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Chaves County Courthouse

National Register of Historic Places, SRCP #1019
Statehood period of significance: 1911-1912

Built as a replacement courthouse, the 1911 Chaves County Courthouse, designed by Isaac Hamilton Rapp in the progressive Beaux-Arts style, signaled the ambitions of this new county and its presumed place in statehood.

The Chaves County Courthouse, a solid Beaux Arts building ornamented to the hilt, dominates a landscaped square north of Roswell’s downtown business district. Facing Main Street, its enormous green terracotta tile domed roof catches the eye and is taller than any surrounding building. Built in 1911, on the cusp of statehood, the three-story rectangular brick building, resplendent in classical capitals, garlands and shields, signaled the ambitions of this new county. To make its statement, the county commission selected a majestic Beaux Arts design of symmetry and symbol that, when completed, rivaled the Territorial capitol in both scale and message.

The Territorial Legislature of 1889 carved Chaves County out of existing Lincoln County, which took up the entire southeast corner of New Mexico. The new county was formed at the request of the growing population of the Pecos River Valley, who felt it a hardship to travel to the then-county seat in Lincoln. Captain Joseph C. Lea, for whom Lea County is named, took the lead in persuading the legislature to create the new county. The ranching town of Roswell, the largest community in the region with a population of 343, was the most logical place for the new county seat. Lea convinced the legislature to name the county after his close friend, Colonel Jose Francisco Chaves, a Bernalillo native and descendent of a prominent Spanish family. Lea, who owned the entire townsite making up Roswell, donated a block for the courthouse and jail.

The first courthouse, a vaguely Richardsonian Romanesque design composed of bricks and featuring a bell tower, didn’t last long, though in its short use, it witnessed the county’s first hanging in 1894 of what supposed to be a statewide “Hanging Bee.” The courthouse soon proved too small, as the county’s population grew by 1909 to 16,859. An editorial in the local newspaper called for its replacement, denigrating the building as “an old bat cave that has long done duty beyond the point of usefulness.” In addition, its school-like architecture didn’t match the ambitions of the growing county.

Approaching statehood, the new county looked for something grand, and sought the creativity of a leading Southwest architect to build it. Interestingly, the town considered how the new state could potentially take on the burden of paying for its civic building. County leaders were aware that a provision in the 1910 constitution, affirmed that when the territory became a state, county indebtedness would be taken on by the state. A “bond issue [for the courthouse] will not be burdensome distributed over so many, and in the event of statehood it will disappear from the map,” remarked an editorialist in the Roswell newspaper. The county secured a $125,000 bond, and the old brick courthouse was auctioned off for $580, with the buyer required to remove the building.

To create the new courthouse, the county commissioners sought the services of Isaac Hamilton Rapp, one of the premiere architects working in the Southwest. Prior to the Chaves County commission, Rapp had already designed noteworthy commercial and public buildings in Las Vegas and Santa Fe and in Trinidad, Colorado, the location of his first office. At the same time of the courthouse, Rapp was working in Roswell on the design of the Hagerman Barracks of the New Mexico Military Institute, a client for whom he would design subsequent campus additions in 1913, 1925 and 1932.

Born in 1854 in New York, Rapp first worked with father as a carpenter builder in Carbondale, Illinois. With no formal training, Isaac and his brother, William Morris Rapp, opened the I. H. and W. M. Rapp architectural firm in Trinidad in 1892. The firm designed numerous public buildings, including the first courthouses in Union County (1894) and the New Mexico Territorial Capitol (1896-1900), both demolished. After the Chaves County Courthouse, I. H. and W. M. Rapp designed courthouses for Las Animas County, Colorado (1912) and Rio Arriba County, New Mexico (1917). Though untrained, the firm could create in a number of popular styles of the period — Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, Sullivanesque, Prairie and the Classical and Gothic revivals. Some historians place the firm’s 1908 design for the Colorado Supply Company Warehouse in Morley, Colorado as the progenitor of the so-called “Santa Fe Style,” that later became the popular Pueblo Revival style.

For the Chaves County Courthouse, Rapp designed a grand edifice in the Beaux-Arts style. A formal architectural style, Beaux Arts (roughly “Fine Arts” in French) came to represent a high architectural style often given to public buildings by American architects who studied at France’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The style received a major introduction to the public at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where Beaux Arts designs by leading American architects, including Richard Morris and Charles McKim, came to be associated with progress and the City Beautiful movement. In addition to its display of classical forms and symmetry, the style almost overly emphasized sculptural ornamentation through its use of decorative shields, urns, swags and statues of classical figures.

By selecting the Beaux Arts style, Chaves County removed itself from its territorial provincialism and placed itself on equal footing with grand public buildings in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City. But in execution, some of the stylistic provocations were removed, rendering it a fine building — and perhaps New Mexico’s best example of Beaux Arts — though far less than the high-style examples in other cities. At its dedication on May 1, 1912, ex-Governor Hebert J. Hagerman called it “the best in the state,” predicting it “will stand long as a monument to our prosperity.” New Mexico historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell later deemed it “the finest structure of the kind in the Southwest.”

And this monument to prosperity — and for that reason, to the new state—has survived. Carefully restored in 2005, the courthouse still contains the judicial court functions of Chaves County. But like its predecessor over 100 years ago, because of rapid population growth, it could no longer hold the everyday functions of county administration. These have been moved a mile and half to the south, in a new Michael Graves-like facility, complete with its own stripped down version of the iconic green tile dome.