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Magnificent courthouse in Brownsville recalls era when citizens took pride in their public institutions b y ste p h en s h a r p e
in 2003, with that $7.6 million cost split equally by the county and the state through a matching grant from Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Courthouse Preservation Program. Roberto Ruiz, AIA, of Brownsville was the architect for both phases of the restoration. Prior to 1912, brick was main construction material in the area, Ruiz says, and New Orleans was the dominant influence on architecture. Ayers’ courthouse was unlike anything previously built in Brownsville—the terra cotta facade in particular. “The Classical Revival was brought from Chicago and the North through San Antonio by Ayers,” he says. According to THC’s Sharon Fleming, AIA, the principal designer was George Willis, an architect who worked in Ayers’ office. Willis had previously worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. While the design always has been attributed to Ayers, Fleming says, the ornamental plaster decorating the district courtroom revealed clues that Willis played a major role in the de-
sign. Although the courthouse has a Beaux Arts exterior (Ayers’ background was with McKim Mead and White in Chicago), Fleming says, the interior “has the wonderful Sullivan-esque ornamental plaster and unusual barrel-vaulted ceiling form we now attribute to Willis.” The biggest challenge to the restoration, says Ruiz, was the demolition of non-historical materials, particularly from a third floor added in the 1960s that hid the clerestory from the second-story courtroom. To replicate lost architectural details, the design team used archival photographs taken by Robert Runyon soon after the original courthouse was completed. With county offices back in full operation, Ruiz has recommended a schedule for maintaining the historic property. “We want to make sure the owners understand that preventive maintenance is key to keeping this building for another hundred years,” he says. Stephen Sharpe is editor of Texas Architect.
Photos by chris cooper
Walking into the recently restored Cameron County Courthouse in Brownsville is like stepping back into a long-lost era when public buildings were designed to give citizens a sense of pride in their local government. Public buildings as grand and splendid as this 1912 Classical Revival courthouse aren’t being built today. All the more reason for these treasures to be saved from disrepair and benign neglect. The final touches of the $10.6 million restoration will be completed this summer on the magnificent courthouse designed by the San Antonio office of Atlee B. Ayers. In the early 1990s the City of Brownsville condemned the exterior because of crumbling terra cotta on the entablature. Plywood tunnels protected county employees and the public as they entered and exited the building while the work was underway. That first phase of the restoration, begun in 1998 and funded by the county at a cost of $3 million, was completed in 2001. The second phase, restoration of the interior, began
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Published on Oct 18, 2011
Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...