By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator
Texas has changed quite a bit over the years, as is readily seen in our vast photograph and postcard collections. To help bring some of those changes to life, we’ve created a “Texas over Time” blog series that will illustrate the construction and renovations of buildings, street scenes, and more. Our collections are especially strong on Waco and Baylor images, but look for some views beyond the Heart of Texas, too.
McLennan County Courthouse (left) on Washington Avenue, and businesses across the street. Fred Gildersleeve image, circa 1910. Gildersleeve-Conger collection; recent photo of same by G.H.
The McLennan County Courthouse, located on Sixth and Washington Avenue, Waco, Texas, was completed in 1902, and is the fourth purpose-built structure in the city to serve this purpose. It was built not far-removed from a time when the county’s population had grown from about 500 residents in the 1850’s to nearly 60,000 by its year of completion. The county’s first courthouse, a two-story log cabin, was completed in 1852, and was located on the southwest corner of the Waco city square at Third Street. Just prior on April 14, 1851, Judge R.E.B. Baylor [co-founder of Baylor University] held the 1st session of the 3rd Judicial District Court to be held in McLennan County, in a privately owned school house near the banks of the Brazos River near Washington Avenue. In 1858, a brick, two-story structure was completed, and located in the center of Waco’s square. In 1877, the third courthouse, a three-story building with bell tower, was built at Second Street and Franklin Avenue. It served the county until the 1890’s when it had already proved too small. As a result, Waco’s largest structure at the time, the five-story Provident Building, had room enough to temporarily serve as a courthouse until 1902, when the current structure was completed.
Today’s McLennan County Courthouse on Washington Avenue was designed by the James Riely Gordon Company of Dallas, and its architect was W.C. Dodson of Waco. The contractor was Tom Lovell of Denton, Tx. The county’s former district clerk, C.L. Middlebrook, in the The Texas Bar Journal of October 1970, described the courthouses architecture as “French Renaissance Revival with American touches added…[and]…numerous carvings inside and outside of the building show the influence.” Additionally, atop the courthouse’s dome stands Themsis, the “Greek personification of justice.” The building is further decorated with justices, scrolls, columns, and various intricate carvings throughout. Indeed, McLennan County has came a long way from using a school house for official legal proceedings as the county’s population in 2018 was estimated at 254,607.
McLennan County Courthouse, image by Clogenson, 1902. General Photo Files, The Texas Collection; recent photo of same by G.H.
“The Four Courthouses of McLennan County 1852-1902,” Term Paper, Alan McGuire Mayfield, Dec. 14, 1978.
“The Bench and Bar of McLennan County 1849-1976,” McSwain, Betty Ann McCartney, editor, Texian Press, Waco, Texas, 1976.
The Texas Bar Journal, McLennan County Courthouse, C.L. Middlebrook, Oct. 1970.