Downtown Courthouse Getting 100-Year Tune-Up

It's been at the center of Houston's bustling downtown area for almost a century and now the 1910 Harris County Courthouse is in the middle of a major facelift, the first it's had since 1954. But as Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the restoration will make the historic building look older, not newer.

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For a good portion of the 20th century, the 1910 courthouse was Harris County's main administrative building, a solid, 6-story granite structure that's seen the city grow up around it. Still surrounded by huge oak trees, the courthouse is now nearly gutted as crews begin a major restoration project. Dan Reissig is with the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department and is overseeing the project.

"We've taken out all the mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems of the building so it is basically going to be gutted and fully restored. All the public areas, the spaces where the public can actually go will look as they looked before the '54 renovation, so 1910-1954."

The restoration will include re-opening a center rotunda from the second through sixth floors that was closed in 1954, adding a skylight and rebuilding two monumental entry staircases like the original ones. Two two-story courtrooms will be occupied by the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals when the project is finished.

"It will be a functional building but it's also going to be almost like a museum to some degree because people will be able to come in here and visit the building and see what the building looked like 100 years ago. I don't think there's maybe a handful of buildings in Houston where you can really claim that's the case."

Reissig says there's been a change in the approach to restoring old buildings in Houston, where newer isn't necessarily better.

"Typically what you're trying to do is modernize the building and make it look newer and fresher, but the goal of this building is really just the opposite of that. What we're trying to do is do a historic restoration where we take the building back in time and try to make it look like what it looked like 100 years ago."

The restoration will cost around $65 million, with Texas Historical Commission grants expected to cover about $6 million of the cost as part of the state's Historic Courthouse Preservation Project. Lynn Edmundson is with Historic Houston, an organization dedicated to saving old buildings.

"I think there is a real community awareness of how important the built environment is to our past and what that represents and I think the community as a whole is now recognizing that preserving those aspects of our joint history is an important aspect."

The project is expected to be complete in November of 2010, in time for the courthouse's 100th anniversary. You can see pictures of the 1910 Courthouse on our website, KUHF.org.

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