Completed in 1934 during the Great Depression, the U.S. Courthouse symbolized growth and renewed optimism in Fort Worth. Akin to other buildings of the 1930s, its design and construction fit the pattern of the New Deal-era federal building programs enacted to relieve widespread unemployment. Recognizing that the city's existing federal building was inadequate for the burgeoning federal agencies, Congress appropriated $1,215,000 in June 1930 for the construction of a new U.S. Courthouse.
The building's forward-looking design makes a significant contribution to the city's impressive collection of Depression-era architecture. Renowned Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret, in association with prominent local architect Wiley G. Clarkson, designed the building under the direction of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department. Clarkson, a native Texan, designed many buildings in Fort Worth during the 1920s and 1930s, including the Trinity Episcopal Church, the Woolworth Building, and the Texas Christian University Library.
In 1938, artist Frank Albert Mechau was commissioned under the Public Works Administration's art programs to paint three oil-on-canvas panels in the fourth-floor Court of Appeals. Mechau, a realistic painter who romanticized the American West, is a key figure of the western genre-with work on public view in Federal buildings and art museums across the country. Mechau's paintings were installed in 1940, becoming the only New Deal art commission sponsored in Fort Worth.
The U.S. Courthouse was named in honor of Judge Eldon B. Mahon in 2003 for his service in the Northern District of Texas. Judge Mahon presided over some of the most influential social and political cases in north Texas, including overseeing the racial integration of the Fort Worth School District-a 19-year endeavor.
In 2001, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Eldon B. Mahon U.S. Courthouse remains an important landmark in downtown Fort Worth and is a symbol of the continued Federal presence in Tarrant County.
The Eldon B. Mahon U.S. Courthouse is an impressive five-story building, creating the illusion of a solid limestone mass rising to a height of 94 feet. It is designed in the Art Moderne style, incorporating classical elements. A steel and concrete structure faced with limestone veneer, each elevation adheres to classical principles of symmetry and articulation by a regular rhythm of bays with a centralized principal entrance. Art Moderne elements are embodied by the sharp angles and zigzag surfaces seen in the stacked fenestration of the upper stories, and in the geometric, low-relief abstraction of the ornamentation.
The first three floors of the courthouse form a rectangular block, while upper floors are E-shaped, opening to the south to form two, three-sided light wells. Original access to the building was gained through three sets of bronze and glass double doors, flanked by Art Deco lanterns of aluminum and glass fronting West Tenth Street. Aluminum grilles in Mayan ziggurat, zigzag, Plains Indian arrows, and Egyptian lotus motifs are set over each pair of doors. Metal trim with Pueblo designs accentuates the windows of the second, third, and fourth floors. The smooth stone walls of the first story rise to a flattened, dentiled stringcourse before a shallow setback to the upper-story block. The outer bays of the second story have semicircular balconies of corbelled stone and metal railings. In between, eleven sets of three-story, stacked windows are each angled outward to the central mullion, creating a distinctive zigzag pattern across the surface of the facade. The window spandrels separating each floor feature moldings incised with black designs in Pueblo Indian motifs. The elongated bays are capped by horizontal windows at the fifth story, as the stone walls terminate to a flat roof. The east and west elevations are mirror images of each other and vary little from the facade, except in their width.
Sumptuous finishes, crafted of marble and bronze, and Native American and Art Deco-influenced detailing create eye-catching public spaces on the interior. The former postal lobby and the second- and fourth-floor courtrooms are the most architecturally enriched.
The north lobby retains its original terrazzo floor, composed of multicolored marble, forming a zigzag pattern bordered by rectangular designs in pink Lepanto marble along the wall perimeter.
The Federal District Court, located on the second floor, displays finishes of the highest quality. Leather-sheathed doors open onto a room with 21-foot-high walls of rich oak paneling framed by dark Cedar Tennessee marble. Art Deco applications at the judge's white-oak bench and the plaster ornament of the ceiling are decorative focal points.
The Court of Appeals on the fourth floor exhibits similar finishes and motifs, featuring 22-foot-high walls clad in American black walnut paneling that is rounded at the corners in a streamlined effect. The door jambs and engaged columns are Yellow Kasota Fleuri marble, while the plaster ceiling displays a circular band of geometric patterns. At the rear of this room hang Frank Mechau's dramatic murals: "Texas Rangers in Camp," "The Taking of Sam Bass," and "Flags over Texas." Depicting cowboys, rangers and scenic views of Texas, they are recognized for their skillfully executed abstract and linear style.
Extensive renovations in 1994 to create a bankruptcy courtroom and offices partially reversed remodeling done in the 1950s and 1960s. Currently the south half of the lobby has been incorporated into the new courtroom, keeping the original north postal lobby intact. The U.S. Courthouse remains an outstanding example of the 1930s Art Moderne style.
1933: The U.S. Courthouse is constructed
1934: The building opens to the public.
1940: Murals painted by Frank Albert Mechau are installed in the fourth-floor Court of Appeals.
1956: The first floor is remodeled, removing most of the original postal substation features.
1994: The first-floor lobby is renovated to include a new bankruptcy court and associated offices.
2001: The U.S. Courthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
2003: The building is named in honor of Judge Eldon B. Mahon.
Architect: Paul Philippe Cret; Wiley G. Clarkson
Construction Dates: 1933-34
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Location: 501 West Tenth Street
Architectural Style: Art Moderne
Primary Materials: Limestone veneer, concrete, steel, marble
Prominent Features: Multicolored terrazzo flooring; Art Deco detailing; courtroom wood paneling and murals
The structure is steel-frame and concrete, faced with limestone with a single granite starter course. It is a rectangular-shaped building for the basement through the third floor. The fourth floor, fifth floor, and roof are E-shaped due to the presence of two light wells on the south elevation. The primary facade, West Tenth Street, the north elevation, is 216 feet wide. The east elevation, Lamar Street, and the west elevation, Burnett Street, both are 104 feet wide. On its street frontages, the building presents a solid mass, rising 94 feet from the base to the fifth floor cornice. The south elevation faces the remaining half of the block which is currently used for parking.
In addition to the primary elevation's entry stairs, the site has granite entry walks on the east and west elevations; site perimeter concrete sidewalks; entry stairs at the west elevation; and concrete copings (curbs) on the west, north, and east elevations between the sidewalk and building, which set off planting areas which have trees and shrubs. The south elevation's concrete unloading dock has a projecting metal canopy. The concrete parking lot is striped for 26 parking spaces and the entry is flanked by limestone gate posts at the east and west drives.
The north elevation, the primary facade, faces Burnett Park and West Tenth Street. It appears as one largely singular planar mass with a fifth-floor setback of some two feet, typical of all elevations. Two sixth-floor penthouse structures are also present. The east and west elevations are smaller versions of this elevation, except for this elevation's greater length and central entry.
Following the traditional Beaux Arts principles, the Courthouse plan is symmetrical. Access to the centrally-located three sets of double bronze and glass doors is gained by wide gray granite stairs. Each doorway is flanked by Deco-stylized metal and glass lanterns, duplicated at the east and west elevations. Each entry pair of doors is topped by an overlight with aluminum grille work in a ziggurat pattern.
The first floor has four sets of windows on each side of the entry door with decorative aluminum metal grillework at the mullion. At the second through fourth floors, there is a slightly recessed center window bay in which 11 paired windows are present at each of the three levels. These windows are both stacked in elevation and angled out at the center mullion in plan. Each window stack is accentuated by incised narrow metal vertical trim in Hopi Indian design to three-story height and decorative metal spandrels. The fifth floor has 13 pairs of windows. As further accents, at the second story, there are two balconies, semi-circular in plan, with decorative metal railings, a corbelled limestone support, and doors which match other fenestration in style and embellishment.
The limestone is plain-faced except for fluting between the fifth floor windows, a fluted band at the fourth floor mass intermediate parapet/setback, and a projecting cornice at the sill level of the second floor windows of the center window bay.
There is excellent contrast between the starved classicism represented by the simple massing, and the finely detailed ornamental metal work elements representative of the design motifs of Central and North American native tribes.
WEST AND EAST ELEVATIONS
The west and east elevations are mirror images of each other. They are smaller versions of the north elevation and differ from it only in the following aspects. The entry door is at the corner adjacent to the north elevation and is a single set of double bronze doors. The first floor has four pairs of windows. The center recessed window bay has three window stacks. Above the balconies at the second, third, and fourth floors, there is a pair of windows with similar grillework as the balcony doors. The fifth floor has five pairs of windows. Changes from the original plans include, on the east elevation, the replacement of original bronze doors by aluminum doors and replacement of one window by a full-height mechanical system metal louver.
The south (rear) elevation faces onto the parking lot and loading dock areas of the south side of the site and the commercial parking lot of the adjacent site. This elevation appears as a large mass with three stepbacks in plane: two light wells are set back at the fourth floor continuing to the roof and divide these two floors into three projecting masses and two recedent light well spaces; there is a setback of approximately one foot at the second floor in vertical alignment with the light wells; and the entire fifth floor is stepped back approximately two feet across the entire elevation.
The fenestration is less ornate than on the other elevations with the following characteristics: simpler mullions, windows in parallel plane with the walls, no adjacent ornamental metal work trim, no decorated metal spandrels, and no grand entrances. The decorative stonework of the other elevations is continued on this elevation with fluted stonework between the fifth floor windows, on the wall of the fifth floor center bay where there are no windows, and as a band at the stepback between the fourth and fifth floors. A decoratively carved limestone medallion depicting an American eagle with shield is located at the fourth floor level at midpoint of the center bay. The postal loading dock canopy is largely original, providing a strong feature at the first floor level. In sum, this elevation is less ornate in its fenestration than the other elevations, but more impactful in its massing.
Originally, the first floor was designed to house the US Postal Service and Workroom, and the US Army recruiting station. The second floor had the District Courtroom, US Attorney and Marshal offices, federal court reporter, and other support spaces. The third floor housed the petit jury room, bankruptcy referee, grand jury room, probation officer, meat inspection division of the Bureau of Animal Industry of the Department of Agriculture, Internal Revenue Service agents, alcohol tax unit of the IRS and Post Office inspector. The fourth floor had the US Circuit Court of Appeals, offices for five judges, robing room for appellate court judges, grain inspection division of the Department of Agriculture, county agent, county home demonstration agent, US Navy Recruiting Office, and IRS collectors. The fifth floor had the Weather Bureau, divisional headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Roads, the Bureau of Animal Industry, the fruit/vegetable inspection and market news division of the Department of Agriculture, customs service, civil service, narcotics agents, and the US Army reserves. The sixth floor west penthouse was a weather observatory.
Presently, the basement is occupied by the Department of Agriculture, mechanical/electrical rooms, and GSA Building Manager. The first floor is occupied by the US Bankruptcy courts and their associated support spaces. The second floor is occupied by the Judge Means, US District Court, Clerk's Office, US Marshals Office, and associated support spaces. The third floor is occupied by the US Marshal's offices and Department of Justice; US Probation, Judges McBryde and Belew and their associated support services occupy the fourth floor. And the fifth floor has the US District Courts, US Magistrate Courts, and their associated support spaces. The sixth floor penthouse is assigned but unused.
The following description is of the historic interiors at the time of construction. Changes are described in PRESENT INTERIORS.
The basement, which was primarily storage space, had terrazzo floors in the men's swing room (dressing room), men's locker room, men's and women's janitor toilets; ceramic tile in the men's employee toilet and small toilet near the west vestibule; and concrete floors in all other areas. There was marble base in the men's swing and locker rooms. The walls were primarily plaster or concrete, except in the restrooms where they were ceramic tile, and brick in the fuel storage, boiler, US Marshal's storage, and Probation storage rooms. The men's employee toilet had Fossil Gray marble wainscot and stalls. The ceilings were either plaster or unfinished.
The original terrazzo floor of the postal lobby was 18 feet 9-3/4 inches wide along the north public lobby and 15 feet 3 inches in the east and west lobbies. There were marble walls with aluminum grilles for the postal bays along the south side of the main postal lobby. The north elevation of the postal lobby had eight aluminum and glass windows, aluminum grilles below, marble wainscot, and the plaster above the ornamental bands the same as the elevator lobby in the public lobby areas. The bands continue up the wall to the ceiling at a 3-foot on-center repeat pattern. The vestibules at the east and west entrances have terrazzo floors with brass divider strips with marble border. The walls are marble with a decorative plaster ceiling. The entry doors were bronze and glass with aluminum and glass panels above the doors. The postal workroom and office areas had maple end grain block wood floors, plaster walls, and plaster ceilings.
The second floor was devoted to the US District Court and associated support spaces. The terrazzo corridor floor had a chevron pattern with marble base and wainscot, plaster walls, marble soffits and pilasters, and a decorative plaster ceiling at the courtroom entrance. The corridor contained an exquisitely sculpted marble drinking fountain. The US District Courtroom had rubber tile floor, inlaid wood wall panels, marble base, leather-covered entry doors, and decorative plaster ceiling. The railing was oak inlaid wood with a marble base. The library had a rubber tile floor, oak paneled walls and shelving, and a decorative plaster ceiling with continuous ornamental perimeter banding. The judge's chambers had the same detailing with marble base. The offices along the north and south elevation had either oak or rubber tile floors, primarily oak bases, plaster walls and ceilings. The holding cells had concrete floors, plaster walls, and plaster ceilings. The restrooms on the second floor had white tile floors, black tile base, marble wainscot with plaster above, marble stalls, and suspended ceilings.
The third floor corridor had a diamond patterned terrazzo floor, marble base, marble wainscot with a wood cap and plaster above the cap, and plaster ceiling. The petit jury rooms and offices on the southwest, southeast, and north elevations had oak strip floors and base, plaster walls and ceilings. The restrooms of the third, fourth, and fifth floors had similar treatment as the second floor.
The fourth floor corridor was narrower than the lower floors with a patterned terrazzo floor, marble border and base, plaster walls and ornamental plaster band above the door casing, decorative plaster ceiling with plaster cornice at entry to the courtroom, and marble soffits and pilasters. The passageways from the main corridor to the courtroom had terrazzo floors, marble base, plaster walls and ceilings. The Court of Appeals had a rubber tile floor in a herringbone pattern, marble base, walnut inlaid and plain sawn paneled walls, decorative plaster ceiling, aluminum railing/gates, and murals painted by Frank Mechau. The remaining offices had oak strip floors, oak base, plaster walls, and plaster ceilings.
The fifth floor corridor/passageways were only 6 feet wide with patterned terrazzo floors, marble border/base, and plaster walls and ceilings. The doors of the fifth floor had oak either oak or metal frames. The offices had exposed oak strip floors/bases, and plaster walls/ceilings.
The sixth floor included the elevator penthouse, fan room, and Weather Bureau Observatory penthouse/instru- ment platform.
Changes to historic interiors at the basement level have largely been in the area of finishes: new carpet and vinyl floors, dropped acoustical ceilings, and fluorescent lighting in finished spaces.
The first floor public/elevator lobbies have retained most of their historic materials. A 1994 project created a Bankruptcy courtroom and offices on the first floor, which partially reversed previous insensitive remodelings of the 1950s/60s involving portion of the lobby and postal workroom. The post office call windows were removed as part of previous remodelings. Currently, the south half of the postal lobby has been incorporated into a new courtroom area and the north wall of the postal lobby retains its original materials and finishes. Associated court support spaces, US Marshals Office, US Department of Justice, and restrooms make up the rest of the renovated space. The Bankruptcy Courtroom has carpet on the floor, mahogany paneled walls with mahogany base, acoustical ceiling, and mahogany soffit and pilasters. The railing is mahogany with an aluminum gate. The judge's bench and witness boxes are also mahogany.
The two public elevators are just to the north of the east stairwell, each floor with its own lobby. The elevator lobbies have terrazzo floors, marble borders, and walnut wall panels with bronze grilles and accents.
On the second floor, the judge's chambers and associated spaces have undergone substantial change over the years due to frequent remodelings. Some of the historic base, case, and chair rail moldings remain as do a majority of the doors. The clerk's area has been modified and steps added adjacent to the bench. Also the original jury box has been enlarged. The courtroom is intact except that new carpet covers the original rubber tile.
The third floor changes include walls which have either been removed or installed to change office space configurations, and, installation of new carpeting. The corridor and historic restrooms have remained intact.
The fourth floor Court of Appeals has remained intact, except that it is now carpeted. Changes to furnishings include the witness and recorder box (new). Additionally, a duplicate clerks bench was built to serve the court reporter, the step-up surround at the bench was modified, enlarged, marble edged, and pony walls added either side of the bench. The original jury box has been enlarged. The remainder of this floor has undergone changes - removal or installation of walls, carpeting, suspended ceilings. The restrooms have remained largely intact.
The fifth floor has also undergone major changes with reconfiguration of the office spaces and installation of a courtroom. The restrooms and corridor have remained intact.
The sixth floor weather observatory space remains intact.
In June, 1930, the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved $1,215,000 for a new courthouse in Fort Worth. In the summer of 1931, a site at West Tenth and Lamar Streets was selected and purchased which was the site of the Ellis Apartments, a Sinclair Station, and a few frame buildings. The new building was important in that it relieved the over-crowded conditions at the Post Office/Federal Building at Jennings Avenue and Eleventh Street. Due to the worsening national economy both the Treasury and Postal department officials wanted to make the new courthouse stand out as a symbol of strength and hope for the future. To further this end, Paul Philippe Cret of Philadelphia, was chosen in August of 1931 to design the building with associate architect, Wiley G. Clarkson of Fort Worth. Mr. Cret, a leading architect of the period, was well known for his work at the University of Texas, the Chicago World's Fair Commission, and various war memorials.
In February, 1933, plans for the courthouse were forwarded to the Department of the Treasury in Washington, DC, for approval. The James Barnes Construction Company of Springfield, Ohio, was awarded the project for $603,000 and according to government policy, local labor and materials were used when available. The building was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places on September 6, 1990 by Curtis Tunnell, SHPO.
Most notable are two large and one small oil-on-canvas panels by the famous artist and muralist, Frank Mechau of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The paintings are representative of the 1930s school of realistic painting. Frank Mechau was one of one-hundred forty-four artists who submitted designs to the local advisory jury. These pieces are on the rear wall of the fourth floor Court of Appeals, flanking the entry. Mechau's work was the only "Federal Works of Art Projects" project granted to the city during the 1930s and was installed in June 1940.