During the 2013 restoration of La Salle County’s courthouse, a somewhat straightforward modern building highlighted with Art Deco and Beaux-Arts elements, nothing stood out during the project’s evolution more than the re-gilding of the courthouse eagles. The four terra-cotta eagles, one over each entrance, received dozens of sheets of gold leaf to restore their luster, making the courthouse the only one in Texas with gilded terra cotta detailing.
The eagles served as appropriate insignia for a courthouse soaring above its surrounding community, built at the center and highest point in the county seat of Cotulla. The four-story icon was designed by San Antonio architect Henry Truman Phelps and completed in 1931. Born in 1871, Phelps was responsible for seventeen Texas courthouse designs and the 1931 courthouse was his second for La Salle County. The moderne courthouse is not only considered Phelps most ambitious and imaginative it would also be his last. Phelps died from a heart attack at age 73, twelve years after the La Salle County courthouse dedication.
Phelps’ courthouse was also the last of four courthouses for La Salle County, first established as a governmental division of the state in 1858 and already in need of some law and order. Cotulla, like many rural Texas towns, was a rough-and-tumble community in the 1800’s. One account stated that railroad conductors announced passenger arrival with a robust “Cotulla! Get your guns ready.”
The county’s first courthouse, a two-story masonry building in the Second Empire style and completed in 1884, featured a tower, exterior window shutters, and a clock. Twelve years later it burned down. The 1897 replacement, a two-story with a pitched roof, included a new safe, two coats of paint “inside and out”, and a side tower with a minaret-style flourish. It didn’t last either. According to a note attached to a surviving photograph of the courthouse, “Fire bug struck again”. The third La Salle County Courthouse, completed in 1904, attempted to replicate the basics – two stories, brick, tower, clock, and slate roof. In the end, however, La Salle County citizens wanted something just a little more modern. A demolition crew leveled the building and the county hired Phelps to design the edifice in the Art Deco style, complete with jail on the top floor and featuring glazed bricks, terra cotta, the gilded eagles, sixty county insignias over the windows, terrazzo floors, and vault doors.
The late 1920’s marks the introduction of the Art Deco style for our Texas courthouses, an architectural design that accentuates clean lines and crisp, soaring verticals with distinct geometric patterning. According to the restoration team for the 1931 courthouse, the Art Deco style of the building is a variant of the Moderne style, which remained popular into the 1950s, especially in South Texas.
Although gilded eagles express a decidedly American ideal, the courthouse details also make subtle reference to both the design’s French Beaux-Arts inspiration as well as the county’s French namesake – seventeenth century explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Along the spandrels, or the spaces between the windows of the first floor and the second floor, highly decorative and stylized polychrome floral patterns surround shields featuring the letters "L" and "S" formed in terra cotta; American-made, perhaps, but French in spirit.