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Union County Courthouse

The Union County Courthouse sits on a slight rise southwest of Clayton’s business district; its shiny silver dome visible for blocks. Constructed in 1909 to replace an earlier courthouse destroyed by a tornado, the Union County Courthouse designed to look like a miniature state capitol signaled the aspirations of a new county.

The Union County Courthouse sits dead-center on a Shelbyville-type courthouse square. Named after the town in Tennessee where this courthouse plan originated in 1810, the Shelbyville style places the courthouse in center of a city block (in this case, Block #850), with streets intersecting at right angles at each corner.

The plan was natural for the newly formed county, as, according to cultural geographer Edward T. Price, the Shelbyville square “quickly became the most frequent county-seat plan in new counties” across the United States during this period. But unlike other squares in the state, the Union County plan did not attract business on the surrounding streets; it is instead flanked by residences, making it unique in New Mexico.

Union County formed on February 23, 1893 from portions of Colfax, San Miguel and Mora counties, making it a “union” between these jurisdictions. Clayton, as the most populous town in the new county, became its county seat. The town got its start in 1887 as a tent city of a few stores and three saloons, anticipating the arrival of a railroad. The Colorado and Southern Railway came in 1888, and the tent community took the name Clayton, after Senator Stephen W. Dorsey’s son, Clayton Dorsey. It soon became a magnet for cowboys and cattle drovers moving cows from Texas.

The mix of cowboys and cattle produced the typical outcomes. Summing it up, in 1891 the Folsom Metropolitan claimed “Clayton was still in the hands of desperados and is in need of deputy sheriffs every day. Horse thieves steal horses from hitching posts in front of the stores and along the streets of the town.” In the late 1890s, the first minister arrived, with a goal of civilizing this Wild-West town.

The county seat received its first courthouse in 1894, with a Richardsonian Romanesque building designed by Isaac Hamilton Rapp. In its school-like plan, it looked much like Chaves County’s first courthouse.

In the first year of the new century, the building witnessed the execution of famous outlaw Black Jack Ketchum. Born Thomas Edward Ketchum, the once-cowboy turned to a life of crime, specializing in gang-type train robberies. Caught on August 16th 1899 single-handedly trying to rob a train, Ketchum was tried at the Union County Courthouse, found guilty and sentenced to death for “felonious assault upon a railway train.” A wooden stockade quickly rose up around the gallows, in order to prevent the scoundrel’s rescue. And on April 26, 1901, Ketchum, dressed in a suit with a black bag over his head, swung from the scaffold, ending his career of crime.

Seven years later, a severe tornado in October struck Clayton, destroying the second floor of the courthouse. Deemed unsound, the rest of the building was brought down. Quick to replace it, the county hired D.P. Kaufman & Sons out of Amarillo to design a new courthouse.

Born in Texas in 1852 to the son of a Pennsylvania shipbuilder, David Paul Kaufman worked as a boat-builder in the Texas port towns of Beaumont and Port Aransas before relocating to the higher and drier ground of Amarillo. There, with his son, William Raymond Kaufman, he designed several prominent buildings, including the Elks Club and Grand Theater. The son would later design the Freestone County Courthouse in Fairfield, Texas, and the Gray County Courthouse in Pampas, Texas, both Neoclassical designs.

For the Union County commission, the father-and-son team designed a well-proportioned brick edifice, constructed on same site as the earlier courthouse. In fact, the new courthouse is erected over the rough-cut stone foundation of the original structure. They presented to the commissioners a bold Neoclassical style courthouse of red-brick construction, accented with yellow brick quoins, concrete columns and topped with a metal dome. The county commissioners accepted the $30,000 courthouse on January 24, 1910.

Symmetrical in plan, and with a full height porch and a pediment gable supported by columns across three sides, the building looks like a small Greek temple — a courthouse found throughout the South. Topping its mansard roof trimmed in wrought-iron cresting is an octagonal metal dome painted silver. Inside, the courthouse took on some of the Neoclassical trimmings: the fleur-de-lis motif is found throughout. The rest — the patterned tin ceilings, decorative door knob plates and an impressive wood staircase — is of good quality, but far short of the ambitions of the exterior architecture.

As stated in the National Register nomination, the “gap separating aspirations and execution which typified much (though not all) New Mexican architecture of this period is widely seen in the Union County Courthouse.” The three porticos look overly narrow and the dome, without a rotunda, is too small for the building. The columns across the porticos, which typically were rendered in classical detail, are simplified, made of concrete without any identifiable capital. Even the highly visible dome, on close inspection can be seen to be made of common materials — steel pile columns and standard sheet metal. In spite of these architectural limitations, the courthouse did accurately capture the new county’s aspirations and the slow march toward statehood.

While many courthouses have been abandoned to hold the daily functions of county administration, the courthouse in Clayton continues to operate in the 1909 building. All functions of county government occur here, including the 8th Judicial District Court. Its two floors containing 16 rooms and a courtroom are well used today. And, though made of sheet metal, its silver dome is still visible for miles, broadcasting the presence of this county seat.