The legacy of Charles Henry Page is perhaps the longest in the history of Austin architecture — the practice he founded here in 1898 now employs hundreds worldwide and still bears his family name 123 years later, with its local design portfolio ranging from groundbreaking Depression-era public works projects to several of the city’s latest skyline-transforming towers.
But one of our favorite Page buildings is lesser-known in today’s Austin, the 1936 United States Courthouse still standing proud at 200 West Eighth Street. After the completion of a modern (a little too modern for some) federal courthouse elsewhere downtown in 2012, Travis County purchased the site in 2016, planning to bring the building up to code for use as a county probate court. That renovation is now complete, despite the extra challenges of a pandemic, so it’s high time we all took notice of this New Deal-era masterpiece — you might not see it otherwise.
Though only a few blocks from the Capitol grounds at the corner of West Eighth and Lavaca Streets, the courthouse is sort of tucked away by the rising standards of today’s downtown. Its four floors are hemmed in by taller buildings and nondescript parking garages on all sides, with the building’s grandest face 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, if you’re noticing a theme here — you’re only likely to get a good look on foot. If you do walk by, you’ll find one of our best local examples of the Depression-era civic architecture known as PWA Moderne.
Taking influence from other subsets of the era’s architecture including Art Deco and named for the Public Works Administration that funded many examples of the style — including a $415,000 grant for this very courthouse in 1934 — PWA Moderne buildings are generally considered “monumental.” Take the Hoover Dam, for instance.
Their appearance projects civic authority, crucial in the uncertain times of the Depression, but also a sense of austerity — though the exteriors of these buildings often look far more intricately decorated than our familiar modern architecture, the relative restraint of their ornamentation compared with other styles of the time like Beaux-Arts was intended at least in part to demonstrate that federal funding dollars were not being wasted in their design. The building’s 2001 National Register of Historic Places nomination document explains elements of the style further:
As the nation entered into the Depression, the Treasury Department used restrained—or “starved”—versions of classically inspired styles of architecture in its designs. At the same time, private architects hired to design public buildings for the Treasury Department and other government agencies combined Beaux-Arts composition and symmetry with a form of ornamentation referred to as 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 architects in the Office of the Supervising Architect resisted moving in the direction of totally modern designs, the federal government did not restrict consulting private architects’ design, style, or material choice. As a result, a significant number of federal buildings in Texas were designed in the Moderne style during this era. Like starved Beaux-Arts and Art Deco styles, Moderne architecture reduced classical ornamentation in favor of linear and geometric decorative features. The Moderne style suited federal buildings because it popularized the angular lines and severe forms that mirrored the authority of the U.S. court system.
— National Register of Historic Places, Austin U.S. Courthouse
The interior of the building, notably Art Deco-inspired, still manages to impress with its geometric patterns and tasteful use of terrazzo, marble, and bronze — and Travis County’s 17-month renovation of the structure, preparing the 85-year-old facility for modern use without compromising its historic integrity, required some significant attention to detail from local firms Vaughn Construction and Lord Aeck Sargent.
The project involved restoring the wood panels, doors, and benches, the marble-clad walls, light fixtures, metal finishes, and bathroom fixtures and repairing the limestone building façade. 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 occupants.
You’ll find a few more views of the restored courthouse interior in the video below, released by the county a few months back — a nice reminder that even in a city with lots of great New Deal architecture, this building remains one of its better assets: