County Magazine | October 25, 2023
A Phoenix Rises
Hidden under layers of fresh plaster on a wall in the county judge's office is Proverbs 3:5-6, scrawled in black permanent marker months ago by Mason County Judge Sheree Hardin: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding … he will make your paths straight."
The verse was a comfort in the aftermath of a suspected arson that all but destroyed the historic 113-year-old courthouse on Feb. 4, 2021. Now, as the courthouse construction approaches completion nearly three years later, the words are hopes fulfilled.
"Good can always come from bad," said Hardin, who was sworn in as county judge in January and expects to finally occupy the judge's bench in the courthouse by the end of the year. "Being able to turn that corner, to be able to live in that victory — moving forward is very exciting."
Indeed, hundreds of community members lined the streets to celebrate the cupola's installation in April, and on a recent summer afternoon, a few charred doors are the only signs of the incident. Vibrant pastel blue and green hues coat the walls. Plans are being developed to have a large celebration for the courthouse's reopening during the spring.
Recovery has cost $20 million, a bulk of it paid through TAC Risk Management Pool coverage, special funding from the Legislature, Texas Historical Commission grants and generous donations from the public. Although the county was spared from dipping into its coffers, recovery has been complicated by a historic winter storm, supply chain issues and the lingering trauma of watching a community fixture violently burned.
Jerry Bearden, who retired as county judge in December, still can't hold back tears when he talks about the night of the fire. He had received a call around 10 p.m., that the 911 dispatcher in the jail across the street could see flames shooting from the second story of the courthouse.
By the time Bearden arrived, heavy flames were already piercing the night sky. The district judge's office burned first. The county judge's office followed soon after.
"When that office caught on fire and I was standing right over there, I absolutely went to my knees. I just could not believe this was happening," Bearden said.
Because the interior was mostly aged wood and carpet, the fire engulfed the courthouse in less than 15 minutes, according to fire officials. Operating a hose, Bearden joined more than a dozen fire departments from a 50-mile range to fight the flames for 50 hours. Sandstone exterior walls, an interior concrete wall that runs north to south, and a thick concrete second floor were the only reasons the building didn't collapse that night.
Direct impacts of the fire
Before the fire, county officials estimated the courthouse restoration would take about two years to complete. Helping to shorten the timeline, much of the interior woodwork and furniture were in such good shape that they could have been installed in the new courthouse, according to architects.
When the courthouse burned, so did many of those features.
The Mason County Courthouse "had a lot of furniture, which is really unusual," said Alexis McKinney, senior architect on the project. "So that's been one of the sad points is that so much of that was lost."
Architects had to travel to Glasscock County, which has a nearly identical courthouse, to measure and take notes on some of the destroyed items. Those pieces, some of which were made from local materials that are no longer available, are having to be reconstructed.
Crews dug through debris to try to save as many historical pieces as possible, including the heavy metal bell that hung in the clock tower, but the twisted remnants were unsalvageable. Bearden, who tried to have a similar bell pulled from the local schoolhouse, had to opt for a Canadian-made electronic bell that was recently installed in the clock tower.
As a result of the fire, new elements needed to be addressed that were never part of the original restoration project, including stabilizing the structure, landscaping, window replacements, and installing a new roof.
"The fire turned a restoration project into a large construction project," said Brett Anderson, TAC Risk Management Services Property Program Supervisor, who has been the Association's primary liaison on the Mason County project since the incident.
The prolonged timeline to rebuild has also meant county officials have had to operate out of cramped spaces in buildings scattered across the county. The bulk of county operations – six departments – are housed in a 3,600-square-foot, 100-year-old building. Hofmann, the District Judge, is officing out of a suite that hasn't been updated since the 1970s but was graciously leased at no cost to the county by a local community bank. District court is being conducted out of a local church gym and commissioners court out of the library.
"So every court date, whether it's commissioners court or criminal court, we have to pack everything up and move to a building that's at least several blocks away," Hardin said.
Although the county hasn't turned to taxpayers to fund the courthouse restoration, the project has consumed much of officials' time to start on other much-needed construction projects. For example, the five-cell jail built in 1894 is among the state's oldest continuously operating jails and needs an upgrade. Officials would also like to build more hangars and expand the runway at the county airport, which has a waitlist to house aircraft at the facility.
"We're so focused on the courthouse and making sure that it's done properly, and in the shortest amount of time possible, with the greatest quality possible that it would have created an extra load on everyone, especially the treasurer's office, to keep up with multiple big projects," Hardin said
Outpouring of support
In the days after the fire, TAC Risk Management Services connected Mason County with a company to clean up mountains of debris and secure the building and with a construction management company whose portfolio of work included the State Capitol extension project.
TAC Risk Management Pool provided the first round of payments to Mason County, essential dollars needed to kick-start recovery.
"About a week after the fire, we called a special commissioners court meeting, and we had representatives from TAC — Brett Anderson and Susan Redford — and they came in and they laid out a plan for us to follow," Bearden said.
Among the tips Redford, TAC's Executive Director and fellow former county judge, suggested to Bearden was to find additional sources of funding. The state Legislature responded to Bearden's letters for help with $6 million.
"We wanted to show strength, strength from Austin and strength from the state of Texas in support of our county officials," said state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who helped carry the proposal through the Legislature in 2021.
Community leaders, including active members of the local historical society and a bank executive, formed a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Mason County Courthouse to raise the rest of the money — more than $5 million. A chunk came from grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas Bar Foundation and others.
Last year, the organization raised $150,000 from a concert and silent auction that included art pieces crafted from courthouse remnants and pecan trees that were damaged in the fire.
However, the largest sum has come from direct donations by residents or those who have ties to the community. They have included a man who has driven through for work and often stays at a local hotel to rest; the owner of a local off-roading park; a lover of historic buildings who was moved by the tragedy; an Austin-area car dealership owner; a New York City resident whose father used to be an extension agent in the county; and a family who raised funds in memory of a loved one.
"He loved Mason," said Ann Schulze, whose family has helped raise at least $23,000 for the courthouse after her son passed away two months after the fire. "The courthouse is really important to everybody that lives in Mason. It just made you proud."
During a recent visit in August, the courtroom was starting to come back to life. Decorative tin plates adorned the ceiling, and the crown molding was painted a robin's egg blue — a reflection of the original architect Edward Columbus Hosford's preference for bright spring colors.
"When you're going through a restoration or something exciting like this, you really want to see the finish line soon. You have to remind each other to be patient and stay positive."
— Judge Sheree Hardin, Mason County Judge
The jury box made of white oak was being reconstructed in a millwork shop in Fort Worth.
In Dallas, metal preservationists were hand-painting 12 iron fireplaces to make them look like wood.
Modern necessities such as mounted TVs, fire suppression systems and ADA improvements have been carefully integrated into the courthouse to avoid disrupting the historical feel of the building.
When the courthouse reopens, the layout will be different from before to accommodate the operational needs of a growing county population.
"When you're going through a restoration or something exciting like this, you really want to see the finish line soon," Hardin said. "You have to remind each other to be patient and stay positive."
Hofmann's temporary office out of the bank building overlooks the courthouse square, where his family for generations operated a dry goods store. Some of his fondest memories include closing shop on Christmas Eve and stepping out to be greeted by the festively decorated courthouse lawn.
Hofmann is ready to put the day of the fire behind him. He will soon be able to return to work in a new courtroom, and the suspect in the case is slated to have a trial in November before a visiting judge.
He said he hopes the first day he's able to hold trial in the courthouse will send a message.
"The rule of law is being attacked every single day," Hofmann said. "We have to do our very best and be diligent to preserve the rule of law — that even though our courthouse burned, we still had court the next day, and justice marched forward."
Before retiring in December after 28 years as county treasurer, Polly McMillan considered staying longer to see the courthouse completed. Although she'll be celebrating the reopening not as a full-time employee for the county — she still helps out on small jobs here and there — McMillan is most eager for the community to reunite at the courthouse steps for Easter egg hunts, Christmas tree lightings and the annual Round-Up Parade and Rodeo during the summer.
With wine tourism growing locally, McMillan believes the new courthouse is an essential piece of Mason County's economic longevity. She is confident the courthouse will draw people into the town square to enjoy the shops, dine at the restaurants, and to love the people who call the county home.
"The courthouse is what everybody migrates to. It's just our baby, and we're very proud of it," McMillan said. "It's just what makes Mason beat."