Day Trips

McKinney recycles an aging courthouse making a performing arts center

Center of attention
Center of attention (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The McKinney Performing Arts Center is like no other theatre in the state. This cultural center recycles the 1875 county courthouse that had been vacant for more than 25 years. What could have become an eyesore in the center of the town square became an asset for the community.

"[The city of McKinney] truly made lemonade out of lemons with the old courthouse," says Collin County Judge Ron Harris. "It was a public and private partnership that will keep the historic downtown area alive."

On a recent Thursday morning, parking slots were at a premium on the downtown square. Businesses filled the storefronts facing the old courthouse and spilled down the side streets for several blocks. The concentration of antique dealers, boutiques, gift shops, and restaurants make for an enjoyable stroll around the tree-shaded sidewalks. The essential services have moved to the highways east and west of the traditional central business district.

The architecture of the stores' facades reflects the period when agriculture was the town's main reason to exist. The fertile soil of North Texas was once the bread basket for Dallas, 30 miles to the south. In the last two decades the Metroplex has expanded nearly to McKinney city limits.

Still, the downtown area has managed to maintain its small-town charm, even if the big-box retailers are lined up along the highway 2 miles away. The former national bank building has been turned into an antique shop. The pub on the corner, the Londoner, was voted best British restaurant in the state by Avid Golfer Magazine.

You have to look for Backstage Coffee in the back of a building full of shops, but it's worth the effort. The espresso is hot, and the sandwiches are delicious. They even have a small European-style courtyard. In the same building is Lone Star Wine Cellars, a tasting room for local wines paired with chocolates and other delights.

All of this is complemented by the addition of the new performing-arts center. The three-story rock building houses conference rooms, reception halls, an art gallery in the basement, artist studio, and executive suites for lease to nonprofit organizations.

The former commissioners' court became a 440-seat theatre with a large stage keeping the original horseshoe-shaped balcony. The North Texas Chapter of American Theatre Organ Society donated a 79-year-old Wurlitzer organ that was rescued from a theatre in Oklahoma.

The $9-million restoration project was financed by the county, city, private donors, and the Texas Historical Commission and opened its shiny new doors last March. The building must maintain a governmental purpose, Judge Harris says, so the annual lease to the city includes convention and tourism usage and a justice of the peace night court. The main use of the rooms will be for hosting weddings, art shows, live music, and theatre productions.

The county couldn't justify the major expense of remodeling the building for only 23,000-square-feet of county offices, Judge Harris says. County government moved to a much larger building two blocks from the town square in 1979 and is already considering building a new courthouse on the outskirts of town.

When the courthouse was completed in 1875, it was considered the tallest building between San Antonio and the Red River. A drastic remodeling in 1927 removed much of the steep mansard roof and the matching towers on the east side of the building. It is still an imposing sight and beautiful in its own way.

The polished hallways with marble wainscoting are open to visitors most weekdays. The galleries have already hosted local art shows plus many private events. The Wurlitzer organ will have its premiere performance on June 16 and 17 at 7pm. For more information on coming events, call 972/547-2650 or go to

781th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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McKinney, McKinney Performing Arts Center, Judge Ron Harris, Metroplex, Avid Golfer Magazine, Backstage Coffee, Lone Star Wine Cellar, American Theatre Organ Society

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