County courthouses in Texas are some of the most beautiful and god-awful ugly public buildings. It is no wonder that communities wrestle with whether to preserve or replace the buildings.
"Texans have a real love-hate relationship with their courthouses," says Jay Firsching, an architect working to document 55 of the oldest courthouses with the Texas Historical Commission's (THC) Courthouse Alliance.
The Alliance was created after a disaster, when the Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro was nearly destroyed by a New Year's Day fire in 1993. The bell tower collapsed into the ceiling of the first floor; all that was left were the three-story limestone walls. Five years later, the restoration is almost complete.
"Hill County didn't have anything," Firsching says, "no plans or drawings of the interior. They had to rebuild from the memory." The fire was a wake-up call to the THC.
Of the 254 courthouses only 85 have survived since 1910. Using grant money from the state and federal departments of transportation, the commission set out to document 55 of the state's oldest courthouses.
As part of the project, agency architects first identify any hazards to the building, like faulty wiring. Then they do drawings and "photograph the hell out of [the building]," Firsching says. The final report is submitted to the county for preservation projects.
A construction boom began during the late 1800s when counties began to issue bonds to build replacements for log cabins.
Now the buildings that cost around $90,000 to build a century ago are costing millions of dollars to save. Restoration projects are underway in 12 to 25 county seats, but the money can be staggering where the funds for essentials are in short supply.
The THC estimates that historic courthouse rehabilitation will cost upwards of $225 million. In 1995, the commission established the Courthouse Trust Fund to provide a grant program dedicated to funding courthouse restoration projects. Gov. Bush proposes the state spend $200 million on saving the buildings.
As part of the Courthouse Alliance project, Firsching and his crew have documented 699 past courthouses of which only 223 are still standing. Courthouses in Blanco and Sherwood were abandoned when the county seats were moved to other towns. In Stiles, the entire town was moved when a rancher refused to let the railroad cross his land and the Reagan County depot was built in Big Lake, leaving only the 1903 courthouse and the ghosts of streets.
"The one that just kills me," Firsching says, is the 1876 courthouse in old Frio Town in Frio County southwest of San Antonio. The residents literally dismantled everything except the courthouse and moved to Pearsall. The building is visible from FM140, but is not open to the public.
The courthouse closest to its original condition is the Leon County Courthouse in Centerville. No longer used by the county, the 1880s antebellum building is still without plumbing. "It's like a step back in time," Firsching says.
Among his favorites is the courthouse in Halletsville because of its uniqueness. The courthouses in Waxahachie and Decatur are twins and are the most beautiful. The courthouse in Rio Grande City is the most unusual, having begun its existence as a warehouse.
Trying to figure out which is the oldest courthouse is almost as difficult as figuring out which is a favorite. The town of Linden claims that its1863 Cass County Courthouse is the oldest active courthouse in the state, but Firsching says it looks nothing like the original design. If the Portales Building in San Elizario outside of El Paso was a courthouse as the architects believe, then it would be the oldest courthouse on its original site. The residents of Comanche have preserved a log cabin that they say was the original courthouse, but it has been moved at least four times.
To take a day trip from Austin to see historical courthouses, Firsching says head south on US183 through Lockhart, Gonzales, Halletsville, Cuero, and Victoria. Then head back through Goliad and Karnes City with a side trip to the former courthouse in Helena, Floresville, San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and finally, Austin, which replaced its 1800s courthouse in the1930s during Texas' second courthouse building boom.
For information on the Courthouse Alliance and the 85 historical courthouses, visit the Historical Commission's website at http://www.thc.state.tx.us.
Coming up this weekend...
Attwater's Prairie Chicken Festival in Eagle Lake offers visitors a chance to catch a glimpse of one of the most critically endangered bird species with refuge tours plus music, shows, and local food, Mar. 27-28. 409/234-2780.
Living History Program at the Presidio La Bahia in Goliad reenacts the massacre of Col. James Fannin and his men. One of the most impressive aspects of the weekend is candlelight tours on Saturday. Mar. 28-29. 512/645-3752.
Spring Fling on the square in downtown Brenham offers continuous entertainment and shopping opportunities, Mar. 28. 409/830-9100.
Gourmet Raft Trip on the Rio Grande for three days and 20 miles through Santa Elena Canyon with a professional guide and delicious food, Apr. 3-5, 24-26. 210/821-5600.
Celebrate Texas Wildflowers at Barnes & Noble Bookstore (328-3155) on Apr. 2 and Book People (472-5050) on Apr. 8 with representatives from Texas Highways magazine, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and Wildseed Farms. Both shows begin at 7pm.
The Texas Travel Guide's newest edition is now available. One of the best free publications anywhere, the 288-page book lists all the major attractions in the state. Instead of a cover by a local artist, the latest edition has artwork - get a rope - from a New York art agency commissioned by the Texas Department of Economic Development. To get a book, stop by a state information center (there's one in the Old Land Office next to the Capitol) or call 800/452-9292.