Charles Henry Page’s legacy is perhaps the longest in the history of Austin architecture – the office he founded here in 1898 now employs hundreds worldwide and still bears his family name 123 years later. The local design portfolio ranges from groundbreaking audiences from the Depression era to working on projects for several of the city’s newest towers that are changing the skyline.
But one of our favorite Page buildings is less well known in what is now Austin, the 1936 US courthouse 200 West Eighth Street. After completing a modern (a little too modern for some) federal court in a different location downtown in 2012, Travis County bought the property in 2016 and planned to upgrade the building for use as a probate court. That renovation is now complete, despite the added challenges of a pandemic. So it is high time we all became aware of this New Deal-era masterpiece – you may not see it any other way.
Although the courthouse is just blocks from the Capitol grounds on the corner of West Eighth Street and Lavaca Street, it is somewhat hidden from the rising standards of today’s downtown area. The four floors are surrounded by taller buildings and nondescript parking garages on all sides, with the grandest face of the building looking south over a fairly lightly trafficked section of West Eighth Street. Unless you live on the north side of the Brown Building – also designed by Charles Page – chances are you’re only going to get a good look at it on foot if you notice a subject here. If you walk by, you’ll find one of our finest local examples of the Depression civic architecture known as PWA Moderne.
Influenced by other sub-groups of architecture of the era, including Art Deco, and named after the Public Works Management PWA Modern buildings that funded many examples of the style – including a $ 415,000 grant for this courthouse in 1934 – are generally considered “monumental.” Take the Hoover Dam, for example.
Their appearance exudes bourgeois authority, which is vital in the uncertain times of the Depression, but also a sense of austerity – although the exteriors of these buildings often look much more elaborately decorated than our well-known modern architecture, the relative restraint of their ornamentation is in comparison Other styles of the time such as Beaux-Arts should at least in part show that federal funding dollars were not wasted in their design. The 2001 National Register of Historic Places Nomination Document of the building explains other elements of the style:
When the nation entered the Depression, the finance department used low-key – or “starved” – versions of classically inspired architectural styles in their designs. At the same time, private architects hired to design public buildings for the Treasury and other government agencies combined the composition and symmetry of the Beaux-Arts with a form of ornament known as the Zigzag Moderne. ‘The result of these two combined influences was a classically balanced version of Art Deco architecture known as “PWA or WPA Moderne”.
While the architects in the oversight architect’s office refused to move in the direction of completely modern designs, the federal government did not limit the advice, style or choice of materials of private architects. As a result, a significant number of federal buildings in Texas were designed in the modern style during this period. Like starved Beaux Art and Art Deco styles, modern architecture reduced classical ornamentation in favor of linear and geometric decorative features. The modern style suited federal buildings because it popularized the angular lines and austere shapes that reflected the authority of the US judicial system.
– National Register of Historic Places, US Courthouse in Austin
The interior of the building, especially in the Art Deco style, still impresses with its geometric patterns and the tasteful use of terrazzo, marble and bronze – and the 17-month renovation of the building by Travis County, which is preparing the 85-year-old facility For modern use, without compromising the historical integrity, some attention to detail was required from local companies Vaughn construction and Lord Aeck Sargent.
The project included the restoration of the wooden panels, doors and benches, the marble-clad walls, lights, metal surfaces and bathroom fixtures and the repair of the facade of the limestone building. The building now has 160 new windows, a new roof and new MEP systems. New courtrooms, jury assembly areas, judges’ chambers and administrative offices welcome the new residents.
– Vaughn Construction, project narration
In the video below, released by the county a few months ago, you can find some more views of the restored courthouse – a nice reminder that even in a city with a lot of great New Deal architecture, this building remains one of its better assets: