More than a year ago I had “published” my 1994 Texas County Courthouse Calendar. The date of departure is November 29, 1994, as I head south to photograph more temples of justice. Back in May of 1993, I had made an 8-day, 1400 mile round trip to Eagle Pass and back, photographing twenty-three courthouses. Now, I’m on my last leg of recording on film the remaining edifices worthy of documentation. My trusty traveling companion is a paperback Guide to The Courthouses of Texas by Mavis P. Kelsey, Sr., and Donald H. Dyal, published by the Texas A&M Press. Without this small tome, my tour of Texas (approximately 3500 miles) would have been tedious and time-consuming, to say the least. However, I still have to encrypt from my “bible” to my road map, and vice versa, in order to blueprint an expedient route. The daylight hours are at a premium minimum at this time of year. Paradoxically, I’ve planned to capture the courthouses in their full glory without the impedance of gargantuan deciduous oaks and elms and pecans that proliferate on their front lawns. I call it “see through photography”. And the other plus is that it’s the best time, and the only time, to travel in the bowels of south Texas…the crisp, cool nights make for ideal sleeping conditions in Ol’ Baleau’s reclining quarters.
Southbound I-35 is all but saturated with RVs from as far away as Minnesota, obviously escaping the snowbelt to resuscitate and recreate on the tepid shores of South Padre Island. This central area of Texas also abounds with an abundance of Chevy Suburbans (the “official” state motor car), many of which are coated with battle-ready camouflage that matches the attire of their gun-wielding occupants. ‘Tis the season for the Nimrod to fell the killer deer. Makes one think about getting out of the combat zone without having to spray-paint yourself (and your vehicle) with a self-protective coat of iridescent orange. I get out alive.
I exit I-35 at Austin on U.S. 183, and travel south through Gonzales, Cuero, and Goliad (whose mansard-roofed towers were obliterated by the Hurricane of ’42). Suddenly, it hit me. Those torrential winds that devastated that beautiful courthouse was the landfall of the hurricane that hit Corpus Christi when I was all of 4 years old. The memory glands begin to implode…the hackberry tree in the back-yard being uprooted by the horrific winds. I’m standing there, photographing the remnants of a once glorious courthouse, and remembering what happened fifty-two years ago. Wow, talk about what comes around.
I’m headed east on U.S. 59 and start noticing the array of “motor courts” and their brackish marquees. How about the “TV Motel” and the “Rock-a-Bye Inn”? Back in Waco, I recall a rather disreputable establishment called “UpTown Motel”, only two blocks from the venerable McLennan courthouse. And then there’s the Do Drop Inn – I think there’s at least one in every state. At Victoria, I head due north on U.S.77 to La Grange. So far, the trip has been a bonanza, an architectural repository of Romanesque Revival style courthouses that exude the character and charm of medieval castles. All that was missing was a drawbridge and moat. I am blessed with a cobalt blue sky (another plus for this time of year) which allows the sun to accentuate and define the intricacies of these magnificent structures. Son-of-a-gun, I plumb forgot Hallettsville, which is halfway between Victoria and La Grange, another Romanesque “cathedral” of justice dominating its townscape.
From La Grange, I head east to Columbus, where I locate a Renaissance Revival temple with a stunning asymmetrical dome inside the rotunda, I’m gazing up at this magnificent hemisphere, while at the same time shaking my head in disbelief after reading some historical notes about the courthouse. Back in the 1950s, some obtuse county officials decided to “modernize” the interior by dropping an acoustical ceiling over the rotunda, thereby completely concealing the grandiose space above tantamount to an entombment. Can you believe the insipidity of such an act? Fortunately, during the preservation movement of the 1970s, the abominable grid of tile and fluorescent lighting was mercifully removed. The dome’s interior has subsequently been restored to its original pristine condition. It seems ironic that during the hedonistic decade of the 70s, two very socially redeeming acts emerged: the salvation of a multitude of public and private historical structures by being designated a National Register Property, and the creation of Prez Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity. A little tidbit of information.
Continuing on eastward, I take some shots of Richmond’s 1908 Beaux Arts beaut of a building. I’m finally going to admit that I made a slight error in my botanical research…all arboreal species in this region do not shed their leaves as I had hoped for, especially in front of courthouses. Although the state tree is the Pecan, one cannot think of Texas without picturing the magnificent Live Oak. And these evergreens do abound everywhere east of the Pecos, some having taken seed a hundred years ago on courthouse squares. Hey, I’m not complaining about these beautiful creations with their voluminous trunks and gnarled branches that spread outwards and upwards to incredible dimensions. They are a sight to behold. I’ll just have to “see through” them when watercoloring with my artist’s license.