In 1998, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Texas county courthouses on its list of most endangered properties. The grand courthouses built during the boom times of the late 1800’s featured clock towers, along with turrets, rotundas, and stained glass. They were built with granite and limestone brought in by rail.
But 100 years later, many old courthouses were feeling the ravages of time. Stan Graves directs the state’s Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.
“The courthouses as a group in Texas had suffered fires and neglect and were in a general state of disrepair.”
The Courthouse Preservation Program was set up by the state legislature as part of the Texas Historical Commission. Grants are awarded for courthouse restorations with counties putting up matching funds. Graves says the program includes the state’s oldest courthouses, dating back to the 1860’s, as well as Art Deco courthouses of the 1930’s.
“They’re not just local landmarks. These are state landmarks. These are something that all of Texas can be proud of. The collection of these courthouses make Texas a very unique and special place.”
Texas has 235 historic courthouses. The renovation program has funded projects in 82 counties including 55 full restorations. Graves says over the next year they hope to launch four to five new restoration projects with the help of 20 million dollars in grant money allocated by lawmakers.
The restoration work is painstaking. Skilled craftspeople from across Texas are brought in to restore the buildings to their original look. And while restoration work can reveal unpleasant surprises like sinking foundations, Graves says the courthouses often reveal fascinating treasures.
“In one courthouse, we found a series of huge garage door-sized sliding wood panel doors that closed off the back of the courtroom. They had been walled off and everyone forgot they were there.”
Graves says the courthouse restoration program has created about eight thousand jobs, along with spurring new business development and promoting tourism. But despite the successes, some historic courthouses are in danger. Graves says in some cash-strapped rural counties, courthouse renovations aren’t a priority because commissioners are focused on their individual precincts.
“In Texas you’re considered a road commissioner first, when you’re certainly in the rural areas. And so these guys are always trying to put the money into their precincts and get roads built and take care of other pressing needs, indigent health care and lots of needs that counties have.”
But Graves points to the renovation of Harris County’s historic courthouse as one of their success stories. The 100 year old building’s rotunda was closed off when floor space was created on two mezzanines in the 1950’s. Those floors have been removed, and visitors can now look up to a sky-lit roof.