Looking Back at the 11 Most: Texas' Historic Courthouses

Posted on: July 5th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a seven-part series that will explore the history of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Written by Jonathan H. Poston

Donley Courthouse After Restoration in 2003. (Photo: Texas Historic Commission)

Back in 1989, as a local preservationist (and lawyer) I engaged in an effort in Charleston, South Carolina to convince the County to restore our dilapidated, historic courthouse. It took a decade of struggle before an agreement was finally reached to restore the building to its 1792 appearance and build an appropriate adjacent judicial center. While involved in this process, I was awed by learning about the dilemma faced by Texas with its own historic courthouses at the 1994 National Preservation Conference in Fort Worth. Blessed with 225 historic edifices out of its 252 county courthouses, preservationists in Texas were already keenly aware of the danger of losing many of these staggeringly beautiful stone and brick buildings. Their towers, cupolas, and domes - dating from the 1850s onward - had been built as emblems of democracy and commerce in towns throughout the vast state. A 1993 electrical fire that gutted the Hill County Courthouse had created a sense of dread among Texas’ local leaders about the potential for other such disasters in their own county seats.

In 1998, the National Trust named Texas’ 225 historic courthouses to its 11 Most Endangered List. In perhaps one of the swiftest actions by government after such a nomination, then Governor George W. Bush announced the Texas Courthouse Preservation Initiative in June 1998. As a program strongly supported from the outset by the Governor and then Texas First Lady Laura Bush, $50 million was allocated in the first biennium and additional allocations followed thereafter.

Ellis Courthouse Courtroom before restoration. (Photo: Texas Historical Commission)

By 2011, the Texas legislature had invested $227 million in these courthouses and counties had matched the grants with $150 million. The results speak for themselves: 55 buildings have been fully funded for restoration, five partial restoration grants have been awarded, 13 counties have received grants to complete plans and specifications and eight emergency construction grants have been awarded. The economic impacts resulting from this effort are compelling: 8,761 jobs created, $240,912,802 income generated and $38,961,819 in state and local taxes generated. These projects resulted in major rejuvenations of historic commercial buildings surrounding courthouse squares throughout the Lone Star State.

The National Trust and its Southwest Office, in collaboration with the Texas Historical Commission (THC) and Preservation Texas, played a major role in the early years of the Courthouse Program by developing the Smart Start Preservation Services Fund with a grant from the Meadows Foundation of Dallas. From 1999 to 2004, more than 20 counties received planning grants to complete initial preservation studies of their courthouses. This effort was indicative of the Southwest Office’s determination to play a role in the successful outcome of the Courthouse Program.

Ellis Courthouse Courtroom After Restoration in 2002. (Photo: Texas Historical Commission)

The restoration of each courthouse has been an important preservation story in itself: the miraculous return of the original facing and tower to the Second Empire-style Wharton County courthouse near Houston; the replication of the third floor and tower of the Donley County courthouse in the Texas panhandle replacing features lost in a tornado in 1891; the meticulous conservation of the decorative interior plaster and stained glass in the Harrison County Courthouse; and the restoration of the Courthouse in Marshall with its twelve gilded eagles returned to the dome and pediment by the efforts of 13,000 county school students. Stan Graves, the Director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program for the THC has noted the surprise the agency had experienced with the unique ways in which county governments and their citizens have raised matching funds, “adopting their courthouse as a symbol of local pride that they’re determined to save.” Also noting the importance of these courthouses to Texas, Laura Bush emphasized the programs’ many achievements in her address to the National Preservation Conference in Austin in 2011.

Despite the successes, the program along with the entire THC seemed imperiled in the legislative sessions of 2011. A bill to eliminate the THC altogether was introduced and budget bills in House and Senate called for more than 70% cuts in the agency’s budget. After Preservation Texas, the National Trust, and various local partner organizations and their members, along with the state’s Main Street communities, began to urge legislators to fight the cuts, the picture gradually improved. At the session’s end, the Courthouse program fared well with a special bond bill for $20 million but the THC still lost 50% of its budget. The THC has had to eliminate 47 staff positions and every program office has been cut. Thus, the National Trust has included Texas in a four state listing in the 2011 11 Most, entitled “State Threats.” While the courthouse program will continue with more than 30 projects underway and another 12 with plans completed awaiting the construction process., monitoring of future work to courthouses already restored and accompanying maintenance advice will undoubtedly be more sporadic with fewer state staff.

I once heard a compelling statement from a North Carolina architect upon receiving an award for a courthouse restoration, “Dignified public spaces promote dignified public actions.” The restored courthouses of the Lone Star State are a testament to this adage and these temples of democracy are, furthermore, beacons of hope for the preservation and renewal of smaller towns and cities.

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Jonathan H. Poston is the Director of the Southwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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