Old Red, the Dallas County Courthouse

The building now referred to as “Old Red” served as the Dallas County Courthouse from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s.  It was completed in 1892.  The first contracts were let around 1890.  Robert L. James secured the bid of $365,000 to be the contractor.  The original news release indicated that it was to be built of Little Rock granite and that construction would take two years.

Depending upon which party composes the list, it is considered either the sixth, fifth or fourth county courthouse.  In a list that calls it the sixth, the 10′ x 10′ John Neely Bryan log cabin was listed as the first courthouse and served in that capacity for about two years from 1846 to 1848  A second was built in 1850 by J. B. McPherson out of wooden planks and had a mud chimney.  Its dimensions were 16′ x 32′.  The third was completed in 1855 and was a brick structure, two stories tall and was 50′ x 50′ and served for  about seventeen years.  The fourth was a domed sandstone structure completed in 1872 which burned in 1880.  The fifth was completed in 1881 and served until it burned in 1890, making way for Old Red.

Old Red’s construction began in 1890 and it still survives today.  The 1890s represented what has been referred to as the Golden Age of Texas Courthouses, since so many of the grand buildings of the state were built during this period.   This building’s architectural style is generally referred to as Romanesque Revival.  The primary architect was Max A. Orlopp, Jr.  The upper floors are red Pecos limestone and the lower floor is Arkansas blue granite.  Part of the reason for the use of cubic stone was to avoid the likelihood of fires, which had claimed most of the earlier structures.  For a more architectural details of the building, please see the Masonry Magazine link below.

Orlopp was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1859 and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1881.  He began his career as a railroad surveyor and became an architect in 1885.  He had his office in Dallas at the time and in addition to the Dallas County Courthouse, designed a number of other buildings in Dallas.  He also designed other courthouses, including buildings in Missouri and Arkansas.


(Image credit: Waymarking.com)

The cornerstone (above) was laid on November 13, 1890.  According to the Fort Worth Daily Gazette the next day, a Masonic ceremony was performed by the Tannehill Lodge.  Contents placed in the cornerstone included various artifacts from the cornerstone of the immediately preceding courthouse: a one dollar bill (called a “greenback” in the article), various documents pertaining to the lodge, a Bible, a bottle of Confederate money, a gold necklace donated by Mrs. Henry Ervay, a Swiss coin “thought to have been deposited by Henry Bail, who does not now remember having deposited it,” a handwritten history of Dallas by Col. McCoy.  New articles included the lodge constitution and bylaws, Mrs. Sarah Cockerell, called the oldest resident of Dallas, donated a package of old relics that were not further described.  Also included were samples of wheat and corn, flour from the Todd Milling Company and several area newspapers.  A coin also deposited by J. Neely Bryan, Jr., who at the time was called the first child born in Dallas County, as were switch keys from the MKT and Santa Fe Railroads along with other artifacts.  After an address, the ceremony was concluded.  The cornerstone was reported to weigh 5,760 pounds and be 2 x 3 x 3 feet in size and was made of blue granite from the Fouche mountain in Little Rock, Arkansas.

In the midst of the construction, contractor James was let go and Orlopp was engaged to be the job supervisor for an additional stipend.  One of the main design features of the original Orlopp plan was the tower that housed a 4,500 pound bell and a large clock.  The tower remained in place but structurally was considered to be unsound since early in the life of the building.  After much discussion, it was removed in 1919.

The building remained with its flat top for the better part of the next nine decades until it a move began to restore the old structure, including a recreation of its tower.  New construction techniques allowed for a stable installation of the new tower.  The original quarries were no longer available but close matches were found and utilized.  It is estimated that the renovation and reconstruction required 5,500 cubic feet of sandstone and granite.  The renovation was completed in 2007.  Below is an image of how the building looked after 1919 (and for much of its life) along with images showing the original tower and its replacement.


(Old Red after 1919 – Image credit: Mary Ann Sullivan)


(Old Red – old tower and new tower; Image Credit – Cvent.com)

This is intended to be a basic timeline of the history of the building.  To fully describe it would take much longer.  A new County Courthouse was placed in service in the mid 1960s, though some county activities were carried on in the old building through the 1990s.  It currently houses the Old Red Museum, officially known as Dallas County Museum of History and Culture.

Representative Links:

Old Red Museum – https://www.oldred.org

254 Texas Courthouses (many vintage and current photos) – http://www.254texascourthouses.net/119-dallas-county.html

Masonry Magazine – https://www.masonrymagazine.com/blog/2018/06/01/american-treasure-old-red-museum/

© 2018, all rights reserved.

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