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Texas Independence Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

Wharton


UNCOVERING THE PAST

Birthplace of the late Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, and longtime CBS newsman Dan Rather, Wharton claims another distinction, one of the more dramatic restorations of a county courthouse in Texas.

Founded in 1846, the Wharton County seat nestles along the Colorado River 60 miles southwest of Houston on U.S. 59. In 1889, a three-story brick courthouse with limestone trim rose on the town square. It was designed by architect Eugene T. Heiner in the Second Empire style. But in the 1930s and 1940s, in the name of modernization and the need for more space, the landmark was shorn of her clock-and-bell tower and mansard roof, cloaked with Art Deco additions, and covered in yellow stucco. During the next half-century, many people who remembered the earlier iteration of the stately building passed away or moved on. 

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But others remembered the original, including Horton Foote, who drew from his Wharton upbringing in many of his works. Born in 1916, Foote wrote in his autobiography that the high-Victorian courthouse was the scene of grand social events, and that some townsfolk thought the yellow-stucco version looked like a giant block of sulphur, a plentiful mineral in Wharton County. When the courthouse was faced with demolition in the late 20th Century, the community and architectural experts got to work, raising funds, chipping away at the stucco, and, lacking blueprints, discovering clues to the 1889 structure in paint drippings and shovel scoops. They found a replacement for the original, hand-wound clock and replicated the tower. A local church returned the bell that rings from the rooftop and unearthed rubble provided patterns for the tower’s cresting. Original, stamped-tin shingles turned up, as did an original wooden door, found in an old barn. Inside, the monumental staircase and soaring, second-story courtroom were brought back to life. A grant from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program and considerable local funds made it all possible. The courthouse was rededicated in 2007 and presides over a revitalized town square filled with gift shops, restaurants, antiques stores and a restored, 1941 theater.

Exhibits at the Wharton County Historical Museum trace the community’s military, cultural and economic heritage; the grounds include the birthplace of Dan Rather, which was moved to the site. Get a feel for the retro road trip days of Texas with a stop at the Tee Pee Motel on Business 59. Built in the 1940s and reopened in 2006, this unusual motor court features lodging in 10 concrete cones and the original neon “Tee Pee Motel” sign portraying a native American chief in feathered headdress.