- James Riely Gordon: His Courthouses and Other Public Architecture
In this detailed analytical study of noted architect J. Riely Gordon (1863-1937) and his significant body of public architecture, Chris Meister makes an important contribution to the scholarly literature on prominent designers who left their mark on the state's built environment, complementing such works as The Eclectic [End Page 337] Legacy of Atlee B. Ayres, Architect by Robert James Coote (2001); The Architectural Legacy of Alfred Giles by Mary Carolyn Hollers George (2006); The Architecture of O'Neil Ford by David Dillon (1999); and The Country Houses of John F. Staub by Stephen Fox (2007). Meister's contribution bridges an important gap in the architectural continuum of Texas by providing the first comprehensive review of Gordon's key designs and by setting the inventory within broader contexts that influenced the architect's evolving approaches to public spaces.
Although born in Virginia, Gordon grew up in San Antonio, and it was from there (and later Dallas) that he developed important regional interpretations of national architectural idioms through his appreciation for "picturesque" styling strongly related to the state's diverse history. Embracing early on a particular appreciation for Richardson Romanesque design, and later for Beaux Arts Classicism, he created defining general plans that reflected what Meister called "efficiencies and clear vision"(101). As a result, Gordon's courthouses, in particular, are now considered landmarks of the Gilded Age, as well as the so-called golden era of courthouse construction in the state. Among his extant icons in Texas are temples of justice for the counties of Bexar, Hopkins, Fayette, Gonzales, Ellis, Lee, Victoria, Harrison, McLennan, and Wise. Many of his most significant works in the state have recently been renewed and restored through the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program of the Texas Historical Commission in what has become the largest public undertaking of its type in U.S. history. Sadly, other noteworthy examples of Gordon's Texas work, including the 1890 Moorish-influenced Aransas County Courthouse and the 1903 Angelina County Courthouse, his last commission in Texas, no longer exist.
While this is principally a professional biography—and a thorough one—the author does not hesitate to delve into the complex personal side of the noted architect, discussing in detail his various failed business partnerships, his longstanding disputes with other architects, such as James Wahrenberger, and various legal entanglements and unfounded rumors that dogged his practice through the years. Also, through Gordon's experiences, readers are presented with a behind-the-scenes exploration of the political battlefields and cutthroat competition that are at times part of the public architecture process. Despite setbacks, disappointments, and missed opportunities, though, Gordon emerges as a survivor, one now clearly recognized as a pivotal figure in Texas cultural history.
Significantly, Meister's study follows Gordon through the breadth of his career, with balanced treatments of his work after he left Texas for New York. There, the architect continued to push the design envelope through major projects across the United States, eventually expanding on the regional sensitivities that underpinned his early work. Of particular interest to many will be Gordon's radical, columnar design for a New York City Hall (never built) that he called the Pillars of Justice. As a fitting tribute to a professional life well spent, Gordon eventually made a return visit to San Antonio in the 1920s, enjoying his well-earned stature as a nationally recognized designer. Thanks to Chris Meister—and preservationists—that recognition continues on, as it should, to new generations of admirers. [End Page 338]