The Johnson County courthouse, completed in 1913, is considered one of the most architecturally significant courthouses in Texas due to its dynamic Prairie School design, a dramatic shift in the typical Victorian style dominating the state’s courthouse design during the first few decades of the 20th century. Unlike most architects practicing during the period across Texas, Johnson County courthouse architect Charles Erwin Barglebaugh and his employer, the Dallas architectural firm Lang and Witchell, were already integrating the evolving American style of their more modern contemporaries, including Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, into their building designs. Barglebaugh, in fact, had worked for and trained under Wright in Oak Park, Illinois before joining the Dallas firm where Prairie-influenced designs like the Sanger Brothers department store and the Southwestern Life Insurance Company skyscraper were already gracing the Dallas skyline courtesy of Otto Lang and Frank Witchell.
Barglebaugh incorporated some of the best of the Prairie School design in the Johnson County courthouse, producing a muscular work of stone, metals, brick, woodwork, and art glass that continues to outshine its more Victorian rivals today. The courthouse replaced an impressive, 19th century Second Empire design, completed in 1883 by another noted Texas architect Wesley Clark Dodson. Dodson had created a monolith of multiple pavilions, polychromatic masonry, rich detailing, and a central clock tower with bell for the county, only to see it damaged beyond repair in an April 15, 1912 blaze. Reports of the fire, eclipsed by headlines announcing the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic on the same day, remained newsworthy due to the death of the assistant city marshal Albert Bledsoe. The Brownwood Daily Bulletin reported on Monday, April 15th that Bledsoe’s body had been recovered from beneath eighteen inches of brick and mortar in the ruins of the courthouse, “…still clasping the muzzle of the fire hose with which he was fighting the fire…”. Bledsoe was on the second floor of the courthouse with a squad of men battling the blaze when he was killed.
The ruins of Dodson’s courthouse were razed to make room for the Barglebaugh Prairie School design. Out of the ashes rose six stories with Sullivanesque pendants and stylized capitals, red granite from Burnet County, brick from Elgin, Indiana limestone detailing, terra cotta ornamentation, a central atrium with white Georgia creole marble interior walls, an octagonal art glass skylight with Lone Star cartouches along the four wider sides, and a ninety-foot central clock tower with a four-faced clock run by both weights and electricity and featuring a massive bronze bell. The bell, inscribed “Ring for Trust and Justice”, was placed on the outside of the northwest corner of the tower so its ringing could be heard for miles.
Only moderate changes were made to the 1913 courthouse over the course of the 20th century, including the removal of the bell from the roof as a result of poorly executed exterior repointing in 1986, resulting in concern for the structural integrity of the tower caused by vibrations from the ringing bell. However, during a complete restoration of the courthouse in the early 2000s, courtesy of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the bell received a new steel structural support before a return to its original position on the roof. The original mechanical striker was repaired as well as the original clockworks. In addition, conduit and power were provided for a future camera, light, and monitor, allowing a video display of the clockworks in operation in the county museum on the courthouse’s ground floor, making the high-tech display an unusual 21st century addition to an early 20th century classic.