Whether driving up to the square under its towering red granite form, examining its masterful carvings or touring the rooms and halls of county business and history, the Ellis County Courthouse is an impressive building.
Shannon Simpson, director at the Ellis County Museum, said many Waxahachie residents don’t realize what a treasure they have.
“It’s a fabulous building,” he said. “You take that stuff for granted, but it is a wonderful architectural structure.”
The Ellis County Courthouse is one of the 12 Richardson Romanesque style courthouses still standing in Texas that was designed by architect James Gordon.
According to the research of Fred Weldon, a retired lawyer and resident of Waxahachie, the Ellis County Courthouse stands out from other Texas courthouses similar in size and design in the high quantity and quality of its carvings.
Weldon initially began researching the courthouse in order to determine if there was any intentional meaning or symbolism to the striking faces and symbols found around the carvings, and his findings are published in a booklet from the Ellis County Museum, “Carved Ornament of the Ellis County Courthouse.”
In the booklet, Weldon credits Marshall Sanguinet, the architect who oversaw the construction of the courthouse, as the likely force behind the carvings. By substituting less expensive construction materials than the original plans called for, Sanguinet reduced the contract price of the building and likely spent the freed money on the quality stone carving provided by contractor Theodore Beilharz and his crew in Dallas.
In looking for meanings to the faces peering out from the courthouse’s exterior, Weldon’s research led to interpretations that “Some are stock medieval personifications of vices, character traits or human emotions. Some are satiric. A few of the faces appear to notice and react to events on the street while others are indifferent to mundane life and gaze mystically into the distance,” he wrote.
Although the casual observer’s eye is often drawn to the 20 lovely, unique or grotesque faces adorning the courthouse’s four porches, according to Weldon’s research the decorative leaf patterns found throughout the buildings red sandstone exterior are carved in multiple layers that would have required a high level of skill not often found in the United States near the end of the 19th century.
The north porch of the courthouse presents the most faces of the four porches — 12 in all, which may be intended to represent a jury of sorts.
Weldon’s research also turned up that one of the faces, the Green Man, has been a common icon in European stone carving for centuries.
Much research into the subject of the Ellis County Courthouse carvings inevitably leads to the legend of Mabel Frame. As the story popularly goes, a stone carver named Harry Herley traveled to Waxahachie to construct the rising courthouse’s intricate decorations. During the work, he stayed at the boarding house of a mother and her young and beautiful daughter named Mabel Frame. According to the tale, the exotic artisan and small town girl became infatuated, inspiring the love-struck Herley to carve a beautiful likeness of his sweetheart on the east entrance of the court house. However, when the relationship turned sour, so did the carvings, leading to increasingly grotesque representations of Frame on the building’s exterior.
Although the legend has been told and retold for years, and has even been printed on post cards, Simpson said, based on the research, the tale is likely little more than a romantic fantasy.
“It is a legend, we’ve never been able to verify it,” he said. “I’ve heard from various individuals it is not uncommon at all for major structures in a community to have some kind of legend.”
The origin of the story is unknown, and has passed by word of mouth with slightly varying details.
“When people in Waxahachie began to realize what we had here, and they started doing some research into the history, my theory is somebody wanted to spice up the courthouse story a little bit,” Simpson said. “One of the problems with the legend is that if there was any accuracy to the legend, there were inaccuracies within it.”
Historical documents have confirmed that Harry Herley and Mabel Frame were real people and that Herley was indeed a stone carver and Frame’s mother owned a boarding house in Waxahachie, but Simpson said no relationship between the two has ever been confirmed.
“It’s amazing how things grow and spread,” he added.
Holly Davis, special projects director for the county who works in the courthouse and has researched into the building’s history, refers to the story as the “Mabel Fable.”
In such a small town as mid-1890s Waxahachie, “They probably knew each other,” she said, but no records of Herley staying in the boarding house or being romantically involved with Frame have ever been found.
According to Weldon’s research, Herley’s earliest confirmed presence in Waxahachie was when he completed a private carving job and married a Waxahachie resident named Minnie Hodges in 1896, the year after the majority of the courthouse’s construction was completed.
A business card of Herley’s indicates he was probably the lead carver for the Waxahachie courthouse, but Weldon’s research turned up no records of any stone yards of the size needed to complete the amount of carving installed on the courthouse would have required ever existing in Waxahachie. The masonry contractor hired to do the carvings, Beilharz, ran a stone yard in Dallas that would have been a more likely location for the carvings to be completed before being shipped to Waxahachie and added to the building.
Whether there is any truth to the legend or not, both Frame and Herley went on to marry and lead separate lives — Frame resided in Waxahachie, and Herley returned to Dallas with a different Waxahachie bride.
In addition to an unusually large number of stone carvings, the same can be said of the courthouse’s number of cornerstones — two, in fact. One displays the names of the commissioners court that initially voted to construct the courthouse while the other presents those of the court that brought the courthouse to completion. However, although the two courts are only one election apart, not one name appears on both cornerstones.
Two theories have developed over the years as to the reason for the upheaval. In one version, raising taxes on an already economically strapped county to pay for the new courthouse angered voters enough to cause the change. In the other, the first court was defeated as a result of a political shift in the Democratic Party to more agrarian views and, the officials who had already lost the Democratic nominations pushed the new building through to leave a kind of legacy before losing their offices.
Judge Gene Knize has worked in the courthouse for 35 years, first as a district attorney and then as judge in the 40th District Court, and put together research for visitors to the courthouse in 1990. He says the courthouse itself led to the defeat of the initial commissioners court.
“It’s my theory (they lost) because they built this,” he said.
As support, Knize cites that the sole commissioner in opposition to the courthouse contract was removed from office and replaced for refusing to attend meetings and preventing a vote on the issue after four other commissioners filed a suit against him.
“By boycotting (the vote), you essentially stopped it, like filibustering,” Knize explained.
The voice of opposition, Commissioner Finley of Midlothian, was re-elected back into the position he had been removed from, and his name appears on the cornerstone with the second court.
Knize said the courthouse issue causing the change in the court is “the only logical conclusion.”
In support of the other theory, in putting together research to assist in Waxahachie’s grant application to restore the courthouse in the late-1990s, Weldon cited the timeline of the events surrounding the election of the commissioners court and the approval of the new courthouse indicate broader forces caused the defeat of the earlier court.
“The turnover on the commissioners court was the result of a division in the national Democratic Party over vital issues of economic, monetary and social policy that reached into Ellis County and cannot be explained as a local fight about brick and mortar,” he wrote.
Weldon also published an article in the Waxahachie Daily Light on the subject in 1995, in which he wrote the decision to build the courthouse did not occur until after the Democratic primary elections had been held, which was almost always tantamount to winning the election in the largely one-party South of the late 1800s. Three of the five members of the court, Judge Singleton and Commissioners Worley and Johnston, lost in the primary. Finley, who had not yet been removed from the court, ran and won the general election unopposed.
Another Democratic nominee, however, was not such a sure win in the face of rising dissatisfaction among farmers with the party. Weldon wrote that the final commissioner, Haynes, lost his position to a populist candidate put in office by rising support for agrarian interests on a national level that had led to the formation of a third party made up of former Democrats.
With all but one of the commissioners facing the end of their terms, action moved quickly on the proposed courthouse, barreling through controversy whether to submit San Antonio contractor Otto P. Kroeger’s contract for the building to competitive bidding by removing Finley from office for not attending meetings in an attempt to stall the decision until the new court took office.
Weldon wrote in part of the grant proposal for the restoration of the courthouse that “A lame duck commissioners court … ordered demolition of the courthouse and construction of a new one, hastily selected the Kroeger design, unseated the only member of the court who opposed the project, hired Kroeger without competitive bidding and opened the county treasury to him, used revenue bonds, raised taxes and moved the government, all within a span of two months.”
Whether court membership switched due to the construction of the courthouse or for other reasons, by the time the new court took possession the decision was irreversible — the old courthouse had been torn down.
When the dust had settled and the new building was completed, Knize said another controversy rose as to whether all the commissioners involved in the courthouse’s construction should be honored on the cornerstone.
“When they completed the courthouse, they put plaques honoring the (commissioners) who had built the courthouse,” he said. “Some of the populace felt the ones who started the courthouse should be engraved too.”
Eventually, the local Masonic lodge paid for a second cornerstone to be engraved, and the names of the two commissioners courts now stand facing one another on the north porch of the courthouse.
A Troubled Past
Over the years, history has been uncovered inside the courthouse as well, and not all of it in a positive light.
The current mailroom, formerly a sheriff’s office, still displays the splintered path of a bullet through the door from a gun fight in the 1920s.
Davis said she did not even know of the bullet hole until seeing a restoration document requesting that the door not be restored in order to preserve the damage.
“I’ve heard two different stories,” she said, “There’s lots of stories and they get twisted.”
In one story, a girlfriend snuck a gun to her jailed boyfriend for an escape attempt. In another, the girlfriend brought the gun in order to shoot her boyfriend.
According to an article that ran in the Daily Light in 1998, one man was killed and a deputy wounded in the altercation.
The Ellis County Courthouse also bears the marks of segregation. Construction and painting inside the courthouse over the century of its existence had covered up several hand painted signs, including one reading “Negroes,” now visible in a stairwell of the courthouse, which came to light during restoration efforts. County officials decided to leave the sign in place with a marker, explaining the letters were left to remind others of the necessity to stay on guard against discrimination.
Davis said the purpose of the sign was unknown, but Knize said his research into the memoirs of former 40th District Judge A.R. Stout indicates it likely marked the segregated restrooms.
“That’s where they had the restrooms in those days,” he said, adding Stout recalled visiting the courthouse as a small boy with his father and using the restrooms, which were basically outhouses, in the basement.
Stout wrote in his “History of the Ellis County Bar,” available in Nicholas P. Sims Library, that “the basement had taken on the atmosphere that must have been like the Aegean stables of old” from the prolific smell, which likely led to the commissioners court’s eventual decision to wall off the exits to the facilities.
The striking balcony in the 40th District courtroom is also the product of digging through historical records, Davis said.
“In restoration, you never know what you’re going to find, kind of like finding a fossil inside a rock,” she said, noting the existence of the original balcony was only known from the commissioners court minutes ordering it to be torn down to make room for offices. During the restoration, the offices were removed and a balcony rebuilt, though there are no records of what the original looked like.
Knize theorized the balcony was another mark of segregation, similar to the courtroom in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird,” based on the novel by Harper Lee, and to many public places during the time period of segregation.
Simpson said that such segregated balconies were “very typical of, maybe nationwide, but particularly southern courthouses.”
Restoration efforts also brought back the original idea of the courthouse’s layout to combat Texas summer heat by re-opening balconies and the central shaft, long occupied by offices and an elevator.
The idea, Davis said, was that open windows and balconies would draw air in from the outside that would then circulate upward through the completely open center of the building.
“It was said to be quite comfortable in the building in the summer,” she said.
Just as restoration restored the beauty of the Ellis County Courthouse, it also served to restore interest and knowledge in the history and stories that make the building the Waxahachie and Ellis County fixture it is today.
“There’s a lot to be said for the historic value and for the tourist value,” Davis said.
Simpson noted that the courthouse had no trouble being classified as worthy of a Texas historical marker.
“It’s really kind of happenstance and luck we have such a unique courthouse,” Simpson said. “It’s a fabulous building.”