Comal County Courthouse Restored to its 1898 Glory

Comal County Judge Sherman Krause serves as master of ceremonies during the Jan. 22 rededication of the newly restored Comal County Courthouse in New Braunfels.
A hushed crowd of about 250 gathered on the Comal County Courthouse lawn during a mild January morning to celebrate the historic building’s restoration.
“Comal County has a very special history, and we have a very special connection to that history,” Comal County Judge Sherman Krause told spectators during the celebratory remarks.

Behind him, Comal County’s 1898 courthouse provided a three-story, grandiose backdrop in native limestone, its bell tower reaching toward a clear, blue sky. A few spectators surveyed the event from above, on the building’s Romanesque Revival style balcony. Krause continued, naming individuals in attendance related to former county officials and others who were connected in some way to the historic courthouse.

“Today, we are here to celebrate the connection this building gives us to our past,” Krause continued. “A history this building represents today and hopefully for another 100 years.”

Other area elected officials, including state Sen. Donna Campbell and state Rep. Doug Miller, took turns at the podium to share in the rededication of the freshly restored courthouse as the county’s historic seat of government. The celebration culminated 10 years of planning and work — a cooperative effort between the county and the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. The event was staged 114 years to the day after the courthouse’s original dedication — Jan. 22, 1899. (The building’s construction was completed in 1898.)

“Although this county has grown by leaps and bounds, this is still a place that symbolizes the best that any government can offer its people,” THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe told onlookers. “Fairness, transparency, impartiality, honesty, integrity, truthfulness. That’s what a place like this stands for.”

The county chipped in $5.3 million toward the $8.7 million undertaking, which was funded in part by a $3.4 million THC grant. “We had saved some money along the way to do this project,” said Comal County Commissioner Jan Kennady, speaking a few weeks after the ceremony. 

Lauded for leading the county’s effort to restore the building and seek the THC grant, she said she and others began working on the project a decade ago. “It was my dream to have the courthouse restored,” she said. “I just know how important it is for us to preserve the past. And certainly it was a good thing economically to do. It’s the cornerstone of our town.” 

Authentic Restoration Hides Modern Infrastructure

This early photo shows the courthouse on the northwest corner of the newly constructed New Braunfels town plaza. The courthouse Architectural firm Volz & Associates and general contractor RBR Construction worked on the restoration project, which spanned a little more than two years and wrapped up in January, shortly before the rededication. 

 “I am thrilled to see it come to successful completion,” said Tere O’Connell, project architect. “It makes such a clear statement that historic buildings make valuable contributions to their local communities in terms of functional use, energy efficiency, community pride, heritage tourism and generally improve quality of life for the people who work in and use the building. 

“This restoration is the most significant courthouse transformation I’ve seen,” O’Connell added. “The before-and-after pictures are just remarkable, as we knew they would be.”

The building is an outstanding example of noted courthouse architect J. Riely Gordon’s work. But during the past century, many of its original interior details had been covered up or removed as hundreds of modifications were made to accommodate the county’s growing needs, said County Engineer Tom Hornseth.

“A lot of the main open spaces had been partitioned off into smaller spaces,” he said. “They put in three or four bathrooms using different methods. They suspended ceilings everywhere. There was damage associated with all that remodeling.”

County officials and staff moved out in late 2010 when the project began. It took a few months of selective demolition before workers could assess the building’s structural condition and restoration could begin. “It was hard to see the problems until we got them all uncovered,” Hornseth said. “We were kind of surprised at the level of need.”

The fully restored Comal County Courthouse. The Romanesque Revival style building was designed by noted courthouse architect J.

To authentically restore the outside of the courthouse to its original glory, additions tacked onto the building over the years also had to be removed. Those included a 1931 three-story jail, a 1952 county clerk’s vault built for record storage and a “sky bridge” added in 1987 to connect the historic courthouse with an annex to the west. 

In the quest to restore the building to its original character, no stone — or floor — was left unturned. The edifice, constructed from limestone quarried 10 miles away at the Altita Ranch, was repaired using similar stone recycled from the demolished jail. 

The original tile floors on the first floor entry porches and the second-story balconies were thought to be long gone, their colors and patterns a mystery. Then workers found a geometric pattern of red, white, blue, gray and yellow tiles hiding underneath four inches of concrete on one of the porches. 

“That was a big day,” Hornseth said. “We revised the color scheme and pattern to match. So now what you’re walking on is a complete replica of what they had in 1898.” 

Photos obtained from county records, the local Sophienburg Museum and Archives and local residents assisted tremendously with project workers’ sleuthing. An early photo showing installation of seating inside the original district courtroom on the second floor revealed key details that had long been erased. “We were able to get information about the balcony in that room and how the wallpaper was affixed,” Hornseth said. “It also showed how the (bare bulb) lighting was installed along the face of the balcony.”

Using Exacto knives and other tools, Volz and Associates pared down layers of paint on walls throughout the building to determine the original paint colors. An original sloppy paint job also helped them identify the paint color — a shade of pink — in the original district courtroom. “We were fortunate,” said Mark Cowan, project reviewer with the THC’s Historic Texas Courthouse Preservation Program. “When the selective demolition occurred, we found that the wood trim on the back doors (of the district court room) had butted up to the ceiling on the underside of the balcony and there were still paint drips along that line showing us what the color was.”

The tile floor on the third floor corridor was one of the original features remaining in the courthouse.Interesting details appeared on an original exterior door as layers of paint were stripped off. The courthouse’s exterior doors originally had a “faux bois” finish, which was a common technique employed at the time to make cheap woods look like more expensive oak, walnut or mahogany, said Sharon Fleming, director of the THC Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Once discovered, the remaining exterior doors were finished to match, O’Connell said.

The builder secured several specialized resources and craftspeople to take part in the restoration, O’Connell said, including a custom tile maker, a custom manufacturer of historic lighting reproductions, and a custom wallpaper fabricator and installer.

 “The level of work that was done and the craftsmanship involved were really high class,” Hornseth said. “The materials we chose were really top rate and we should get another 50 or 60 years before anything serious will need to be done to this building.”

Not all authentic details had to be recreated. Some key original features — the original tile floor in the third floor corridor, the central iron-railed staircase and most of the porch columns — remained in place despite decades of remodeling. 

The building’s restored turn-of-the-century authenticity hides modern necessities. Hornseth said when he gives building tours he shows off the new basement and the attic, where mechanical systems are tucked out of sight. “To me, one of the most important parts of the restoration was the work that went into replacing and upgrading all the electrical, communication, fire protection, plumbing and (air conditioning) and heating systems,” he said. “All of that is hidden. You have all this modern equipment running this restored antique building. That’s a testament to the architect’s design and all the workers who pulled it off.”

Historic Furniture Coup

These two historic photos provided clues about the lighting, the wallpaper frieze, the balcony, furnishings and other details in

Furnishing the courthouse authentically proved to be an additional challenge. Hornseth said they found as many of the original furnishings as possible. “I went to all the satellite county offices throughout Comal County and went room to room identifying historic furniture,” he said. “We found about 40 of these historic chairs that had been built for the building and were still in use.”

 The county scored a furniture coup when they located the original district judge’s bench at Conservation Plaza, the home of the New Braunfels Conservation Society. It was on loan to the society from the Bulverde/Spring Branch Library. “We got both of them to agree that we could take it back to the courthouse,” Kennady said.

Krause has been using the historic bench since the commissioners court began meeting in the second floor courtroom shortly after the courthouse reopened. “It was amazing to find it and work out an agreement with the owners to get it on loan,” he said. “It’s also amazing to be able to use it. It’s such a big a part of our history.”

Additional desks, tables, chairs and other furnishings that couldn’t be found were recreated, based on information gleaned from historic photographs and furniture plans Gordon drew up for another of his designs, the 1897 Lee County Courthouse, considered Comal County Courthouse’s “sister courthouse” by preservationists. The Lee County building has the same Romanesque Revival design but is constructed of red brick.

County Ran Project with “German Efficiency”

These two historic photos provided clues about the lighting, the wallpaper frieze, the balcony, furnishings and other details inO’Connell praised the county for its consistent commitment to the project from its start, when it commissioned a feasibility study a decade ago. “It has been very enjoyable to work with such a solid, steady, thoughtful and consistent client,” she said. 

Hornseth said the county finished only a hair over its original budget. “There are so many unknowns, special trades and craftsmen and numerous other finicky dealings. It’s not uncommon for a project like this to go over what you planned,” Hornseth said. “Overall, we were pretty expeditious compared to other restorations, and the project came in very near the original budget. It was a grand undertaking, and I was honored to do the project. ”

THC staff, who have worked with 63 counties on full courthouse restorations since the program began in 1999, said Comal County ran the project “with German efficiency” in keeping with the county’s heritage and stayed on top of challenges as they arose. “This project was particularly efficiently managed,” Fleming said. “It was completed in 26 months and that demonstrates how effective and efficient the county was in making decisions and keeping the ball rolling.” 

Krause said he was honored to be part of the restoration effort. “This project started before I came on with the county and just to be able to be part of it and of the rededication ceremony was special,” he said. “It’s just been great for me to be part of an effort to restore part of Comal County’s history and restore a building that stands as a symbol of Comal County’s history.”

The former district courtroom was completely restored to match its original details. It now serves as the commissioners court.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Kennady said. “It’s amazing how many people have contributed to make this a dream come true.”