In East Texas, many county courthouses being rehabbed
POSTED: Saturday, June 16, 2012 - 4:10pm
UPDATED: Saturday, June 16, 2012 - 4:10pm
No state has more historical courthouses than Texas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said recently. But so many of them are in such disrepair that the trust recently put them on a list of the nation’s most endangered historical places.
This is not the case in East Texas, where many courthouses have been rehabilitated or counties are seeking state grants to refurbish them.
These include courthouses in Harrison, Cass, Upshur, Marion and other area counties.
“This is a wonderful program the state has going to help us save these beautiful buildings,” said Rebecca Narramore, a member of the Cass County Historical Commission.
The first time Texas courthouses landed on the trust’s endangered list was in 1998. The news sparked then-Gov. George W. Bush to create the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Since then, 83 courthouses have been partially or fully restored through the program.
The program has provided more than $370 million in grants for courthouse restoration projects, creating more than 8,500 jobs statewide, the historical commission said.
Cass County received a $4.4 million grant from the program. Under the program’s guidelines, the county had to provide $726,000, a 15 percent match to the grant.
“The Cass County Conservancy organized and raised the $726,000 over several years so that the Cass County taxpayers wouldn’t have to foot the bill,” Narramore said. “These funds came from private donations. Not one penny was taken from taxpayers.”
The courthouse was rededicated this past February.
The Cass County Courthouse had fallen into disrepair due largely to the economic climate the small county found itself contending with, Narramore said.
“Counties just couldn’t afford to do it all by themselves,” she said. “With small populations — Cass County has about 30,000 people — tax revenues just don’t provide the amount needed to pull off these types of restorations.”
Built in 1859, the Cass County Courthouse is the oldest operating courthouse in Texas and the only antebellum courthouse in use. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Narramore said all county officials should be pushing to restore what she called “these architectural gems” because of what they stand for in the communities.
“County courthouses are the center of local government and civic pride in the county populace,” she said.
Narramore also said restoration is usually less expensive than demolition and rebuilding and produces less pollution.
“The restoration in many cases makes a better building for the environment. A new building requires new material that causes pollution during manufacturing,” she said. “And to tear down the old one causes pollution because you have to dispose of the old building.”
The restoration of the Cass County Courthouse included updating the heating and cooling system, restoring original wall coverings, uncovering and restoring the structure’s original hexagonal floor tiles and raising the ceilings to their original height.
Narramore said the ceilings had been lowered to save on energy costs.
She said the courthouse had undergone numerous changes during the past decades that took away from its historical value but she doesn’t believe those changes were intended to harm the structure.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, harvest gold and avacado green was all the rage in countertops and kitchen appliances. Now it’s all stainless steel and granite, and that’s the case here,” she said. “The changes were a result of people thinking modernizing was the way to go.”
Jennifer Larned, a member of the Harrison County Historical Commission, said the importance of county courthouses cannot be denied.
“All Texas county courthouses are what we call our temples of justice,” she said.
Larned said their location within each county is a testimony to their importance.
“When county seats were established, the courthouses had to be built within a day’s travel for all the county’s citizens,” she said. “Everyone had to be able to access the courthouse.”
The Harrison County Historical Courthouse was built in 1901.
The historical commission gave about $4.3 million toward restoration of the building. The county contributed $1.6 million, the City of Marshall gave $500,000, and private donations totaled $1.6 million.
Although Harrison County has another fully functioning courthouse, Larned said the historical building is the county’s primary courthouse.
“Ninety percent of business, like paying taxes, is done in the newer courthouse, but the county commissioners and the county judge are in the old courthouse,” she said.
Harrison County Judge Hugh Taylor said the historical commission held back $420,000 of the grant as a retainer until the restoration was complete.
“We worked hard to get that money back into the county and were able to do that in October,” he said.
In Marion County, the courthouse has had some updates, but Marcia Thomas, of the Marion County Historical Commission, said the building needs much more work.
“It hasn’t had any of the real restoration, just some patchwork. There have been some tiles fixed on the roof, but a general revitalization of the building has been neglected for decades.
“This courthouse has been in use since 1912, and as time passed and city codes changed, they had to put in new wiring,” Thomas said.
She added that there was little care used when adding the wiring and that most of it had been “made presentable” to keep the building operational.
“You really can’t compare our courthouse to Harrison County’s beauty with all its ruffles and flourishes,” she said. “That will make our restoration cheaper.”
Marion County officials applied for historical commission grants but were denied. They are in the process of reapplying in 18 months.
Thomas said she is passionate about keeping the past a part of the future so much that she donated to Cass County’s restoration effort. She said she did it because before Marion County’s courthouse was established, their early records went to Cass County.
“It is the life blood of any county,” she said. “That’s where your records are, and you got to keep your records.”
In Upshur County, officials are seeking a grant to cover about 80 percent of an estimated total $7.5 million cost of a restoration to return the building to its original 1937 appearance.
“We are almost guaranteed some funds because we have already done the engineering and architectural work,” County Judge Dean Fowler said late this past year.
The county must provide 20 percent — about $1.5 million — of the total. The county’s funds would come from the debt service portion of the tax rate, not requiring a tax rate increase because the county has debt that soon will be paid off, Fowler said.
It’s possible the historical commission could break the grant into pieces, providing financing for interior work one year and exterior work another year, he said, but nothing is certain.
In March, the county received a $215,000 historical commission grant to help bring the courthouse into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The county’s match will be at least $108,000 but could be up to $300,000, Fowler said.