1908
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

Collin County Courthouse after 1927 remodeling  , McKinney, Texas
The 1874 Collin County Courthouse after the 1927 remodeling
Photo courtesy texasoldphotos.com

In January 1928, County Judge A.M. Wolford gave the editor of the Weekly Democrat-Gazette a tour of the newly remodeled courthouse. His report dated January 12, 1928 follows:
This imposing new Temple of Justice is now steadily nearing completion. It is a decided improvement over the old structure in appearance since the brickwork has been finished and the entrances are nearing completion. The massive concrete columns at the north and south entrances and the smaller ones to the eastern and western doors will add beauty to the general architectural design of the whole building.
Later that year on February 16, 1928, Reverend J.A. Old, pastor of the First Methodist Church, told the editor of the Weekly Democrat-Gazette his opinion of the newly remodeled building.
I’ve watched with a great deal of interest and appreciation the transformation of the old courthouse, which had gotten to be a painful to the eye and in very bad repair, into a thing pleasurable to the eyes, finely arranged and splendidly substantial.

I am convinced that the building is substantial and well arranged, as if a new building had been erected from the foundation, and in the use of the old walls many thousands of dollars have been saved.

But the thing that is most notable to me is the beauty of the building. I stood at the northeast corner of the square a few days ago and feasted my eyes for a great while on the view that it offered me. There was nothing to jar or grate on the aesthetic senses. Every feature being worked out into fineness and fullest harmony. The color scheme, the proportions and the expressions of substantialness, all harmonize into superb beauty.

Justice should be pictured to us as something attractive and noble by the building that houses it. And this has been admirably achieved in the new courthouse.
Reverend Old was aware of the way architecture embodies the ideals of the builders. It is quite possible that Reverend Old had a classical education where he learned of Jeffersonian ideals that made a connection between politics and architecture. While Jefferson was in France he encountered the Enlightenment philosophers’ admiration for the Roman Republic and the notion that Roman architecture embodied the philosophy of the Republic. After Jefferson viewed the Roman temple at Maison Carrée he adopted the building style into the architectural forms used for the University of Virginia. The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ promoted the concept that humans have certain inalienable rights. Our Constitution reflects the philosophies of the Enlightenment. In order to understand the beauty of the 1927 Collin County Courthouse as compared to that of the 1876 Collin County Courthouse we must understand the times and the philosophy that shaped the minds that shaped the architecture.

Remodeled 1874 Collin County Courthouse, McKinney Texas postcard
The 1927 remodeled Collin County Courthouse,
Neoclassical Revival Style

Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

The Old Collin County Courthouse is a three-story courthouse built in the Neoclassical Revival Style. Neoclassical Revival architectural movement is based on the use of Greek and Roman architectural forms. Architects of the times were inspired by the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which had a classical theme as well as the classically inspired architecture of Andrea Palladio who inspired many of the English and American architects of the 18th and 19th centuries. Neoclassical architects of the early 20th century designed monumental classical style buildings using giant pedimented porticoes, columns, and elaborate cornices. It has been stated that no other style carries so well the elements of dignity, simplicity and monumental repose essential for public buildings.

The Courthouse is a rectangular plan built on a basement that serves as a podium for the building. The band that runs around the building just above the basement windows is called a water table and actually servers a function of diverting water away from the foundation of the building. The second noticeable band is called a stringcourse and it separates the ground floor from the piano noble while the last band on the building forms the entablature. The windows give an indication of hierarchy with each set of windows changing on each of the three floors in both size and treatment of trim.

As you approach the Courthouse you may at first be confused as to which side is the front. Architectural hierarchy indicates that either the north or south entrance should be the front since they are the most heavily detailed of the sides. The east and west sides are scaled down versions of the north and south facades with the same smaller version of Ionic columns with a cornice and parapets with an oculus. The oculi are the watchful eyes of the building and the top parapet the oculi hold clocks, which give us the time of day but also count down our time as we move through life. The very fact that you can enter the courthouse from any side indicates the democratic ideal of all sides are equal.

The north and south facades are dominated by larger stairs that lead up to coupled, Ionic columns that are suspended on either side of doors by piers, which join and form a segmental arch above the entrance. The style is typical of the mannerist architects Palladio and Michelangelo where the columns seem to carry an imaginary, heavy load that is not there as well as being suspended above the ground in a manner, which appears to defy gravity. The treatment is monumental and conveys the very idea of the gravity and weight of the decisions within the ‘Temple of Justice.’

Entasis is evident in these columns. Entasis is a slight convex curve specifically used to create an optical illusion that makes the column appear straight. Entasis creates the illusion of weight as well. The columns form part of a trabeated system, which supports a simplified entablature. The entablature is composed of an unornamented cornice, frieze, and architrave. The scale of the columns and entablature lends itself to the monumentality of the Old Court House.

The segmental arched pier that supports the columns uses a masonry technique that simulates rustication, which emphasizes the joint and creates a sense of a heavy mass to anchor the columns. The cast stone elements that surround the doors have fasces. They symbolize the power of life or death that a Roman Magistrate had over the Roman citizen and a correlation could be made in terms of justice.

The 1874 Collin County Courthouse,  McKinney Texas old photo
The 1874 Collin County Courthouse
Second Empire style

Postcard circa 1908, courtesy THC

1874/1927 Collin Courthouse Cornerstone McKinney TX
The 1874-76/1927 Collin County Courthouse Cornerstone
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, June 2007

It is possible to argue the beauty of the 1876 Second Empire Courthouse is grander than our Neo-classical version of the Court House that stands today. However, when we arm ourselves with the understanding of the use of the Classical idiom used to create the 1927 version we can then understand the beauty, grace, and monumentality that was incorporated into the ‘Old Temple of Justice’ as it stands today. Our forefathers used the classical idiom to capture the very essence of democracy and justice. The same foresight from times past is being shown today by our Civic Leaders. The decision to properly restore the Old Court House and bring back to life a building that has been the center of life in Collin County for over sixty years is as forward thinking as that of our forefathers who saw the need to and understood the importance of quality architecture for the citizens of Collin County.

Restored 1874 old Collin county courthouse, McKinney  Texas
The restored 1874 Collin County courthouse on the square.
Now the McKinney Performing Arts Center.

Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, June 2007

Copyright Guy R. Giersch

Author's Note:
The Old Collin County Courthouse is in the process of being restored and rehabilitated into a community wide multi-use facility. The Courtroom will have a restored Wurlitzer Theatrical Organ installed by a group of theatrical organ enthusiasts. I wrote this article some time past year since many people always say why can’t we have the 1874 version instead of the ugly 1927 version of the courthouse.

I really enjoy your site. Thanks for all your hard work to keep this site up and running. - Guy R. Giersch, Historic Preservation Officer, City of McKinney, TX, February 23, 2005

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