Four Texas counties trudged through weather-related and pandemic-induced delays to return their courthouses to their historic splendor in 2021.
After years of construction, Marion County in East Texas, Fannin County about 70 miles northeast of Dallas, Lipscomb County in the northeast corner of the Panhandle and Falls County about 30 miles southeast of Waco celebrated or were expected to celebrate completion of the restoration of their courthouses this year, projects county leaders say will drive tourism, decrease maintenance costs and improve operational efficiencies. Texas Historical Commission grants footed the bulk of the $45 million in combined costs to restore the four courthouses, and the Texas Legislature earmarked an additional $25 million in the 2022-2023 budget to pay for more projects.
“I think a lot of people were questioning whether a courthouse restoration was a good move or not,” said Fannin County Judge Randy Moore, who has had to navigate monthslong delays in completing construction to his county's 1888 courthouse. “But, when you have something as bad as what our courthouse looked like, we’re having a lot of people that just constantly comment about how good it’s looking. People will be proud of it.”
A challenging year
Courthouse restorations are lofty undertakings that require officials to balance historic preservation with modern building codes -- all while staying within budget.
February’s winter storms complicated projects further by delaying work for weeks on some courthouse projects.
The coronavirus pandemic also strained the supply of subcontractors, mirroring employment trends seen across the country. Some experts have attributed the shortage to workers’ fears of contracting COVID-19 on the job, increased child care responsibilities at home and people’s reliance on stimulus checks.
“We could not get anybody to bid our job because all the electricians were busy in Bryan, College Station or Waco,” said Falls County Judge Jay Elliott, whose art moderne courthouse reopened in the fall after a $7 million restoration. The building was restored to mirror the look it had when it was built in 1939.
Contractors on the Lipscomb County Courthouse project also struggled with finding workers because housing was limited. Workers stayed in hotels 30 miles away and would work for two weeks at a time before spending a weekend back home, said Lipscomb County Judge Mickey Simpson.
“Part of the problem … was getting workers who would stay here,” Simpson said.
The pandemic also wreaked havoc on supply chains.
Elliott saw delays in obtaining small parts for electronics, ceiling fans for the courtroom and window handles, which took eight months to be delivered.
Marion County Judge Leward LaFleur said getting some supplies into his county were “at a snail’s pace.” Fannin County issued a $10 million bond, a last resort to finish the project, largely due to skyrocketing material prices, Moore said.
“Most of the delays have been with all the manufacturers. They shut down their plants, so it was hard to get
the windows and to get the cupola – I mean, all those things took months and months to ever get them made,” Moore said.
Balancing the old with the new
The Fannin County Courthouse is slated to be completed by the end of the year, months later than what Moore had wanted. But, he said, the courthouse is already inspiring businesses in the downtown area to improve their buildings.
Moore said the courthouse, which can be seen from every major road leading into town, will draw visitors with its impressive size, replete with a cupola – an original feature that had burned down in the 1930s. In the interior, archways that had been plastered over are now revealed. The third-floor district attorney’s office has been transformed back into the courtroom balcony. And decades-old gaudy features have been removed.
“This will be the key kind of monument in our county that we hope will spur growth not just from tourists, but from citizens who say, ‘Our whole downtown looks neat now,’” Moore said.
LaFleur also sees potential for an increase in tourism with his revamped 1913 courthouse, which sits on the banks of the Big Cypress Bayou. He likes to point out to visitors the exhaust vent that still runs through the center of the courtroom that at one point carried out the heat from a summer’s day, tobacco smoke and horse stench that would leak in from the busy streets.
“Over a lot of years, like many counties do, (my predecessors were) just trying to keep everything together in their courthouses. So now she's back to her original grandeur, and none of it would have been possible without obviously my predecessors and in partnering with the Texas Historical Commission,” LaFleur said.
Modern elements to the building include LED lights flush with the ceiling and air conditioning units per room.
Lipscomb County’s restoration of its 1916 courthouse came with new plumbing, electrical work, a new HVAC system and improved broadband. Disability-accessible features, including a new elevator, have also been installed.
“There was a joke running around the courthouse, like, ‘Oh, we're going to have to have candlesticks or they're taking it back to the 1960s or when we didn't have computers,'” said Lipscomb County Treasurer Kimberly Long. “You know, it still has to be a working courthouse.”
Falls County expects to save money on maintenance expenses, with staff no longer having to search on eBay for old parts such as glass fuses for the electrical wiring.
Upgrading the HVAC system, which was a collection of window units mounted to the exterior of the building, has also enhanced the historical look of the courthouse.
The last step in the county’s restoration was revealing it to the community in a celebration in September.
“The cornerstone of the county is typically the courthouse when you're talking about smaller counties. And when your cornerstone is polished and beautiful, you take much more pride in your courthouse, and that pride goes out on how you see everything around it,” Elliott said.
Texas Historical Commission’s courthouse preservation program
In the 2022-2023 state budget, the Texas Legislature provided the Texas Historical Commission with $6 million to restore the Mason County Courthouse, which was destroyed in February in an arson-related fire. Tyler County will receive $1 million, and Newton County will receive $1.1 million for their courthouse restoration projects.
In total, the Legislature provided $25 million to the courthouse preservation program in the 2022-2023 budget, the same amount it gave the commission in the 2020-2021 budget.
State lawmakers have whittled away funding over the years – at one point, funding was as high as $65 million for the two-year budget, according to the commission.
The commission hopes to fund three to four full courthouse restorations in the next few years, a few planning and a few emergency, “but it really depends a lot on the project costs and the project proposals we receive,” said Susan Tietz, program coordinator of the courthouse preservation program.
Other changes Tietz said counties should look out for include an extension on the due date for grant applications, which are now due May 13, 2022. She also reminds counties that the commission has added an “ability to pay” criterion, which will award more points in the grant application process to counties with less revenue.