Although the Texas State Legislature created Cameron County in 1848, carving it out of neighboring Nueces County following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Cameron County citizens would wait for over fifty years before acquiring their iconic 1912 courthouse. In the interim, rooms were rented or borrowed for use in conducting county business until a small wood frame structure was built in 1852, located on the back lot of a location once known as the Wolf Building, a brick construction in the downtown section of county seat Brownsville. An unnamed hurricane in 1867, however, made quick work of the wood structure and the adjacent Wolf Building, as well as much of Brownsville and its sister city Matamoros across the U.S./Mexico border.
Hurricanes also tried to damage Cameron County’s next courthouse, a massive structure designed in a Neo-classical style by Jasper N. Preston, architect of Austin’s historic Driskill Hotel. At three-stories with sixteen inch walls, the building managed to survive repeated natural onslaughts and, once County Commissioners moved into the later 1912 courthouse, the building was sold to the Rio Grande Masonic Lodge who still use and maintain the historic structure, awarded a Texas Historical Building Medallion in 1962.
Shortly after 1900, Cameron County officials decided to construct a new, grander courthouse, hiring the well-known Texas architect Atlee Bernard Ayres to accomplish the task. Ayres, based out of San Antonio, was in the midst of his greatest architectural activity through the first decades of the 20th century. Selected as the official Texas State Architect in 1915, Ayres was responsible for designing the Texas State Office Building, the Blind Institute, and the Hogg House in addition to courthouses for Cameron, Jim Wells, Kleberg, and Refugio Counties.
Although favoring the Spanish and Colonial Revival styles, Ayres selected the early 20th century Beaux Arts Classical style for the Cameron County courthouse design. The rectangular, three story building features a striking use of terra cotta and is considered one of the best surviving examples of the architectural style in the state.
The courthouse interior was elaborately ornamented and a centerpiece rotunda was illuminated by an impressive stained art glass skylight. During the courthouse’s restoration, completed in 2006, the massive skylight required careful and delicate handling. In order to replace missing and broken pieces of the art glass, scaffolding was constructed within the rotunda, enabling artisans to dismantle and remove the entire stained-glass dome in sections. Artisans from the Cavallini Studios, headed by Adrian Cavallini and his father, an Italian who arrived in the U.S. after the end of the Second World War, were able to provide a perfect match for the unusual green-colored art glass in the rotunda dome courtesy of salvaged glass from a Floresville church.
During restoration funded through the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the substantial structure of the courthouse needed special attention as well. Termites, plague of many historic buildings when water and wood meet, were found coming up from the ground through the basement and attacking doors, windows and wainscoting. Abatement required obtaining the largest available tent in the state which covered the entire structure while exterminators fumigated for twenty-four hours.
The restoration process also revealed one particular aspect of the historic courthouse property that was best left undisturbed. During installation of the mechanical courtyard on the north side of the courthouse square, restoration crews discovered an unknown burial site. The Texas Historical Commission halted the installation process to launch a complete archaeological study that revealed over seven hundred graves in the area. As a result, the mechanical courtyard was repositioned elsewhere, ensuring that the historic remains will continue to rest in peace.