Waco judge to give talk on new book about 1902 courthouse


A central figure in the present of the McLennan County Courthouse will speak Wednesday about a book he wrote on the movement to build the 121-year-old downtown Waco landmark.

Matt Johnson, a longtime state district judge and current justice on Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals, will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Fabled Bookshop and Cafe, 215 S. Fourth St., on his new self-published book “Plan Number Nine: The Construction of the 1902 McLennan County Courthouse.”

The book will take readers on a journey of the public movement to build the courthouse, beginning around the turn of the century with a petition, continuing with a bond election, the McLennan County Commissioners Court choosing a plan and hiring an architect, and the actual building of the courthouse, Johnson said.

“Commissioners court at that time chose the ninth architectural plan presented, one drawn by James Riely Gordon, and that’s where the title for the book came from,” Johnson said. “But the movement for a new, larger, grander courthouse began with the Young Men’s Business League in Waco, a precursor organization to the Waco-McLennan County Chamber of Commerce, and their vision for Waco as a city of industry and business.”

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At the end of the 1800s, there were two state district courts in McLennan County, but only one courtroom, Johnson said. No building in downtown Waco was taller than two stories, and the buildings were mostly built of wood.

“The county needed a larger courthouse and Young Men’s Business League wanted good infrastructure and good services and good government, because they wanted Waco to be a city of industry and business and growth,” he said.

The group’s vision was to have a new county courthouse built, to build a new bridge across the Brazes River and to build a new train station in Waco, Johnson said. The three projects were brought along together.

The business league started a petition for the courthouse and a new bridge and circulated it, collecting signatures from 1,500 voting, tax-paying residents.

“The commissioners court received it and set a special election to have the voters approve whether to issue bonds to build a new courthouse and bridge across the Brazos River,” Johnson said. “The election resulted in a 98% favorable vote in the city of Waco. If you exclude Waco, out in the county, the proposition failed, but the Waco vote was large enough that it carried the total election.”

The Washington Avenue bridge that resulted from the effort was needed to relieve pressure on the Waco Suspension Bridge that opened 30 years earlier. While the Suspension Bridge no longer carries automobile traffic, the Washington Avenue bridge remains open to both vehicles and pedestrians, making it the oldest and longest bridge of its design, a Pennsylvania through truss, still in use in the United States.

Johnson’s book goes on to describe the commissioners court process of choosing a plan and hiring renowned architect J. Riely Gordon for the courthouse.

With the fame Gordon garnered designing courthouses around Texas, he was able to move to New York City and design buildings there, including one from 1909 that survives to the modern era: 36 Gramercy Park East. Gordon designed mostly apartment and commercial buildings in New York City, but also continued to design courthouses in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania as well as upstate New York.

“Riely Gordon had a set of standard plans that he submitted for many courthouses around Texas, but he drew these uniquely,” Johnson said of McLennan County’s. “When I was searching for the plans, I found that Riely Gordon’s two spinster daughters, after they died in New York in the 1980s, had saved every plan their father ever drew and they donated them all to the University of Texas School of Architecture, to the architectural library there in Austin.”

The McLennan County Courthouse plans originally called for a fountain in the rotunda, he said. The original drawings also had several colonnades around the courthouse. The courtroom designs were rounded for acoustics, and they had second-story galleries with seating for the public.

“Commissioners court scaled back the plans, removing the fountain and making the colonnades less ostentatious,” Johnson said. “Remember this was the horse-and-buggy days. They didn’t want to build a palace for them to go work in.”

The county hired builder Tom Lovell for the construction of the courthouse. Lovell built several courthouses around Texas and worked on construction of the Texas Capitol in Austin.

“Construction took about a year-and-a-half and the courthouse was completed in October 1902,” Johnson said.

The commissioners court adopted a resolution designating the McLennan County Courthouse that month and moved all the county offices there, Johnson said.

Johnson’s father was also a district court judge in McLennan County and served in the courthouse for many years.

“I’ve always had an interest in the courthouse since I was a young kid,” Johnson said. “I always wanted to know what caused this courthouse to be built.”

He also wanted to know who the movers and decision makers were who made it happen and built it.

“And so I began researching the topic several years ago and initially did a PowerPoint a slide show, but I realized that after I show that to a group of people and they see it, then there’s nothing tangible left behind,” he said. “So I decided to put together this book about the movement that caused the courthouse to be built and self-publish it.”

He sought out local bookseller Fabled Bookshop and Cafe, which agreed to sell “Plan Number Nine: The Construction of the 1902 McLennan County Courthouse.” Part of the agreement included him giving a talk at the bookstore about the book.

Johnson said the book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of Waco and McLennan County.

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