Saving the Seat of Justice

 THC Grant Rescues Navarro County Courthouse

The 1905 Navarro County Courthouse received a top to bottom restoration in 2014-16 with the help of a grant from the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. (Photo by Liz Carmack)

​One sunny summer day in 2013, Navarro County Judge H.M. Davenport Jr. walked out of his home and climbed into his car, mentally reviewing that day’s to-do list during his eight-mile drive into Corsicana. Half-way to town, a phone call rearranged his priorities.

It was the county’s maintenance supervisor calling to report that, overnight, part of the dropped ceiling in one of the historic courthouse’s courtrooms had collapsed. Had it happened a few hours later, the ceiling tiles would have landed on a witness and County Court at Law Judge Amanda D. Putman during a trial.

Davenport and Putman quickly found a new location for the trial so county maintenance crews could remove the entire ceiling. In the process, the workers discovered that the dozens of 1960s-era ceiling tiles and their supportive grid were barely hanging on, secured only by brittle screws corroded to the width of toothpicks.

Building maintenance crises such as these were routine for Navarro County before its 1905 courthouse underwent a top-to-bottom restoration in 2014-16. The $10.5 million project was made possible through about $5 million in grant funds from the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP) and $5.5 million in matching funds from the county (raised through a bond election). The undertaking had been on the table a long time. In 2010, the THC provided a planning grant to the county of $450,000 to produce construction documents, typically prepared in advance of seeking a major THCPP grant for restoration.

Additional financial support for the project came from the Corsicana Preservation Society, which earlier had paid for paint testing to determine the original paint colors used throughout the building and to begin the restoration of the unique faux marble, or scagliola, columns that were later completed during the full restoration. All interior paint used during the restoration was mixed to match those original colors. The Navarro Community Foundation also donated $1 million toward the project, said Davenport.

 

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County Judge H. M. Davenport gives a tour of the restored District Courtroom. The restoration included returning the ornamental plaster proscenium arch embellished with gold leaf behind the judge’s bench, returning the room to its original, 24-foot height by removing a floor that had been inserted in 1964, restoring the room’s pressed metal ceiling and reconstructing the original balcony 

Modernization and New Lady Justice

It took 22 months of painstaking work to restore the building. This included major mechanical upgrades such as installation of new plumbing, electrical, security, fire, energy efficient heating and air conditioning systems, and provisions for accessibility. County staff and officials began moving back in January after completion of a final project to reinforce the vault floors in the County and District Clerks’ offices.

The Classical Revival style courthouse with Beaux-Arts influences is home to the offices of the county judge, county commissioners, county and district clerks, district attorney, county treasurer and county auditor. In addition, it houses the County Court, the County Court at Law and the 13th Judicial District Court.

 “Through the THC’s assistance, we have preserved our past and not let deferred maintenance be the downfall of the building,” Davenport said. “We didn’t want this building to become a museum; we wanted it to continue to function as a courthouse.”

The extensive restoration tackled several areas both inside and outside the courthouse. Brit Barr, THC courthouse program reviewer, said the exterior restoration “included full window rehabilitation, repair to the porch ceiling, major structural repairs to the entry porch columns, repointing, significant roof repairs and terracotta restoration,” as well as reproduction of the building’s Lady Justice statue.

The original statue went missing in the 1940s. (NOTE: See accompanying sidebar.) Using early photographs as a guide, artisans in Canada recreated a custom copper replacement that weighs 1,000 pounds and stands 13 feet tall.  Today she reclaims her perch high atop the southern entrance of the building.

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A close up of the restored ornamental plaster proscenium arch behind the judge’s bench in the District Courtroom. (Photo courtesy Texas Historical Commission) 
 
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Interior Glory Restored

While the extensive overhaul of the building’s technical systems remain largely invisible, the restored original details are apparent around every corner while touring the building.

“The most dramatic turnaround was on the interior,” Barr said.

Here are a few highlights of that work:

District Courtroom – This space, originally a two-story space that boasted a 24-foot-high ceiling, had been subdivided into two levels during a 1964 renovation. The restoration returned the courtroom to its original height by removing the inserted floor, restored the room’s pressed metal ceiling and reconstructed the missing balcony. It repositioned the stained glass skylight (which had been moved to behind the judge’s bench in the early 1980s) and returned the ornamental plaster proscenium arch embellished with gold leaf behind the judge’s bench. The original furniture in the room was restored and additional furniture recreated to match.

District Clerk’s Office and County Clerk’s Office – The transaction counters were restored in both clerks’ offices. This includes the frosted glass, metal and wooden screen in the District Clerk’s Office. The office’s floor-to-ceiling metal racks that store heavy record books and their tiny brass rollers that allow the books to be moved easily were also restored.  Paint covering the vault doors in both offices was carefully removed to reveal hand-painted designs. Four additional vault doors in the courthouse were similarly restored.

Atrium and Scagliola Columns – Off-white paint covering the brick walls of the central atrium was removed and the space’s ornamental plaster was repaired. Eight scagliola columns that rise from the second to the third floor were carefully restored by an art conservator. Scagliola, an Italian decorative technique, uses layers of tinted plasters to create the appearance of marble.

The Navarro County Courthouse is believed to be the only Texas courthouse with scagliola columns and one of only five remaining buildings in the U.S. to feature this unique building material.

During the process of restoring the eight columns in the atrium and the 12 others located off the lobbies of the main floors, decades of dirt and grime were carefully removed, cracks and other damage repaired with pigmented plaster, and wax applied to the columns’ surfaces to protect the finish.

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The artwork on this vault door in the County Clerk’s Office had been completed covered by paint before its restoration. (Photo by Liz Carmack)

Praise for THC Program

Davenport worked for 35 years in the construction industry before running for judge, so his expertise had come in handy when weekly maintenance crises popped up before the courthouse’s restoration. Today he’s happy that those times are long gone and grateful for the grant. “I’m so proud of the program,” he said. “Now I can actually say I have firsthand seen the results.”

Before the restoration, “it was constant deferred maintenance problems,” Davenport said. “We had weekly problems to deal with just to keep functioning. Mechanical problems. Corroding pipes in the floor of an upstairs bathroom that leaked water into one of the district attorney’s offices. Crumbling plaster coming off the walls. Moisture affecting walls (and dropped ceilings) because they were closed off from ventilation.”

The THC’s program rescues courthouses from this cycle of constant patch-work maintenance, Davenport said. “These buildings are so expensive to rebuild and most counties just don’t have the money to do it. They can patch and patch to keep things going; that’s just throwing good money after bad.

 “The grants not only help with these problems, they help preserve the courthouse function,” Davenport added. “They are the center of justice in a county. That function has to be maintained.”

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