Mills County Courthouse

Mills County Courthouse

1st Courthouse

Building Completion Date: 1890
County Seat: Goldthwaite
Present Status: Gone
Architect: Oscar Ruffini
Architectural Style: Second Empire
Building Materials/Description: 2-story, stone, plans originated with W.W. Larmour (of San Antonio) but were used without permission by the contractor J. H. Walker for the Tom Green County Courthouse – The supervising architect for the Tom Green County Courthouse was Oscar Ruffini who sent a copy of the plans and a photo of the courthouse to his brother Frederick Ernst Ruffini (of Austin) who in turn modified them for the Blanco County Courthouse and for contractor Captain James B. Smith who then used the Ruffini design for the Callahan County Courthouse and the Concho County Courthouse. – Oscar Ruffini then reused the F. E. Ruffini plans for the Mills and Sutton County Courthouses

2nd Courthouse

Building Completion Date: 1913
County Seat: Goldthwaite
Present Status: Existing. Active.
Architect: Henry T. Phelps
Architectural Style: Classical Revival
General Contractor: Gordon-Jones Construction Company, San Antonio
Building Materials/Description: 4-story dark brick structure with limestone details including high relief pediment over 2-story Ionic columns supported by brick base accentuated by first floor horizontal banding. Limestone water table/base. $68,031.10

The Mills County Courthouse (1913) in Goldthwaite, Texas, is a 3-story Classical Revival building with a raised basement designed by architect Henry T. Phelps of San Antonio, Texas. Constructed of cast-stone at the basement and brick for the upper three floors, the building follows a modified rectangular plan, with the north, east and west facades composed of identical elements including centered cast stone entry stairs with solid curvilinear balustrades leading up to double entrance doorways capped with arched divided-light transoms. Fluted engaged columns topped with Ionic capitals support copper architraves capped with ornate pediments of pressed stone and brick on these three facades. The south façade is much simpler in design, not including the Ionic engaged columns, pediment, or the copper dentil course cornice. An intricate landscape plan, designed by Hal E. Stringer in 1968, defines the Courthouse Square. The Mills County Courthouse retains its integrity of location, setting, materials, design, workmanship, feeling and association.

Goldthwaite (population 1,763) is the county seat of (and largest city in) rural Mills County (population 4,968 in 1990). Located at the convergence of U.S. highways 84 and 183 in the central part of the county, Goldthwaite was established in 1885, with the coming of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. The town was named after Joe G. Goldthwaite, the railroad official who conducted the auction of town lots.

The Mills County Courthouse is located in the center of Goldthwaite on block 15 of the original town known as the “Public Square.” The square is bound by 4th street on the north, Parker Street on the west, 5th street on the south, and US 183 (also known as Fisher Street) on the east. A four-foot wide sidewalk defines the entire courthouse block. The landscape of the square is dominated by large pecan and oak trees, and is terraced with retaining walls (1968, non-contributing). Many features of the original design remain including many surviving plants such as ligustrum, nandina, jasmine, juniper and mountain laurel. The courthouse square in Goldthwaite is a central point of commerce in the town. The square is the home to the post office, the largest bank in town, a bustling café, and the local newspaper, The Goldthwaite Eagle.

Each elevation of the Mills County Courthouse is symmetrical with Classical Revival styling. The north, east, and west façades feature a centered flight of cast stone steps with solid curvilinear balustrades leading up to a double entrance doorway capped with an arched divided light transom. Directly above the doorway is an intermediate cornice of cast stone that runs the length of the façade ornamented with a dentil course at the center. This cornice serves as a base for 2-story non-fluted engaged columns topped with Ionic capitals, which support a copper architrave (four engaged columns on the east and west façades, and six on the north or primary façade). A brick band separates the copper architrave from the copper dentil course cornice. These three facades are capped with an ornate pediment of pressed stone and brick, and another copper dentil course. A brick parapet with a cast stone cap flanks the pediment.

The courthouse’s windows are placed symmetrically above and flanking the centered entrance. Fenestration on the east and west façades are identical. At the basement level, three single windows flank the steps (all 2/2 double hung). At the first floor level, a double window bay and a single window bay, all with divided light arched transoms, flank the doorway which has a cast stone surround with a decorative key stone. The second and third floor levels have three rectangular double window bays flanked by a single rectangular window bay. The arched divided transoms appear only on the entry level.

The north (primary) façade is symmetrical, and encompasses a central building projection. On the projection, at the basement level, two single windows flank the steps. At the first floor level, a double window bay with divided arched transoms flank the doorway which has the same features as the east and west façades. The second and third floor levels have three double window bays spaced equally and spanning the building projection. The sides flanking the building projection have four single window bays at each floor level. The building’s nine-foot projection allows for single bay windows, facing east and west, at each floor level.

The south façade is composed of the same elements found in the other three façades, but is simpler in design. Although the center of the façade protrudes like the north façade, it does not have the Ionic engaged columns, pediment, or the copper dentil course cornice found on the other elevations. A centered flight of cast stone stairs, without the solid balustrade, leads up to an entrance doorway with an arched divided light transom window. The entrance and window bays directly above are offset by ½-story to accommodate the interior staircase. Thus the doorway terminates the lower cornice that separates the basement and first floor levels, and only has a surround on the arch. The decorative keystone, however, is present. The intermediate cornice of cast stone is present, as is the copper architrave and brick parapet with cast stone cap. On the projection, at the basement level, two single window bays flank the entrance door. At the first floor, second floor, and third floor levels, double window bays flank the central windows, which are offset. Only the first floor windows showcase the divided arched transoms. Identical to the north façade, the sides flanking the building projection have four single window bays at each floor level. The south façade’s nine-foot projection also allows for single bay windows, facing east and west, at each floor level.

The Classical Revival theme of the Mills County Courthouse continues on the principal floors of the interior. Extensive use of gray marble wainscoting, patterned terrazzo floors, decorative door trim, and interior transom windows reflect the exterior design and are fitting for the building’s use. A grand marble staircase at the south end of the building, with cast iron newel posts and a brass handrail, adds distinction. The central 3-story rotunda crowned with a skylight fills the courthouse with natural light.

The ceiling in the original county and district courtroom has been lowered, cutting the original 2-story space in half. The courtroom, however, still retains the marble wainscoting, and the windows, Corinthian pilasters and a coffered ceiling are also intact above the dropped ceiling.

Four objects are located on the courthouse square. The monuments include the cornerstone of the first Mills County courthouse (1913, contributing), a statue dedicated to the soldiers of the Confederacy (1915, contributing), a marker dedicated to early settlers and pioneers (1989, non-contributing), and a Texas Highway Department marker noting the founding of Mills County (1936, contributing).

The Old County Jail (1888) is situated on the southeast corner of the square. Now home to the Mills County Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, the 2-story Italianate building of rough-faced sandstone and smooth limestone served as the county jail until 1977. It has a low-pitched hipped roof of composite shingle and features overhanging eaves supported by decorative brackets. The jail features tall arched windows comprised of double hung sashes. The windows have limestone window crowns in an inverted U shape with keystone centers and decorative brackets supporting each windowsill. Both stories of the building exhibit these window details with single and grouped (2) windows placed symmetrically on each façade. The building is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1965), and a National Register of Historic Places property (1979).

The Mills County Courthouse remains unaltered, except for the replacement of some windows and doors. It has been well maintained and retains its integrity of location, setting, materials, design, workmanship, feeling and association.

Statement of Significance

The Mills County Courthouse (1913) is the most prominent building in Goldthwaite, the county seat of rural Mills County. The county is predominantly agricultural, producing mohair, pecans, prize club lambs and cattle. Early settlers of Mills County (created 1887), recognizing the need for a place for governmental business, built the first courthouse in 1890. Constructed after fire destroyed the original courthouse in 1912, the Classical Revival style building was designed by Henry T. Phelps. The 3-story building of brick and cast stone sits on Block 15, known as Public Square, of the original town. Gordon-Jones Construction Company of San Antonio, Texas, worked as the builder. The main entrance was originally on the north façade of the building along Fourth Street. Today, the east façade of the building, along U.S. Highway 183, is most commonly utilized as the main entrance. The courthouse continues to be the nucleus of the county’s political and social activity. The Mills County Courthouse retains a good degree of integrity and meets Criterion A in the area of government, and Criterion C in the area of architecture, both at the local level of significance.

Mills County was created from parts of Brown, Comanche, Hamilton, and Lampasas counties by an act of the Texas Legislature approved February 26, 1887. The county was named for John T. Mills, a prominent Texas judge, and its area covers 734 square miles of hills and plateaus that drain to the Colorado River, its western boundary.

The area later known as Mills County served as the hunting grounds of the Apache and Comanche. The first white settlers also subsisted as hunters and had several conflicts with the Native tribes of the region. The settlement period of the late 19th-Century was turbulent. During the Civil War, Mills County attracted thieves and deserters. Vigilante groups began to police the county. Eventually the situation degenerated into lawlessness, requiring the Texas Rangers to intervene in 1897.

By 1885 the population of the area now comprising Mills County had increased significantly. There were five struggling villages within the area including Center City, Williams Ranch, Mullin, Star and a village of tents beginning to grow on the Santa Fe railroad line on the present site of Goldthwaite. It was thought that Goldthwaite would be a division point of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe railroads. Promoters of the tented village announced the first train would pass over the railroad on September 2, 1885 and advertised lots for sale. By 1888, Goldthwaite had a sturdy stone jail on the southeast corner of its Public Square.

A special election was called to select a county seat, on October 10, 1889. The contesting places were Mullin, Goldthwaite, and a new town site designated by a peg driven into the ground, aptly named Pegtown. As a result of the election, Goldthwaite was declared the official County seat on October 10, 1889, two years after the organization of Mills County. Mills County did not have a regular courthouse for almost three years after its organization. Instead of using a specific building, the county rented privately owned rooms and buildings for official purposes.

Goldthwaite’s population grew to over 1,200 by 1898 with three churches, two cotton gins, two gristmills, and one public and one private school. A bank, a weekly newspaper, and several stores operated around the public square. The Santa Fe railroad constructed shops and a roundhouse switch in Goldthwaite, but labor problems prompted the company to move its division point to Brownwood. Goldthwaite’s growth was not significantly affected by the loss of the railroad, as commercial and political activity in Mills County remained centered on the city’s public square. As the county seat, Goldthwaite drew people from the surrounding rural community to conduct business and legal affairs. Erected in the center of the public square, the courthouses of Mills County serve as prominent community landmarks of government and politics.

1890 Courthouse

At a special meeting of Mills County Commissioners Court, Judge J.P. Grundy submitted a motion to build a courthouse. Two County Commissioners voted for, and the other two voted against. Judge Grundy cast the deciding vote to erect the courthouse on the public square. The Commissioners Court appointed A.V. Patterson, G.H. Dalton, and S.L. Cooke to visit Paint Rock (Concho County) and San Angelo (Tom Green County), Texas, for the purpose of examining courthouses and selecting one as a model for a courthouse in Goldthwaite.

The Mills County Commissioners Court adopted plans of architect Oscar Ruffini, of San Angelo, Texas, for a courthouse. Ruffini designed a 2-story stone building in the Second Empire style featuring a Mansard roof and a classically inspired pediment. Ruffini designed the 1891 Sutton County Courthouse in the Second Empire style and his brother, F. E. Ruffini, utilized this style in the 1883 Concho County Courthouse.

The court authorized Judge Grundy to advertise for bids to build the courthouse according to plans and specifications. At a special meeting held on October 1, 1889, the Mills County Commissioners Court opened bids and approved those submitted by John Carmack of Lampasas, Texas, to build Mills County’s first courthouse for $27,500, payable with courthouse bonds. John Carmack’s contract to build the courthouse was examined and approved in an open meeting of the Mills County Commissioners Court. According to his contract, Carmack would furnish all materials, perform all labor, and deliver the courthouse completed on or before June 12, 1890. After that date Carmack would pay five dollars per day to Mills County Commissioners Court. The County Commissioners Court accepted Mills County’s first regular courthouse on June 25, 1890.

Twenty-two years later, on May 5, 1912, the first courthouse burned beyond usage. The Lampasas Leader chronicled the disaster. “It was an elegant structure, erected under the leadership of Judge J.P. Grundy in 1890, the walls being of native stone and the interior of excellent finish and well furnished.” The fire occurred at midnight, and nothing was saved except the contents of one vault, another vault being destroyed by falling walls and timbers. An insurance policy covering the building and contents, left the County Commissioners Court $20,000 to construct a new courthouse.

1913 Courthouse

The Mills County Commissioners Court met on May 6, 1912, in the Dr. M.L. Brown Building in Goldthwaite, and designated the following places for county purposes during the construction of the second courthouse:

District Court – Rock Hotel Opera House
Mills County Commissioners Court – Brown Building
Grand Jury – Masonic Lodge Building
Five offices – Post Office
Three offices – Brown Building

The court appointed Dave P. Bell as guard and watchman for the Records of Mills County and agreed to advertise for bids to remove the ruins of the burned courthouse.

Between May 6th and August 3rd, 1912, the County Commissioners Court held two public meetings regarding the cost of the new courthouse. The outcome of the meetings was to call for $55,000 in bonds to pair with the insurance settlement, providing $75,000 for the construction. The Goldthwaite Eagle reported:

It is believed that fully that much money will be necessary to secure a building suited to the county’s needs and it is likely the court will arrange for a building of that character. The court will meet in regular session one week from next Monday and will likely select an architect to prepare plans and at the same time submit to the people the question of issuing bonds. With the insurance settled, the time for bond election near at hand and the size and price of the building practically agreed upon it should now be but a short time until the building of the new courthouse is under way.

On August 6, 1912, Henry T. Phelps of San Antonio, was chosen by the Mills County Commissioners Court as the architect to design and make proper specifications for a new courthouse. Phelps was a prolific courthouse architect. By the time he was retained by Mills County, he had built the Frio County Courthouse in Pearsall (1904), and the Terrell County Courthouse (1906), and had just designed the Atascosa County Courthouse in Pleasanton. Phelps was born in Anaqua, Texas, in 1871 and opened his first architectural office in San Antonio in 1902. Before his death in 1944, Phelps designed numerous public buildings throughout Texas, including the City Hall and Fire Station in San Angelo. The other courthouse projects he was involved with include Jim Hogg (1913), Blanco (1916), Kenedy (1917), Schleicher (1924), Uvalde (1927), San Patricio (1928), Kimble (1929), and LaSalle (1931). Phelps’ early projects, during the first three decades of the 20th century, featured classical plans with Romanesque details such as hipped roofs, towers, and arched corbel tables. The Atascosa Courthouse (1912) differed from these earlier examples of his work by featuring elements of the Mission Revival style. Afterwards, he shifted his emphasis to classically inspired designs, often featuring columns and pedimented entries. The Mill’s County Courthouse was the first to exhibit these characteristics, followed by the Courthouses in Jim Hogg County and Blanco County. Later, the Courthouses in Kenedy, Shcleicher, Uvalde, and San Patricio counties incorporated Beaux Arts tenets into classical plans. Phelps’ later works, such as Kimble and LaSalle County Courthouses, exhibited the architect’s Art Moderne influences. The Mills County Courthouse exemplifies a period in the evolution of its architect’s career. Along with Classical Revival features, such as colossal columns, symmetrical massing, and prominent pediment, the Mills County Courthouse’s design incorporates Mission inspired elements like the stepped limestone parapet as well as contemporary elements, such as dark brick as the primary construction material.

On the same day as Phelps’ selection, the first of many letters to the editor regarding the price of the new courthouse was published in the Goldthwaite Eagle. D.T. Bush of Caradan, Texas, argued that the majority of Mills County residents did not want a courthouse that cost $75,000, nor did the county need, now or in the future, a building with that price tag. Bush continued to argue: “As to the mass meetings mentioned, I do not consider that they gave the people anything like a fair chance, as they were held in Goldthwaite, where most of those, who favor a high priced court house live.” It was Bush’s position that “country people” could not attend the meetings because they would have to close down their businesses for an entire day to travel to Goldthwaite, and that any other city in the county would have been a more appropriate choice.

S.H. Allen, the County Judge, rebutted Bush’s letter on August 24, 1912. In his editorial entitled “That Court House Matter,” Allen says, “On every debatable question honest men may differ…What I desire here is to bring the problem to every one of you, and ask you to solve it in the light of your own interests.” Allen reiterated that he held a mass meeting of citizens on May 6th, and they all agreed upon the kind of courthouse desired; and a second mass meeting of the citizens held on July 13th responded to those who were agitated about the proposed cost of the courthouse. The citizens at this meeting asserted their belief that the cost of the courthouse should not exceed $75,000. To directly address Bush himself, Allen stated that “That man whose sole thought and aim is to array country folk against people living in town is either very short sighted or is actuated by bad motives. He is a friend of nobody and is a malefactor in the country where he lives.”

County business continued as normal, and on August 31, 1912, W.N. Sullivan received the Mills County contract to remove the debris from the courthouse grounds for $949.00. Also that same day, four letters to the editor of the Goldthwaite Eagle were published, three in favor of the $55,000 bond issue for the “good court house,” and one adamantly opposed from Caradan, Texas. The Eagle also published an editorial explaining the considerable space given to the matter of the courthouse and the bond issue. “This is a matter that should be considered by every tax payer in the county, and the Eagle sincerely hopes that the bonds will be authorized by the voters, for the court house must be built and the bond method is by far the best for all concerned.” On September 21, 1912, the bond election was held and authorized, with less than half of the citizens casting their votes the issue past with 571 voting for and 217 voting against.

With the bond issue settled, the Mills County Commissioners Court was able to resume construction plans for the new courthouse. County Judge S.H. Allen accepted Henry T. Phelps’ plans and specifications for the new courthouse on October 14th, and the building contract was let to Gordon-Jones Construction Company of San Antonio, Texas, on October 28th.

On November 17, 1913, the Commissioners Court, at a price totaling exactly $67,776.68, accepted the second courthouse for Mills County. The original contract price was $68,031.10, but a reduction was caused by the forfeit paid by the contractor for failing to complete the building in the time required by the contract. Many comments were made in a article in the Goldthwaite Eagle published on December 20, 1913, that the courthouse seemed too big for the current functions of the County, but the building was well worth the price paid and “was decidedly creditable to the county.”

The landscape of the square is dominated by large pecan and oak trees, and is terraced with retaining walls (1968, non-contributing). The landscape architect for the current configuration was Hal Stringer of Waco. Stringer won numerous awards during his career, and his work appeared on the cover of the magazine Southern Living in 1984 (his works were featured several times within the magazine during the 1980s). Many features of Stringer’s design remain, including many shrubs such as ligustrums, nandinas, and jasmines. Junipers and mountain laurel have also survived.

The Mills County courthouse continues to be the nucleus of the county’s political and social activity making it a landmark in a rural community. The courthouse maintains its integrity of location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. It is nominated under Criterion A in the area of politics/government and Criterion C in the area of architecture as a good local example of a Classical Revival public building by prominent Texas architect, Henry T. Phelps. The Mills County Courthouse square includes the Courthouse (1913), the Old Jail (1888, NR 1979), the previous courthouse cornerstone (1913, contributing); Confederate hero statue (1915, contributing); Texas Highway Department marker (1936, contributing), and a marker to early settlers (1989, non-contributing


Posted on

July 18, 2017