In 1890, the Dallas County Commissioners Court opened bids for a new courthouse. It would be the county’s sixth since 1846, losing four out of five previous courthouses to devastating fires. This one, they hoped, would be fully fireproof. The Court selected Arkansas architect M. A. Orlopp to design the structure and Robert L. James as general contractor. Apparently, once constructed began, James neglected to follow Orlopp’s original plans for the Romanesque design, raising a dispute between what was designed and what was actually being built. The issue created permanent discord, resulting in the removal of James’ name from the cornerstone soon after the courthouse was completed in 1892. However, whatever might have been expected, Dallas County commissioners could hardly turn down the impressive, monumental structure. The courthouse was built in the classic Richardsonian Romanesque style, the architectural movement of the late 19th century that revived European elements of the 11th and 12th centuries, and featured turrets, a clock tower, and a stone gargoyle.
The predominant construction material for the four story edifice, Pecos red sandstone, inspired the sobriquet “Old Red”, a name continued in use today. The sandstone was highlighted with blue granite from Olopp’s hometown of Little Rock, along with Texas granite columns, eight round turrets 118 feet tall, and a main clock tower at 205 feet. The original interior layout included six courtrooms, two libraries, twenty-nine county offices, ten restrooms, and two passenger elevators. The building’s structural framework, considered fireproof, was made of cast iron, including a grand central stairway configured to intersect the entire four-level atrium. The central clock tower featured four illuminated glass dials over nine feet in diameter. The clock struck the hour on a bell weighing 4,500 pounds.
The courthouse would survive in its original imposing state for less than twenty years. By 1919, the clock and bell tower had been removed due to structural instability. Although still impressive, the building’s design suffered the absence of the clock tower and, with its removal, the building looked like a 12th century royal, sans crown. The tower’s elimination would also foreshadow a sequence of modification that occurred over the course of the next sixty years, including a reconfiguration of the monumental staircase and wood frame, two-story additions. Finally, by 1967, county business had outgrown “Old Red” and, with the completion of the Dallas County Criminal Courts and Records Building, the courthouse was remodeled as the State Department of Public Welfare. The most extensive loss of historic integrity occurred during this time.
Conscientious citizens and historians soon saw a need to revive the historic courthouse and restoration of “Old Red” began in the 1980’s, continuing into the 21st century. Perhaps the brightest moments in the courthouse restoration occurred when both the cast iron central staircase and original clock tower returned, attributable in part to the efforts of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Careful study of the “ghosting” on the walls of the original stairwell allowed architects to determine the 1892 configuration of the iron staircase and reproduce it faithfully. The addition of an improved concrete and steel structure supported the installation of the replica clock tower, including clock and bell, returning “Old Red’s” crown to its proper place. Today, the courthouse serves as the Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture, an apt retirement for a dedicated county icon.