U.S. Courthouse, Austin, TX
Since completion in 1936, the Austin U.S. Courthouse has been an important landmark in the state capital of Texas. Located on West Eighth Street, the building functions in both a practical and visual capacity, establishing a federal presence among a group of municipal and private office buildings in downtown Austin. Nearby historic buildings include the City Municipal Building, the Capital National Bank, and the Brown Building. Construction of two large parking garages in the vicinity, however, has detracted from the dominance it once had over the surrounding landscape. Nonetheless, the Austin U.S. Courthouse remains very much as it was when first built and still serves as an integral part of the city and Travis County.
The Austin U.S. Courthouse is an excellent example of Depression-era Moderne architecture. This style is revealed in its central massing, the rectangular form, the vertical flow of the window bays, the decorative metal grilles, and the geometric details. The exterior is also defined by reed-like pilasters, which enhance the vertical flow of the building while reflecting an element of restrained Neo-Classical influence. Well-known local architect Charles H. Page of C. H. Page and Son (which later became Page Brothers, Architects), in association with New York architect Kenneth Franzheim, designed the building. These two firms worked under the guidance of Louis Simon, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department. Algernon Blair of Montgomery, Alabama, served as the construction contractor; W. E. Simpson Company provided structural engineer services; and R. F. Taylor was the mechanical engineer.
The Austin U.S. Courthouse is a four-story, rectangular plan, steel and concrete building with a basement and service penthouse. The walls, which are clad in cream-colored limestone, rise above the Texas gray granite base. A fluted band visually divides the first and second floors. Fluted pilasters vertically extend from the second to the fourth floors between the recessed window bays. The windows are double-hung, with anodized aluminum frames and sashes. Second-, third- and fourth-floor windows are separated by cast-iron spandrels that depict either stylized eagles or a geometric pattern. A carved stone panel with a geometric pattern is also visible above each fourth-floor window. A cornice-consisting of an incised horizontal band-circumscribes the building near the roofline. A carved stone parapet extends from this cornice. The features characterize both the primary and secondary façades.
The structure's square corners gradually chamfer as they approach the roof, which is composed of three roof levels: the main fourth-floor roof, the service penthouse roof (centrally located above the main entry), and the second-floor courtroom roof (visible on the north [rear] elevation). All roofs are flat with asphalt built-up systems.
A slightly stepped central bay and the service penthouse create a central massing that contributes to the impressiveness of the main entry on the south façade. Further emphasis is drawn to this area by a large carved limestone eagle with a shield set at the base of the penthouse. Below it is the following inscription:
" UNITED STATES COURTHOUSE "
There is a raised, five-point star of limestone on each side of the inscription. The entry itself is composed of four original bronze doors set under a metal canopy and transom with metal grills. Granite steps and metal railings are set at the base of the doors.
The north (rear) elevation also provides entrance into the building through two basement-level entries and a sidewalk-level elevator. Access to this area is restricted by gates, which are located at both ends of the driveway that runs behind the structure. While the elevation is primarily functional in nature, it displays many of the features described on the remaining elevations. However, a large parking garage on the adjacent property largely obscures the view of this façade. A covered parking area abuts the eastern half of this building face.
Green spaces, plantings, sidewalks, and other landscape features characterize the site area immediately surrounding the building. Narrow lawn areas border the west, east, and south elevations. Plantings, including mature magnolia and live oak trees, are present along these building faces. The north elevation serves as a service area with an adjacent paved parking area. Other site features include a replacement flagpole (to the left of the main entry steps) and a handicapped access ramp (to the left of the main entrance door).
The building's interior, particularly the entry lobby, the main stairway, the ceremonial courtroom, and the corridors/elevator lobbies, contain excellent examples of Art Moderne and Art Deco finishes and detailing. Upon entering into the building, visitors are impressed by the entry lobby's attractive pinkish mauve marble walls, geometrically patterned terrazzo floors, and suspended plaster ceilings with white bronze moldings. The semicircular staircase on the west wall of this area is quite striking. It has terrazzo treads and risers and a heavy, white bronze handrail. The staircase walls are clad in marble wainscot. The elevator doors, located on the east wall opposite the stairs, were once black with white bronze inlays. Although these doors have been replaced with contemporary metal doors, it should be noted that, at the time of the preparation of this nomination, new doors designed to closely resemble the original were being produced.
The lobby opens into a corridor that runs east to west. The corridor's floors are terrazzo; the walls are marble wainscot and plaster with a decorative band of fretwork separating the two materials. A pair of doors interrupts the marble and wainscot on the north wall. The doors have a shiny black background with white bronze, crossed arrows set over a Roman axe. Wall sconces-similar in appearance elevator hall lanterns-are mounted above the doors. Fluted marble pilasters, containing a drinking fountain on one side and a mail chute on the other, are located on both sides of the doors. White bronze and glass chandelier fixtures illuminate the corridor.
Doors similar to those in the first-floor corridor provide entry into the second-floor ceremonial courtroom. These doors also have a black background, but the bronze inlay, however, is in a vertical, liner design that gives the door an Art Deco appearance. The courtroom located beyond the doors is just as impressive. The courtroom is of double height. Its walls are light-colored, book-matched wood set in darker wood squares. The wood paneling extends from the floor to the ceiling. The ceiling is coffered with alternating plaster squares and rectangles with acoustical tile recesses. A modern fluorescent fixture, eight original suspended chandeliers, and five windows on the north wall serve as light sources. The courtroom spectator benches and attorney/defendant tables are separated by a low, wooden, partition that extends from the north to the south wall. Attached to the top of the partition are white bronze railings that present a very linear, Art Deco-like appearance. A white metal door embellished with a federal seal serves as a gate between the two sections of the courtroom.
The judge's bench is located on the east wall. It and the other courtroom furnishings are relatively simple in design. Behind the judge's desk is a plaster panel with a bronze eagle set in an arch of 13 bronze stars.
The elevator lobbies and corridors on the second, third, and fourth floors share many of the same original finishes. The walls are clad in marble wainscot and plaster, and the floors are geometrically patterned terrazzo. The ceiling in the second-floor elevator lobby is coffered; ceilings in other areas are generally suspended plaster with geometric crown molding. The light fixtures range from suspended chandeliers to wall sconces with Art Deco detailing to modern fluorescent types.
The remaining interior spaces, mainly consisting of federal tenant offices and modern courtrooms, have been the focus of numerous renovations. Original finishes have been removed or concealed, and dropped ceilings, partitions, and carpeting have been added. As a result, these areas are largely contemporary in appearance.
Overall, the Austin U.S. Courthouse retains a high degree of integrity in its setting, location, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. While modifications have occurred, they have not impacted the building's ability to convey its historic significance as a federal building, nor its architectural significance as an excellent example of a Moderne-style public building. Alterations to the building have been primarily restricted to the interior. The changing needs of the U.S. district court and other federal tenants have resulted in the removal of some original fabric, primarily in the office areas. Specifically, the installation of dropped acoustical tile ceilings, contemporary light fixtures and finishes, and carpeting has resulted in the loss of both the volume and character of the original office spaces.
The main historic spaces-the entry lobby, the main stairwell, the corridors/elevator lobbies, and the ceremonial courtroom-retain original finishes and details. In the entry lobby, security equipment that includes a metal detector has been added, unavoidably detracting from the volume and character of this space. The original incandescent fixtures that once complemented the entry lobby's ceiling have been replaced with fluorescent tubes. The original elevator doors have been replaced with contemporary units; however, plans are underway to install new doors that are similar to the original.
In the corridors/elevator lobbies, contemporary fixtures such as surface-mounted fluorescent lights have been added to supplement original lighting. These elements are generally unobtrusive. Supplemental lighting has been installed in the main courtroom.
The exterior has been the site of limited alterations. In 1975, double-hung windows with aluminum sashes and frames replaced the original metal casement units. Natural anodized aluminum was used to maintain the period style of the exterior. More recently, a handicapped access ramp has been installed at the west end of the south elevation. A metal canopy for covered parking has been added to the north elevation. The courtroom windows on the north building face have been replaced with bronze glass and bronze aluminum frames in a fenestration pattern that does not match the original. This elevation, however, is largely obscured by adjacent construction so these changes are not clearly visible from the street.
The Austin U.S. Courthouse is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A for its association with federal construction projects designed to relieve the economic Depression of the 1930s. Completed in 1936, the building is symbolic of both the continued federal government presence in Austin and the overall growth of the federal government in the 1930s. Like other public buildings from the 1930s, the design and construction of the Austin U.S. Courthouse were part of the federal construction programs enacted to reduce unemployment during the Depression. The building is also eligible under Criterion C as an excellent example of federal architecture from the early 1930s. Architecturally, the Moderne design of the Austin U.S. Courthouse reflects the organizational influence of Paul Cret's Beaux-Arts architectural style and the Moderne architectural movement, sometimes described as a compromise between tradition and progress.
The city of Austin, founded in 1839, was named the permanent state capital of Texas in 1873, after years of uncertainty. Although in 1839 the city streets and lots were laid out as the capital of the Republic of Texas, the city was considered vulnerable to Mexican forces and hostile Native American tribes, and the government was moved in 1842, first to Houston and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos. It was only when Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845 that the government was reestablished in Austin. Shortly thereafter, the first federal courthouse and post office in Austin was built at Sixth and Colorado streets.
Between 1877 and 1881, a U.S. post office and courthouse was constructed at a cost of $200,000 and served in its original capacity until 1914, when the growing post office moved to a larger building on West Sixth Street. The 1881 structure was built by Abner Cook, an Austin resident and master builder famous for his Greek Revival houses. In 1896, the building was the location of the embezzlement trials of William Sydney Porter, the well-known American short-story writer. This building remained the site of the courthouse until the present federal building was constructed in the 1930s. The 1881 building continued to house various federal offices until 1968. The University of Texas then acquired the building, restored it, and named it O. Henry Hall after Porter's pseudonym.
As with the post office, the growing needs of the federal district court and various federal agencies necessitated either the construction of a new federal building or the expansion of the existing 1881 building by the mid-1920s. According to the Austin Statesman in February 1928, the chamber of commerce renewed its request for the appropriation of $200,000 from the Treasury Department for an addition to the 1881 federal building. By 1933, however, one-half of a city block had been selected as the site for a completely new building to be constructed with federal funding.
The new site, at Colorado and Eighth streets, had been occupied for more than 35 years by the Central Christian Church but had been abandoned years earlier when the church moved to Twelfth and Guadalupe streets. The former church building was razed for construction in July 1933. The stone from the old Central Christian Church building was salvaged by the congregation of the St. Elias Orthodox Church for use in a new church on Neches Street.
In June 1934, U.S. Congressman J. P. Buchanan introduced an appropriations measure for $415,000 for the construction of a U.S. courthouse in Austin. This measure was successful, and construction was initiated 18 months later. As the first day of construction finally drew near, local commentators noted that the process was a miracle, a result of "many changes in politics and economies" that had facilitated the decision to build.
The construction contract for the project was awarded to Algernon Blair of Montgomery, Alabama. According to the Austin Dispatch, Austin residents had hoped that a local contractor would be chosen for the job. In the end, however, Blair was the successful bidder and was appreciated by locals as a "leader in federal construction fields." The Algernon Blair construction firm was founded in 1896 and managed dozens of public building projects during the mid 1930s, including 18 U.S. post offices; the courthouse in Austin, however, was its only federal courthouse project of the period. Engineering positions for the project were awarded to Texas residents; W. E. Simpson Company of San Antonio served as the structural engineer and R. F. Taylor of Houston as the mechanical engineer.
The actual construction of the building ran relatively smoothly, taking about one year. Groundbreaking ceremonies at the site took place on September 16, 1935. By the winter of 1935, the first of the four floors had been completed and the second floor had been framed. The limestone and granite for the exterior façade was obtained from the local Austin firm of Texas Quarries and installed. The building was expected to be finished by May 1936, but cold weather and other factors delayed completion until September-several weeks later than the government deadline of August 24. The building was formally dedicated and opened to the public on September 22, 1936. The dedication ceremony drew prominent government officials and social figures from all over the state and region. Frank Scofield, the local internal revenue collector, and Congressman J. P. Buchanan, who had lobbied for funding for the building's construction, hosted the ceremony. Tom Miller, Austin's mayor, served as master of ceremonies. The next day the community showed its gratitude to Col. H. W. Hackett, First Assistant Public Works Administrator, by making him the guest of honor at Scofield's banquet.
The construction of the new Austin U.S. Courthouse reflected the general economic and idealistic trend, both nationally and in the Austin area. After the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression left many jobless and in a general state of hopelessness, but oil production brought economic hope to the region within the year. At the same time, President Franklin Roosevelt introduced his New Deal programs. Most notable among the programs was the Public Works Administration that provided thousands of jobs and funding for public service projects; one of the recipients was the Austin U.S. Courthouse. As a federal undertaking, the construction of the building served as a powerful symbol of U.S. permanence and presence, while also providing employment opportunities during difficult economic times. Hailed as the first revenue building in Texas, the building and the establishment of the offices of the Collector of Internal Revenue, District No. 1, illustrated the federal government's commitment to Austin as the state capital.
The Austin U.S. Courthouse has maintained its original character throughout its more than 60 years of continuous use and still functions today much the way it did in the 1930s. Immediately after its completion, the U.S. courthouse housed, among others, the offices of the Collector of Internal Revenue, District No. 1; the Referee in Bankruptcy; and the U.S. Weather Bureau; as well as judicial functions related to the Department of Justice; the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas; the United States Probation Office; and the grand jury room.
The building's most famous tenant arrived in the 1940s when Lyndon B. Johnson, a Johnson City native and future U.S. president, assumed office upon the death of Rep. James Buchanan. As a U.S. congressman, Johnson moved into a suite of second-floor offices in the southwest wing, which he kept until 1949 when he became a U.S. senator. He then moved his offices to the first floor of the wing and remained there until after the beginning of his vice presidency in 1961. Currently, the courthouse houses the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Pretrial Service Office, the U.S. Probation Office, the U.S. Marshal's Office, and judges' chambers, clerks' offices, and law libraries.
The Austin U.S. Courthouse was one of the many public buildings designed under the supervision of the Office of the Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department. For more than 75 years (1850s-1939), this office was responsible for the design and construction of such public buildings as custom houses, post offices, and courthouses. The buildings it created were not only designed to serve a federal function but to express the permanence and presence of the federal government in the cities and communities in which the buildings were located. Early in its history, the Office of the Supervising Architect employed a variety of architectural styles to convey this presence. At the turn of the century, however, classically inspired styles such Classical Revival and Beaux-Arts began to predominate. These styles were thought to express democratic values. Additionally, they reflected the government's view that "government buildings should be monumental and beautiful, and should represent the ideals of democracy and high standards of architectural sophistication in their communities."
While these ideals continued to be applied for many years, the expense of constructing "monumental and beautiful" buildings became a concern. In 1913, federal construction policy measured the cost of constructing post offices against both the postal receipts taken in by a city or community and the value of the real estate where the building was to be built. Following the passage of the Public Buildings Act in 1926, the evaluation of the cost of constructing public buildings coincided with a new architectural movement that promoted modernism. As the nation entered into the Depression, the Treasury Department used restrained-or "starved"-versions of classically inspired styles of architecture in its designs. At the same time, private architects hired to design public buildings for the Treasury Department and other government agencies combined Beaux-Arts composition and symmetry with a form of ornamentation referred to as Zigzag Moderne. The result of these two combined influences was a classically balanced version of Art Deco architecture known as "PWA or WPA Moderne." The terms "PWA" or "WPA" come from the extensive use of the style in government-sponsored public building programs during the 1930s. PWA or WPA Moderne has been described as,
. . . pristine, formally balanced compositions employing piers rather than columns, with windows arranged as vertical recessed panels, and smooth surfaces for interiors and exteriors. Smooth stone, polished marble, and granite often face these buildings which are sprinkled with stylized embellishments. Additional decorative features may include ornamental metal-work, restrained sculptural decorations, murals, and pictorial friezes.
While architects in the Office of the Supervising Architect resisted moving in the direction of totally modern designs, the federal government did not restrict consulting private architects' design, style, or material choice. As a result, a significant number of federal buildings in Texas were designed in the Moderne style during this era. Like starved Beaux-Arts and Art Deco styles, Moderne architecture reduced classical ornamentation in favor of linear and geometric decorative features. The Moderne style suited federal buildings because it popularized the angular lines and severe forms that mirrored the authority of the U.S. court system.
The American Institute of Architects campaigned for the government to contract out the design of public buildings throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and the Austin U.S. Courthouse is an example of one of the cases in which a private architect was hired to complete the designs. The hiring of local designers and craftsmen was an important issue for Austin residents and the press. Well-known Austin architect Charles H. Page, of C. H. Page and Son, designed the plans for the new U.S. courthouse, and Kenneth Franzheim of New York served as consulting architect.
Charles H. Page headed a firm that was described as one of the most active firms of the twentieth century. Page worked as an architect in Austin for 65 years and served as the dean of Texas architects. He was a long-time Austin resident and well-known local political figure, hosting the annual state Inaugural Ball for nearly 50 years. The child of English immigrants, he moved to Austin with his family when his father, Christopher H. Page, a master stonemason and construction contractor, obtained a job working on the Capitol in the 1880s. Because of his skill, Christopher Page was eventually promoted to the position of managerial subcontractor on the project, and young Charles helped in a variety of small ways. C. H. Page and Son (later, Page Brothers, Architects) was responsible for many of the building contracts in Austin, including the Travis County courthouse and the Austin National Bank. The firm also designed the Texas Building at the St. Louis World's Fair as well as hundreds of other public buildings. The Page-Gilbert House, the home built by Christopher Page and passed on to Charles Page and then later to Charles's own son, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Austin Statesman, "Site Being Cleared For Federal Building," 4 July 1933.
Austin American-Statesman, "Federal Courthouse For Austin Before Congress For Vote," 3 June 1934.
Austin Statesman, "Federal Building Work Is Started," 16 September 1935.
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Austin Dispatch, "Work Progresses On Texas Only Revenue Building," 8 December 1935.
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Austin American, "Assistant to PWA Boss Is Honored at Banquet," 23 September 1936.
Austin American, "New Courthouse," 17 September 1937.