Ellis County was formed December 20, 1849, from Robertson and Navarro counties. It was named for Richard Ellis, President of the March, 1836, Independence Convention.
The first meeting of the Ellis County Commissioners Court was held on August 19, 1850. The court placed an order with Joseph Wittenberg to build a courthouse with the specifications that it was to be constructed of logs, 16 feet by 18 feet in size, and cost no more than $59.
Wittenberg could not get logs and construct the building for that price, so he bought a log building in Dallas County and moved it to Waxahachie with two teams of oxen. By using volunteer labor, he was able to rebuild the structure in time for the first session of District Court on October 28, 1850.
The second courthouse was a two story frame building, 24 feet by 36 feet. David P. Ferris built it in 1854 at a cost of $1999. The Honorable John H. Reagan, Judge of the 9th District, declared the structure the most magnificent courthouse in the district.
The third courthouse was completed in 1873 at a cost of $40,000. It was also a two story structure being 60 feet square by 80 feet tall and was constructed of hard native yellow limestone from a quarry about two miles east of Waxahachie. In 1887, a detached two story records building, 25 feet by 45 feet, was added on the west/southwest side of the courthouse grounds to house records.
Construction of the current Ellis County Courthouse was steeped in controversy and litigation from planning to completion. The cost, need and site location were matters of heated debate. One county commissioner who refused to appear at meetings to raise the taxes necessary to fund the project was removed from office by the District Judge and replaced. After months of wrangling, the cornerstone was laid amongst much pomp and pageantry on July 4, 1895. Thousands attended the ceremony and the barbecue picnic which followed.
Apparently, the taxpayers were outraged at the cost of the new courthouse because every incumbent county official was defeated in the election of 1894. The County Commissioner who opposed its construction and was removed from office, was elected to return. When the courthouse neared completion in 1897 the names of the new county officials were to be engraved in polished granite at the west entrance. More dissension arose when some citizens felt the names of the officials who began the project should be included. A compromise was reached and the county placed the names of the officials on one side of the archway and the local Masonic Lodge paid for the installation of the names of the defeated officials on the other side, where they face each other today in perpetual opposition.
Architect James Riely Gordon designed Ellis County's present courthouse. Although he is listed on the cornerstone, Gordon was never employed as architect or provided professional services to Ellis County. Otto Kroeger, a San Antonio contractor and business relation of Gordon, sold Gordon's plans to the Ellis County Commissioners and was the initial contractor for the building. Due to the controversy between the Commissioners, the newly elected officials hired Fort Worth architect Marshal Sanguinet as consultant and construction supervisor, replacing Kroeger. Sanguinet was responsible for making cost saving changes to the original plans, which freed money to hire the stone yard of Theodore Beilharz and his talented German stone carvers. The result is some of the finest stone work in the state of Texas. Credit must be given Beilharz and Sanguinet for the overall architectural success of the Ellis County Courthouse.
The contract price for the building was $150,000, the actual cost including furnishings was $175,000. The architectural style of the building is "Richardsonian Romanesque", named for architect H.H. Richardson whom Gordon's style emulates.
The Ellis County Courthouse stands nine stories tall and contains 23,739 square feet. There are 12 inch steel beams supporting the courthouse running from street to street, north to south and east to west. The structure still retains its original copper gutters and down spouts. Inside, the walls are plaster on brick and are 20 inches thick. The floors are 8 inches thick and the ceilings are 9½ feet tall. During the courthouse construction, 50 to 70 men were employed at an average monthly payroll of $5000.
The building's primary foundation is concrete three feet thick, reinforced by twisted steel. Foundation walls up to the grade line contain about two million brick. On top of the brick, the building exterior consists mainly of 160 carloads of Burnett County red granite. The arches, trim and carvings are made up of 100 carloads of Pecos red sandstone. Fourteen carloads of iron are also contained in the structure. Ten thousand slate and ceramic tiles cover the roof. There has been much confusion concerning the location of the rock quarry supplying the red sandstone. Although it is called "Pecos" sandstone, the quarry (Quito Rock Quarry) was in Ward County five miles east of Barstow. The name "Pecos" is due to the proximity of the quarry to the town of Pecos, the county of Pecos and the Pecos river in west Texas. This quarry also supplied red sandstone for the construction of courthouses in Barstow, Dallas and San Antonio as well as the post office in Fort Worth.
Ellis County is one of about 40 Texas courthouses with a genuine clock tower. Nineteen of these were built in the 1890's. The four faced clock by E. Howard and Co. had a windup weight of 250 pounds, a bell striking weight of 800 pounds and a connecting steel cable 212 feet long. Like others of its kind, the clock is now powered by electricity.
The courthouse was originally built to house two courtrooms, the District Court on the second floor and the County Court (now the County Court at Law) located directly below on the first floor. The original judicial benches with their intricate woodwork are still found in these courtrooms. Part of the carving behind the bench of the District Court is blocked by the current ceiling. The District Courtroom, which was built to double as an auditorium, originally had a balcony area which was converted into office space for the third floor.
The original furnishings were designed by Gordon with Sanguinet and Messer of Fort Worth. Some of these still remain in the various woodwork, tables, chairs and cabinets. Also on the first floor remains a bullet hole in the door on the Commissioners Court Coordinator's office, which was formerly the sheriff's office. The hole was put there during a gun fight in the 1920's which left a deputy wounded and one man dead.
An elevator was added in the late 1950's. Since the stairway for the courthouse created an open shaft for ventilation, the elevator was place in the opening without any structural changes. Due to the fact the courthouse was built before electricity and plumbing were common, the subsequent installation of such modern amenities have resulted in the exposed wiring and pipes visible today.
The historic courthouse and surrounding square has also been the background for many movies, television programs and commercials.
Information obtained from the Ellis County Museum