Historic Dallas, Volume 3, Number 4, Fall 1982 Page: 8 of 12
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Early Dallas Grandeur Seen
In Criminal Courts Building
by Elise Mitchell
The Dallas County Criminal Courts.
Building is one of the finest extant
examples of the grandeur of early'
Dallas. Built in 1914 by H. A. Overbeck,
the Dallas County Criminal Courts
Building reflects the eclectic architec-
tural style of the period, as well as the
social custom and condition.
The American Post-Industrial style
of architecture includes three archi-'
tectural periods-Post-Colonial, First
Eclectic and Sound Eclectic. The Dallas
County Criminal Courts Building dem-
onstrates the Second Eclectic era,
through the style and the materials it
Incorporates, brick, stone, terra cotta,
glass, wrought iron, cast iron and ferrel
concrete. The basic design of the build-
ing reflects the relatively new system
of high rise construction, using a con-
crete wrapped steel frame. The exterior
of the building is the mixture of styles
indicative of the Second Eclectic
period. It is somewhat less ornate than
other buildings of its era, being de-
signed with an institutional attitude.
It is, nevertheless, beautiful and
The lower part of the building con-
sists of rustication, a deep horizontal'
line at the base of a structure formed
by masonry units whose face perim-
eters have been beveled to form a
deep shadow line. Romanesque arches
mark the windows of the courtroom
floor. Other features of the building
are reminescent of Classical architec-
ture. The ornamentation at the cornice,
or top of the building is a regular re-
peating geometric pattern of plaster
mold, much like a frieze on a Grecian
temple. The terra cotta band around
the lower portion of the building is
rope-like continuing the Italian Renais-
sance style of the lower rustication.
The upper edge banding is of ornate
terra cotta design work which re-
sembles classical column capitals.
The window and brick pattern of the
middle four floors echo the Classical
period architectural style.
The equally impressive interior of
the Dallas County Criminal Courts
Building further reflects the Second
Eclectic style with its marble floors
and staircases and cast iron balustrades.
The bottom floor was designed for
sheriff department offices, the county
law library, justice courts, and a pris-
oner locker room. The third, or mez-
zanine, floor housed jury dormitories
and segrated men's and women's rest-
rooms. From the fourth floor up, there
was the county jail with segregated
cells, padded cells, a kitchen, infirmary
and chapels. The second floor housed
segregated witness rooms, judges of-
fices, and the major attraction of the
building-the two main courtrooms.
These are impressive with twenty-foot
ceilings and elegant judges' benches.
The East courtroom, number one,
was presided over by Judge J. Frank.
Wilson from 1954 to the late 1960s.
Because of this, it is often called the
Wilson Courtroom. The Ruby Court-
room is another name often given to
this courtroom because Jack Ruby's
trial was held here. The West Court-
room, number two, is often called the
King Courtroom after Judge Henry
King, who presided from 1933 to the
The architect, Harry A. Overbeck,
built the Dallas County Criminal Courts
Building at a cost of $600,000. Over-
beck, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio,
studied architecture at the Massachu-
setts Institute of Technology. He
worked in Cincinnati, Minneapolis
and St.-Paul,:Minnesota, and Omaha,
Nebraska, before coming to Dallas in
1895. Overbeck gained distinction in
Dallas equal to that of his contem-
poraries Louis Sullivan, H. H. Richard-
son, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The
more prominent Dallas structures de-
signed by Overbeck include the Linz
Building, the MK&T Building, the John
Deere Plow Company Building, and
several buildings no longer standing
such as Holy Trinity College and the.
first Temple Emanuel. Overbeck de-
Volunteer Recognized for Effort
Fay Ladd, for her continued sup-
port of staff and League sponsored
events is featured here for special rec-
Fay joined the League in 1980 when
her concerns for the Ambassador Hotel
led her to seek support for preserva-
tion of the old hotel located near the
heart of downtown Dallas.
< X <As a three year resident of the 60
a <:'year old structure, Fay began her search
for outside help in ensuring the build-
ing's future. She becameactively in-
volved in the difficult process of con-
vincing the new owners and other
tenants of the Ambassador's economic
and historic value.
Her dreams are coming true. A Na-
tional Register designation is pending
and the hotel plans to open this fall
Fay contributes her time and talents
to many of the League sponsored events
and- has served as the 1982 chairman
Fay Ladd of the Griffon Awards Program.
Page 8 Historic Dallas Fall '82
The Dallas County Historical Commission is currently seeking support to fund an historic
structures report on the Dallas County Criminal Courts Building to analyze the present
condition of the building and compile a plan for its preservation.
signed homes for several prominent
Dallasites but is best known for his
public and business structures. Over-
beck participated in .the Dallas com-
munity as a member of the Elks Lodge
and of the Dallas Chamber of
The importance of the Dallas County
Criminal Courts Building as a signal of
its time cannot be overlooked. In addi-
tion to reflecting the architectural
fashion, it is also indicative of the social
attitudes. The segregated witness
rooms, jail cells and restrooms demon-
strate the racial tensions present in
the early twentieth century. When the
building opened in 1914, women had
few legal rights. They were not allowed
to vote or to sit on juries and were
discouraged from testifying in the
courts of law. Few women came to
the courthouse, and therefore, few
provisions were made for their com-
fort. An example of this is the single
women's restroom, small and out of
Through the years, the County has
maintained use of the building for a
jail facility and offices. Currently, the
upper floors are the jail; and the first
floor is used as offices. The two Court-
rooms and Grand Foyer on the second
floor have been vacated for restoration
Presently, the King Courtroom and
the Grand Foyer are undergoing resto-
ration funded through a county bond
.program. In the Courtroom, plaster
walls and ornamental ceiling will be
repaired and painted from a Victorian
palette. Reproductions of the original
Judge's bench and railing will be in-
stalled. Some carpet will be used, also
of the Victorian era. Non-public areas
on the second floor will be updated,
using the original marble floors and
existing doors and doorframes. The
Grand Foyer area will also be reno-
vated as a public waiting area. The
Courtroom should be completed and
the court in operation sometime in
The Dallas County Historical Com-
mission is currently garnering support
to fund an historic structures report
on the Criminal Courts Building. This
report, which would be compiled by
a qualified architect, will describe the
history and architecture of the building,
analyze the present condition of the
structure, and provide an overall plan
with recommendations for the preser-
vation of the entire building.
Incentives (continued from page 2)
A resolution agreeing to consider
acceptance of facade easements and
providing a procedure for processing
donation requests, completed action
taken on the preservation incentive
City Council members were nearly
unanimous in their support of the
proposals, with only Max Goldblatt
voting against the tax relief program.
The tax relief provisions allow for a 8
year freeze on property appraisals for
downtown landmark buildings that
have been substantially rehabilitated
after ordinance passage.
Susan Mead Robinson, attorney for
the owners of the Magnolia building
and the owners of Hart Furniture build-
ing, stated that her clients were both
interested in taking advantage of the
tax incentives and asked the City Coun-
cil to expedite the passage of the Code
revisions. City staff member, Gary Seib
told the Council that he felt they could
make the required code changes within
60 days and have them in effect by
the end of the year.
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Dallas Historic Preservation League. Historic Dallas, Volume 3, Number 4, Fall 1982, periodical, Autumn 1982; Dallas, Texas. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth887916/m1/8/: accessed September 25, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Preservation Dallas.