The community of Sonora, later Sutton County seat, was established over forty years before the Texas legislature created Sutton County, a region of the far western edge of the Edwards Plateau carved out of Crockett County in 1887. Sonora had already been serving as trading post and stagecoach stop along the El Paso-San Antonio Road since the late 1840s.
The county wasted little time in promoting justice and practicing the rule of law along this frontier once its borders were established, utilizing temporary locations to conduct county business including the historic G. W. Morris House, the Hurst Building, and the Dunnegan Hotel, a few of the approximately twenty permanent buildings that comprised the Sonoran community, a settlement with as many canvas tents as lumber structures.
In 1891, Sutton County officials accepted its first (and only) courthouse design, submitted by San Angelo architect Oscar Ruffini, a veteran of government buildings across the state. Oscar and his brother F. E. Ruffini, both prominent Texas architects in the late nineteenth century, were known for their courthouse designs. Adapting plans fellow architect W. W. Larmour had created for the Tom Green County courthouse, the Ruffini brothers developed an attractive courthouse template design that resulted in five similar courthouses for Texas of which three, including Sutton County’s, survive. Although a high, central tower characterized many nineteenth century courthouse designs, the Ruffini template adopted the mansard roofing and iron gabling of the Second Empire style of architecture for the Sutton County courthouse, a style drawn from the 17th century French Renaissance period featuring a combination of hipped and mansard roofs, squared domes, and Baroque detailing. Ruffini elected to minimize the more decorative aspects of the Second Empire style for the Sutton County courthouse, utilizing locally quarried, cream-colored limestone for the two-story structure and enhancing each entrance with simplified classical stone details.
The county accepted the new courthouse on July 5, 1893 and the justice center has continued to serve actively since. In fact, the courthouse provided a focal point for both county government and the Sonoran community, hosting meetings and celebrations alike. County commissioners court minutes indicate a frequent concern for the use of the building outside its governmental duties, however, recording various resolutions permitting and denying public use of the building over the years. Once such resolution, recorded in 1901, typifies the process:
“The Court House shall be used for dancing twice in every month only, except holidays when a said committee shall meet and shall control the Court House and are responsible for any damage from breakage which might occur during the dance.”
Once the courthouse construction was completed, a small commercial district to the west along Sonora’s Main Street expanded, encompassing a bank, dry goods stores and a variety of mercantile businesses. In 1902, a devastating fire destroyed many of the buildings along the south side of the street, requiring new construction in the first decade of the twentieth century. Almost one hundred years later, Sonora was designated a Main Street City by the Texas Historical Commission, providing validation for its historic status, a process that encompassed the courthouse as well. Although modified over the years, the Sutton County courthouse maintains much of its original character, earning a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation as both a Texas Historic Landmark and a State Archeological Landmark. By 2002, the courthouse received a complete restoration, returning the exterior details to their original Second Empire state just as Ruffini had designed them and the interior to an original 19th century elegance that features artistic woodworking and decorative stenciling.