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C o m m e n t a r y

Investments in Heritage Preserving Texas’ historic county courthouse makes sense even in challenging economic times

Photos courtesy ArchiTexas

b y J . B r a n t l e y H i g h t o w e r , AIA

One year later, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Historic Some of the 254 county courthouses that dot the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP) that had been championed landscape were built when the communities they serve sat quite literally by then-governor George W. Bush. The Texas Historical Commission was on the frontier of civilization. Highly visible symbols of a commitment to charged with devising a process by which individual counties could apply the rule of law, these historic buildings were more than mere containers for for grants to execute appropriate restorative work. the functional needs of county government. Today, they continue to serve In the 12 years that have passed since its inception, the results of the their communities while also representing part of a rich architectural preservation program have been remarkable. In all, 137 grants have been heritage that is unique to our state. awarded to 81 counties. By the end of this year, a total of 55 courthouses Because county governments exist as local administrative arms of the will have been rededicated following complete restoration funded through State of Texas, the construction of these facilities have always been tied THCPP grants. to decisions made in Austin. In fact, most of Texas’ historic courthouses were built in the last two decades of the 1800s after the Texas Legislature enacted measures that allowed counties to issue bonds to finance the construction of public buildings. The result was a construction boom of ornate structures erected in the then-popular Victorian and Romanesque styles. Over the decades that followed, chang ing economic conditions caused many of these grand edifices ‘Improvements’ to the 1886 Bosque County to fall into increasing states of disCourthouse, designed by J.J. Kane, expunged repair. The courthouses, designed its Victorian Gothic Revival characteristics. to meet specific prog rammatic But, thanks in part to a grant through the needs of a century ago, were often Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation severely challenged in adapting to Program, its missing Italianate clock tower the expanded scope of county govhas been reconstructed. ArchiTexas was the ernment. Years of deferred mainrestoration architect. tenance, poor integration of new mechanical systems, and insensiBut the preservation program has produced much more than beautified tive additions took their toll, often rendering the buildings unrecognizable government buildings. The restoration of a county courthouse also can serve from their original forms. Furthermore, a number of truly misguided as a catalyst for redevelopment of the towns where they are located. aesthetic “modernizations” stripped elaborate ornament and tower In Weatherford, Parker County Judge Mark Riley recently described structures in order to create a more streamlined exterior appearance. how the restoration of the 1886 courthouse helped “stabilize downtown.” Internally, former grand volumes were often subdivided to accommodate The revitalized courthouse (originally designed by architect W.C. additional office space. Dodson; restored under the direction of Cauble, Hoskins & Loose and By 1998 the situation across the state had deteriorated to the point where rededicated in 2003) also has become a center for community activity. the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Texas’ county courtJudge Riley related how a recent production of “Twelve Angry Men” was houses as a group on its annual list of Most Endangered Places. While public sentiment almost always favored returning these structures to their original Continued on page 77 condition, local budget conditions limited the scale of restoration work.

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