Safe at last

1911 San Saba County Courthouse fully restored

By Liz Carmack

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Long a poster child for historic Texas courthouses in danger, the 1911 San Saba County Courthouse is safe at last.

Its substandard electrical system from the 1950s, leaky roof, drafty windows and crumbling stairs had for years made the building a firetrap and hazardous home to county government. But with community support and matching grants from the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) courthouse preservation program, the county persevered in completing the building’s historical restoration this spring.

"We had to do it," said San Saba County Judge Byron Theodosis. "It was only a matter of time until this courthouse burned down."

The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP), which kicked off in 2000, provided the county with grants totaling $5.58 million for the work. The county put in $3.83 million in matching funds. Over the years, the money paid for a restoration master plan and emergency repairs and upgrades, and ultimately led to the building’s full restoration.

The latest grant, in 2016, supported high priority projects, including work to improve site drainage and to finish bringing the electrical system up to code. The money also helped pay for the installation of plumbing, a security system, an audio system in the district courtroom, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Office space inside the building expanded as water leaks were fixed and the deterioration caused by them was repaired.

"Through the THCPP, we have worked on some of the more ornate county courthouses in the state," said Susan Frocheur, a principal with Architexas, an Austin-based architectural firm. Her work on the project included managing the latest construction administration phase. "In comparison, San Saba County Courthouse is a simple, unassuming building, [and] attention to its original intent uncovered the gem that it was. [It] is again the pride of the community."

Judge Byron Theodosis gives Mike and Kathy Miles a tour of the District Courtroom in the San Saba County Courthouse. Kathy Miles, the judge's former assistant, said she spent cold winters working inside the once-drafty building. Photo: Liz Carmack

The most dramatic transformation during that phase was the restoration of the courthouse's third-floor district courtroom, which regained its original double-height ceiling.

THC project reviewer and architect Eva Osborne said that the courtroom's balcony was sealed off and used for storage and that the building's two-level grandeur was hidden by a low drop ceiling. Its adjoining anterooms and its deeply coffered metal ceilings were also restored, Osborne said.

"It's been brought back to the airy, spacious look of when it was first constructed," Theodosis said. Throughout the three-story building's offices and public spaces, a professional paint conservator, with guidance from THC staff, scratched off layers of paint to uncover the building’s original colors, which included yellow, green and blue. Their period-appropriate shades now brighten courthouse walls.

The building's drafty, double-hung windows, once nailed shut, have all been rehabilitated and made more energy-efficient by adding weatherstripping. They can now be lifted with a finger. Energy-efficient LED lights were also installed throughout the building.

Outside, the courthouse's appearance was "restored through the reconstruction and/or stabilization of several important elements, including column capitals, clock tower elements, main roof cornice/parapet entablature, brick and plaster facings and restored historically accurate color coatings," Osborne said.

The courthouse today presents a stark contrast to its description in a 2016 "Courthouses in Danger" feature in County magazine. The story reported that during the winter employees wore gloves indoors, stretched plastic across drafty windows and huddled around space heaters, taxing an overloaded electrical system that had once sparked an insulation fire.

Those days are long gone. The rejuvenated Texas Renaissance-style building once again stands as the hub of county business in San Saba. "Ultimately, this courthouse now is able to last another 100 years with safety and with comfort," Theodosis said.