The Mason County Courthouse now has its cherry on top.
A cupola was installed on on the building's roof Wednesday, with hundreds of residents lining the perimeter of the town square to watch the historic event. The courthouse, which is modeled after its 1910 predecessor, has been under construction since February 2021 after it burned down in an arson. The mounting of the 36,000-pound cupola is one of the most visible signs of progress toward completion, which is estimated to happen in August.
"It's been a long time coming, but now when people drive through, they're going to see what we have. They're going to see what we're proud of," said former County Judge Jerry Bearden, who wiped away tears as he watched the installation.
Bearden, who retired last year, had watched the courthouse burn down in the late hours of Feb. 4, 2021, at times even manning a hose to help put out flames. He has candidly described how he dropped to his knees in despair as the fire roared on, but also vowed to rebuild the courthouse, which he has described as a "phoenix rising from the ashes."
The courthouse's reconstruction has cost about $20 million, the bulk of which has been paid for through TAC Risk Management Pool coverage reimbursement, historical grants, community fundraising and funding set aside by the Legislature.
Challenges that the county has faced during the process have included weather-related delays – the historic ice storm of February 2021 hit just weeks after the fire – and the pandemic, which slowed getting some materials and drove up costs.
To save precious time, the cupola was obtained from a company in Canada, which produced the piece more quickly than was possible locally. Although the cupola looks exactly like it did 113 years ago, the internal pieces have a modern touch including structural steel and an electronic clock and bell system.
Although the installation’s backdrop was against a curtain of rain clouds Wednesday morning, officials were closely watching the wind. Any breeze over a certain speed would have halted the event.
"Once it gets up over about 18 miles an hour, we'd have some real problems landing that thing on top because that's a lot of surface area," said Dave Stauch, managing principal at CPM Texas, the project manager for the courthouse. "You can't control the weather. That's what makes you nervous."
Stauch has helped restore several courthouses during his career, but Mason County's was his first cupola installation.
"Most of the time when we do a courthouse restoration, most of the building is there. In this case, obviously it all burned down, so we had to start from scratch," Stauch said.
The next steps of the reconstruction will include installing roof shingles, windows, electrical work and the balconies in the courtroom, among other pieces.
Upon completion, the county plans to have a community celebration for the ribbon cutting of the "grand ole lady," Bearden said.