Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Historic Dallas Part 2: Old Red Courthouse

In Part 2 of our ongoing series of historic Dallas architecture, we visit the grand "Old Red Courthouse," or locally known as "Big Ol' Red". It's currently a museum for Dallas County History & Culture, and "Big" doesn't really do it justice. The thing takes up an entire city block, and looks built to withstand a siege.

For a distance perspective on the size, it dwarfs the rather tall trees surrounding it, and even surrounded by skyscrapers, it cuts an impressive figure when driving into Dallas. And when you're right in front of it, it feels like you're staring at a small mountain.

Of interesting note, the bell tower and clock were not a part of the original design. They were added on after the plans had been drawn up, but before the building stage completed. And unfortunately the original plans were lost to fire. However, despite the same materials, theme, and arches being used, there is an underlying problem. Whoever thought a bell-tower could just be added on afterward didn't realize the added weight of the giant bell, the stress that swinging it would place upon the structure, or the damage that would result.

The tower was, thus, built with the look of the thing, but not the understanding of the necessary engineering skills. As such, use of the bell nearly destroyed the courthouse (as fires had so often done before).

Currently the tower is off-limits, the bell secured, and the top part is apparently so cracked and damaged that they dare not even try to repair it. How ironic that the gargoyle outside the belfry has a look of agony, with his fingers stuck in his ears.

The theme of arches recurs throughout the entire structure. The blue granite is a nice compliment to the red sandstone, and each arch outside the door frames a nice view of the surrounding plazas (such as the JFK Memorial Plaza, Dealey Plaza, and Founders Plaza), as well as some of the other buildings in Dallas. Below is the sign outside, transcribed for your convenience.

The Old Red Courthouse

Designated as public land in John Neely Bryan's 1844 City Plat, this was the site of a log courthouse built after a Dallas County was created in 1846. When Dallas won election as permanent county seat in 1850, Bryan deeded the property to the county and a larger log structure was erected in 1856. County offices occupied a 2-story brick edifice, rebuilt in 1860 after a fire that almost destroyed the city. The fourth courthouse, a 2-story granite structure erected in 1871 survived one fire in 1880 before it burned again in 1890.

The Old Red Courthouse, the fifth seat of county government, was begun in 1890 and completed in 1892. Designed by architect M. A. Orlopp, it exemplifies the Romanesque Revival style with its massive scale and rounded arches. The blue granite of the lower floor and window trim contrasts with the red sandstone of the upper stories. Eight circular turrets dominate the design. A clock tower with a 4500 pound bell originally topped the building, but it was removed in 1919. Two of the four clay figures perched on the roof have also been removed.

To house the expanding county government, a new courthouse was built in 1965. Some offices remained in the 1890's structure which was renovated in 1968.

The windows are consistent with the arch-theme throughout the entire structure, and each window carries the same blue granite on red sandstone throughout. The reflection in the window is of Reunion Tower (which I'll cover someday). Note how the weight is distributed along the blue granite, at the very tops of the arches, and at the bases upon which the arches stand. If you scroll back up and look at the massive doorway arches, you will see that almost all of the arch is granite. This is probably because sandstone could not bear the load.

The eight towers that accent the corners are actually glorified rotundas. There is no staircase or circular enclosed space where they join with the main structure, they are the main structure, simply curved outward, then styled to look like towers.

Nonetheless, the rotundas (and the towers they emulate) are decidedly beautiful, and arguably more functional, as the added space can be used in the rooms they are a part of.

Last, before a glance inward, the courthouse also boasted its own artesian well, now long dried-up and capped.

Just inside the entrance, one will find modern fixtures, new trim, paint, tile, and doors. Though the stained-glass window is original.

It's a beautiful example of work, and looks far more vibrant in person. The meaning behind it, if there ever was one, is unknown. Turning around to look at the interior, the effect is only partially spoiled by all the modern accouterments.

The Civil War Re-enactment Society was out in full force, recruiting in the lobby. They were very friendly and quite clear about their intent to honor the result of the Civil War, and have no desire to bring back slavery or to claim The South won. Considering the number of Civil War buffs in Texas, this is hardly surprising. What did, however, completely put me off was the giant glowing neon Pegasus that not only looks tacky as hell, but obscures the beautiful effect of concentric arches framing one another. It is apparently a permanent addition to the museum, and could not be more tastelessly displayed even if they'd added animatronic clowns to it.

The Mobile Pegasus also gets in the way of taking a decent photo of the grand staircase. My back is literally up against the glass case of the neon sign as I'm trying to get as much of the shot in camera as possible. You can actually pick up the glow of it behind me in the sign up ahead.

The stairs themselves are beautifully executed, and are a fine example of turn-of-the-century iron filigree. The stairs have very little in the way of support except for themselves and the floors and walls they connect to.

The row of arched windows seen in this photo is the reverse side of the wall from the earlier photo outside. Much natural light is let in, and then punctuated with the modern light fixtures. The central stair leads to a double-stair leading up to either side of the second floor. Interestingly, though, most of the second-floor is new. It apparently used to be a mezzanine instead, and it is entirely likely that the stairs led to a sort of gallery view of the lower floor. before progressing on to higher floors.

The vast majority of the stairs have all been reworked, as well as the tiles. However, the steps themselves still feature The Lone Star on a geometric field similar to the webbing on old dollar bills. This shot shows the filigree, "second story" tile, and the steps. This banister is original wood, though most of the rails have been replaced in the renovations.

A few parts of the museum have been deliberately left unfinished and untouched. What you see here are original local-clay tiles from the original structure. These used to line the ceiling of the rooms. Most are long-since gone, but these are plainly visible in the corner of one of the larger rooms. Even with max resolution in Photoshop I wasn't able to make out exactly what the tiles were supposed to be, but most likely if it was clay, it was a simple, easily stamped imprint, rather than something terribly ornate, as clay takes stamps a lot better than it takes etched lines.

If you look closely, you can actually see the faint outline of an arch in some walls where a door currently stands. These outlines have been deliberately left to demonstrate the layout of how the interior used to be where instead now, for practical reasons, a more closed, modern door was required.

Lastly, I wish to thank the museum staff, who were incredibly helpful and patient with all of my questions, and very tolerant of my shutterbugging. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and looking back at what architects were thinking over 100 years ago.

Be sure to check out tomorrow's feature as we examine Part 3 of Historic Dallas: Dealey Plaza.


  1. Hi there! It was nice to come across your blog, wish u luck with the masters degree!
    I'm an undergrad final yr student of architecture...from India

  2. It's a pleasure to meet you, Maj! Do you go to IIT Kharagpur by any chance? They made the news recently for excellence in their architectural program. So far, the more I learn about architecture, the more it fascinates me. Every answer I find, I end up with ten new questions, each with an answer that leads to ten more questions.

  3. We are interested in learning what the foundation of the courthouse was, and how they were able to dig it out and make a parking garage. Do you know anything about that?

  4. I would love to purchase copies of some of the photos of the red courthouse. My father served as a judge there for many years and I would like to suprise him for father's day with a photo collage of some of these wonderful pictures. Could you help me?


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