Stephen F. Austin State University

Early Gregg County courthouse had brief history (February 2018)

Early Gregg County courthouse had brief history

By Van Craddock

It would be an imposing structure, something the residents of Gregg County could point to with pride for decades to come. Six years after Gregg's founding in 1873, the county finally was getting its first permanent courthouse.

Selected as architect for the project was Frederick Ernst Ruffini, an Ohio native who had arrived in Texas in 1877. He was one of the state's earliest professional architects, having learned his profession after years of apprenticeship under master builders in Ohio.

Ruffini had made national headlines in 1873 when he bested 52 other architects with his design for a new courthouse in Chicago, Ill., replacing the courthouse that burned in the famous Chicago fire of 1871.

(Ruffini's design, selected by a Chicago building committee, earned him a $5,000 prize. Unfortunately, the Chicago City Council rejected Ruffini's design and selected another architect for the new courthouse. Reportedly, he did get to keep the five grand.)

Gregg County was created in April 1873 with Longview winning an election for county seat. A small frame structure at Tyler and Fredonia streets served as the county's initial courthouse.

Later, the "courthouse" was relocated to the second floor of the W.G. Northcutt Hardware and Furniture Co. store at Tyler and Center streets. As the only brick building in town, the structure survived a disastrous October 1877 fire that destroyed much of Longview's central business district.

The fire convinced county residents of the need for a permanent courthouse structure. Commissioners levied a special tax to fund the project, which would rise on land between Fredonia and Center streets in downtown Longview.

Construction began in 1878 on the $13,477 building, which was formally accepted by Gregg County on Jan. 16, 1879. F.E. Ruffini, the 28-year-old architect based in Austin, had designed an imposing French Second Empire-style courthouse for Gregg County. It featured a dominant tower with four clock faces and a bell. Sandstone from the nearby Rock Hill (also called Methvin Hill) was used throughout the building.

But Ruffini's courthouse only served Gregg County for 17 years.

After several years the structure began to have structural problems. Repairs were discussed but it soon became apparent the building had become dangerous to its occupants. Reluctantly, and after much discussion, county officials finally determined that the courthouse needed to be replaced.

The 1879 Ruffini courthouse was razed in 1896. Constructed on the same site was the county's second permanent courthouse, a Romanesque Revival-style building of dark red brick. The two-story structure, designed by Marshall Sanguinet of Fort Worth, featured a three-story tower and four chimneys. It opened its doors to county residents in January 1897.

(Sanguinet later teamed with Carl Staats to design a number of steel-framed skyscrapers in Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and other Texas cities. The firm's 20-story Amicable Insurance Co. building in Waco, built in 1911, was for a time the tallest structure in the Southwest.)

Thanks to discovery of the East Texas Oil Field in 1930-1931, Longview became a boomtown. The Sanguinet courthouse was deemed too small to serve the county's exploding population.

It was succeeded in 1932 by an art deco building that was built directly north of "Old Red," which was razed. The 1932 courthouse, designed by the firm of Voekler and Dixon of Wichita Falls, was expanded in 1958 and 1982 and continues to serve Gregg County residents.

F.E. Ruffini didn't live to see his 1879 Longview courthouse torn down in 1896. He died in November 1885 at the age of 34.

Shortly after his Longview courthouse opened, Ruffini partnered with his brother, Oscar, with offices in Austin and San Angelo. The brothers designed a number of public and commercial structures, among them a dozen courthouses, including buildings at Henderson (1878) and Sulphur Springs (1882). He also designed the East Texas State Penitentiary at Rusk (1879).

Among Austin structures Ruffini designed were the Millett and Hancock opera houses, the Texas School for the Deaf and the original "Old Main" building on the University of Texas campus.