Witness to History

By Elizabeth Barnhill

Justice Matt Johnson’s “Plan Number Nine” details the unique design of the McLennan County Courthouse

Growing up in Waco, Justice Matt Johnson spent much of his time at the McLennan County Courthouse visiting his dad, Judge Derwood Johnson. His passion for justice and for our beautiful courthouse inspired Johnson to become a judge himself and to write a book that documents the construction of the county seat of McLennan County. The result is “Plan Number Nine: The Construction of the 1902 McLennan County Courthouse.”

Johnson was born in Waco and has deep roots in both McLennan and Bosque Counties. His father was a well-respected judge who retired from the 74th District Court after a 32-year judicial career.

“I grew up coming down to the courthouse to see my dad,” Johnson said. “I liked to see what he was doing. I developed an attachment to the courthouse because it was part of my childhood. I also saw the value of public service. That’s where I got my desire to serve and to try to right some wrongs.”

Johnson attended Richfield High School and Baylor University before receiving his law degree from Oklahoma City University. In 2006, he was elected Judge of the 54th District Court; he served for 14 years before beginning a six-year term as a Justice on the Tenth Court of Appeals in 2020. He has also served on the McLennan County Historical Commission, as director of the Waco Habitat for Humanity and on many other civic organizations. Johnson has been married to his wife Melissa Johnson for thirty years. They have two grown sons, Matthew and Bennett.

Johnson is considered by many to be the resident courthouse historian. Many years ago, he created a PowerPoint presentation that detailed the construction of the courthouse but lamented that at the end of the presentation, there was nothing tangible to show for it. He showed the presentation at various civic events and had many requests to write a book on the subject. Johnson delayed that project, however, until his sons were grown. Once he had more time to devote to the project, he began work on “Plan Number Nine”.

Johnson’s primary research for the book occurred at the Texas Collection at Baylor University and the Alexander Architectural Archive at the University of Texas at Austin. He also used old county records dating back to 1900, when discussions about building a new courthouse began.

The county commissioners proposed the project to the citizens of the county, and they voted to approve its funding. The courthouse was completed in 1902.

Johnson stated, “The Young Men’s Business League agreed to serve as the campaign arm of the project because they wanted good government services for businesses in Waco as well as to attract more businesses to the area. They wanted Waco to be a city of business and industry, so they supported three primary elements of the campaign. First, to build a new courthouse. Second, to build a new train depot, and finally to build a new bridge across the Brazos River to assist the Suspension Bridge with the traffic load.”

Johnson reported that the Alexander Architectural Archive provided him with a wealth of information about the courthouse’s architect, James Riely Gordon. Gordon became a prominent New York City architect after finishing the McLennan County project. His daughter never married; when she died in the 1980s, she directed that all her father’s documents be archived at the University of Texas Architecture School. The school’s archive continues to house the original concept plans, drawings, floor plans and elevations.

Johnson also relayed another interesting fact about our McLennan County Courthouse: “James Riely Gordon had a stock set of plans that a lot of counties purchased and used to build their courthouses. For big counties, he would add wings, but the central structure usually looked very similar. Our courthouse plan was unique. This was an original, not based on one of his stock plans. I think because the county commissioners put out bids for a courthouse, Gordon didn’t want to just mail in one of his stock plans. The only other design similar to our courthouse is his design for the Arizona State Capitol.”

“Plan Number Nine” features photographs of prominent Wacoans at the turn of the twentieth century. Alongside these photos, Johnson discusses the history of the local judicial system and the factors that created a need for the courthouse. He also describes the many details that make our courthouse “a timeless classic.”

Johnson self-published his book and considered the process fun and challenging. He did a book signing and author talk at Fabled Bookshop in December. Copies of his book can be found at Fabled.

When asked if he had plans to write another book, Johnson revealed that he is mulling over writing about interesting cases that our courthouse has witnessed in its 120-year history.