Forgotten Architect: Jasper Newton Preston left his mark from Belton to California | Region

Jasper Newton Preston’s name is inscribed on the side of the Bell County Courthouse, making him an important person in Bell County history. Too bad it is almost forgotten today.

Thousands pass by his work in Belton daily – this imposing Victorian wedding cake of a government building with an impressive steeple, porticoes and pilasters with molded capitals. Still, questions remain about him.

Historians Bob Brinkman and Dan Utley, writing in a 2006 article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, found incomplete records scattered from New York to California.

“Along the way there were pieces of the puzzle that often provided more minute detail or anecdote than substance,” they wrote. “Even when sources came to light, there was the further illumination that Preston’s life was more complex than the readily available written records could adequately reveal.”

Preston (1832-1922) was the architect who designed the neo-Renaissance courthouse which was completed in 1885 and is still in use today. When the courthouse was completed, visitors described it as having “tiled halls with a metropolitan luxuriance (reflecting) the unusual wealth of the county and the classical taste of its people.”

As one of the state’s first professional architects, Preston was able to transform Belton’s image from a humble frontier outpost into a progressively modern county seat ready for the 20th century.

Although he lived in Texas for only a decade, Preston left a remarkable and eclectic legacy of 19th-century buildings, including Austin’s fabulously Romanesque Driskill Hotel. He oversaw the construction of the State Capitol Building, designed by Elijah E. Myers (1832-1909).

Nevertheless, despite these impressive contributions to the Central Texas landscape, Preston remains a mystery to scholars.

Preston was born in New York State but moved to Michigan where he later apprenticed as a draftsman with an architect. He also mentioned his profession as a carpenter on occasion. He arrived in Austin in 1875, among the first architects professionally trained to hang a shingle. By 1883 he had opened a practice in Austin with his son, Samuel Adam Johnston Preston (1858-1889).

His arrival was auspicious as Texas was expanding, thanks to a wave of railroad construction that spurred dynamic growth. Confidence reigned, the builders of the city wanted permanence and elegance in their commercial buildings.

Preston also flourished because he was one of the few professional architects. Texas had no architectural training programs and set no standards for their practice. The state’s first professional organization, the Texas State Association of Architects, formed in 1886 with Preston as a founding member.

Booming counties such as Bell wanted stately symbols for their seats of government. Within three decades of Bell’s establishment in 1850, the Bell Commissioners sought to build a new courthouse that reflected the county’s civic pride.

The first Bell County Courthouse was a modest one-room structure made of cedar boards and posts located in the present courthouse plaza. A living oak grove surrounded the building.

By 1857 the county was able to construct a 50-by-60-foot limestone hip-roofed building with double rooms and four rooms on the ground floor, and a court and jury rooms on the stage.

However, by the early 1880s it had become structurally unsafe with gullies carved into the flagstone floors. He was also insufficient to carry on county business.

Preston and his son presented an expanded vision to county officials. An 1893 account said that the Prestons “infused into their plans the broad design of a Commonwealth capital, from the massive entrance to the Statue of Justice surmounting the high dome from which the passing hours resound . … It is doubtful that any other county in Texas can surpass it in architecture, permanence, and completeness.

The Bell County structure was one of Preston’s many contributions during his time in Texas. “Despite his relatively limited time in the Lone Star State, he left behind a legacy of iconic structures that adorn the cultural landscape to this day,” Brinkman and Utley wrote. “As well as a handful of existing courthouses, Preston has also designed ornate hotels and residence halls, notable commercial buildings and functional eleemosynary campuses. … He was influential both as a mentor to young architects and as an early proponent of his profession, which was in its infancy in the state when he arrived in the late 19th century.

Among his other courthouses (all razed) include McCulloch (1878), Williamson (1878), Gregg (1879), Nolan (1882), Taylor (1883), Mitchell (1885) and Washington (1883). Bell and Bastrop (1883) are still standing.

At the height of his career in Texas, Preston and his son packed their bags in 1886 and headed to Los Angeles, where Preston, at age 54, would reinvent himself and his architectural practice amidst the most exciting new opportunities. Western.

An 1887 edition of the Los Angeles Herald reported that Preston and his son were “arranging comfortable and practical lodgings.” Los Angeles, with its rapid improvement and the erection of many lavish residences, department stores and expensive public buildings, presents a splendid field for talented architects.

The article added that Preston had moved to Los Angeles “where the field is so much wider”. The Herald also referenced Belton Courthouse in its effusive praise of the architects’ handiwork.

Preston’s California practice flourished just as it had in Texas. His colleagues elected him president of the Southern California section of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1892. He presented a paper titled “Architecture, Its Study and Practice” in 1894 and was elected a life member in 1907.

In Los Angeles, he obtained major commissions, including hotels and schools between 1889 and 1895. Although most of his commissions were in Southern California, he also designed the Coconino County Courthouse in 1894, which is still in Flagstaff, Arizona.

He also executed residential designs for wealthy clients in Pasadena and Huntington Beach, many of whose homes still stand.

About Byron G. Fazio

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