Skip to content

Denton's Courthouse Square

Written by Randy Mallory.

The fully restored Denton County Courthouse rises from Denton’s shady square like a polished jewel from an arboreal setting, fittingly framed by Locust, Elm, Hickory, and Oak streets.

Noted Texas courthouse architect W.C. Dodson employed various Victorian styles—including Second Empire and Richardsonian Romanesque—in the 1897 structure’s whimsical design. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the courthouse features cream-colored limestone walls, fanciful domes, and 82 granite columns. Its Gothic clock tower rises to 140 feet above a bustling downtown.

Denton has long been known for education and jazz. It’s the home of Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas, famous for its jazz program. The town hosts the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival the last full weekend in April (April 29-May 1, 2005) at Civic Center Park. A recent weekend in this lively college town unveiled a downtown heritage district with a cornucopia of dining, shopping, and free attractions.

First stop is the admission-free Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum, which occupies much of the stately courthouse’s first floor. The museum chronicles the history of Denton County, named for pioneer preacher and lawyer John Bunyan Denton, who’s buried on the building’s east lawn.

Exhibits showcase the county’s communities and their Anglo, African-American, and Hispanic founding families. Vintage photos and well-crafted text bring history to life—such as a photo, from Roanoke’s 1946 Trades Day, of a boy shinnying up a greased pole, and a shot of the former postmistress at Little Elm’s tiny post office, once America’s smallest.

Much of the museum is filled with collections from the University of North Texas, including weapons, rare Southwestern American Indian pottery, toys and dolls, and American pressed blue glass. The oddest exhibit here, hands down, is the small Pecan Art Museum. A local retiree, the late B.W. Crawford, gained fame as Denton’s “Pecan Picasso.” His weird miniatures of notables—from Ronald Reagan to Dolly Parton and Miss Piggy—are made entirely of pecans.

Three blocks east of the square, on West Mulberry Street, lies another admission-free museum, the Bayless-Selby House. Period furnishings and artifacts fill this two-story, 1890s house museum. They’re not originals from the two families who lived here, but they clearly reflect a well-heeled Victorian lifestyle at the turn of the 20th Century, when Denton’s economy soared with the arrival of the railroad. That rising consumer culture takes shape in the home’s fine furnishings, which include an Eastlake hall tree, hand-painted porcelain dishes, and a rosewood square grand piano.

Culture continues year round a block from the square on West Hickory Street at the art deco Campus Theatre. Built in 1949 to cater to the college crowd, it numbered among a handful of state-of-the-art movie houses in the Southwest. Like so many small-town theaters, it closed, in 1985, but a $2 million restoration made possible its reopening in 1995. The 300-seat theater’s proscenium stage now hosts a range of local performing arts groups. (The Campus stages a comedy, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, on weekends, May 6-22.)

Opera performances once unfolded in a Victorian building on the square. The lavender-colored structure on Locust Street, on the square’s northeast corner, now houses 300,000 books, 7,000 records, and 20,000 CDs in Recycled Books, Records, & CDs. In a maze of rooms filled with delightful finds, shoppers peruse merchandise carefully arranged by label and even subheading. A life-size cut-out of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation watches guard over the science fiction section.

A short stroll down Locust Street brings more browsing, at Downtown Mini Mall I and II, indoor flea markets housed in Depression-era buildings. I examined only a handful of the 200 booths. An antique RCA Victrola grabbed my attention, as did several oddities—made-in-China marionettes, a yellow “Tank Crossing” sign, and a scary clutch of martial-arts weaponry.

Knives proved more practical at Country Kitchen City Cooks, a kitchen and gourmet shop on West Hickory Street. The trendy emporium is in the 1885 Evers Hardware building, where attached rolling ladders still reach high shelves. Seeing bottles of portobello balsamic vinaigrette and a chromed $86 pepper grinder by Peugeot (yes, the carmaker family) made me hungry.

So I moseyed down West Mulberry Street to Hannah’s. My culinary wishes were fulfilled by a goat cheese soufflé appetizer, an Asiago (cheese) Caesar salad, and a cedar-planked entrée of salmon. Alas, I had no room for the buttercream chocolate cake or Key lime pie.

Before the weekend was over, I also consumed comestibles at Beth Marie’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream & Soda Fountain (a homemade-style, strawberry-limeade ice cream served in a freshly baked waffle cone); Denton County Independent Hamburger Co. (a succulent burger made from beef ground daily); and The Candy Store (a chocolate truffle custom-made by a German family in Vermont).

Downtown Denton deserves a toast, I decided. That’s easy to arrange on the north side of the square, at Wine on the Square. The shop offers free tastings of an incredible array of wines from 40 or so Texas wineries. (It also sponsors the annual Wine Festival on the Square, May 7 this year, featuring 20 Texas wineries and others from around the world, as well as live entertainment and food.)

During May and June, downtown Denton not only tastes good, it sounds good…and free! Music echoes across the Denton County Courthouse lawn every Wednesday at noon and every Thursday evening with free shows by top local bands—from reggae and rock to country and (of course) jazz.

From May through October, you can even do your own musical thing on the square. Denton’s annual Acoustic Lawn Jam takes place every fair-weather Saturday morning, as musicians of all levels bring instruments and perform on the courthouse lawn.

What a jewel of an idea—downtown hospitality, Texas-style!

Denton is 37 miles north of Dallas on Interstate 35. The area code is 940.

Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum,

110 W. Hickory (349-2850); Bayless-Selby House Museum, 317 W. Mulberry (349-2865); Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory (382-1915 or 800/733-7014); Recycled Books, Records, & CDs, 200 N. Locust (566-5688); Downtown Mini Mall I and II, 108-118 N. Locust (387-2218); Hannah’s Off the Square, 111 W. Mulberry (566-1110); Denton County Independent Hamburger Co., 113 W. Hickory (383-1022); Beth Marie’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream & Soda Fountain, 117 W. Hickory (384-1818); and The Candy Store (382-1001) and Wine on the Square (384-9463), both at 110 W. Oak.

For the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival schedule, call 565-0931 ( For details on other downtown activities, call Main Street Denton at 349-8529; For citywide information, call Discover Denton/Denton Convention & Visitor Bureau at 382-7895 or 888/381-1818;

Back to top