The Austin Chronicle

Travis County Catches a Judicial Break

By Michael King, December 29, 2016, 1:45pm, Newsdesk

“Anybody need a courthouse?” was not exactly the question posed by the U.S. General Services Administration, but the U.S. government's (technically, the National Park Service) disused 1936 courthouse just happened to match the pressing needs of the Travis County justice system. This morning, the transfer was completed.

“I am thrilled by the opportunity to partner with the federal government on the preservation of this historic public building by maintaining it as a courthouse,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. “Although this gift from our federal partners does not solve our overall court capacity issues in the long-term, it is a great reliever of our current overcrowding at the nearby Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, another historic public building. The reuse plan for the historic federal courthouse enables Travis County to meet current and future Travis County Probate Court needs through 2035.”

The morning press conference, on the courthouse steps at 200 W. Eighth, featured officials from the federal judiciary, Travis County, and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, whom federal Judge Lee Yeakel and Eckhardt each credited for his “dogged” work to get the transaction done. After the November 2015 defeat of a bond to underwrite a new civil courthouse, Travis County had been left without a certain alternative to its overcrowded and increasingly dilapidated Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, and the Commissioners Court had been searching for other solutions.

Doggett was credited with monitoring and wrangling the various agencies with interest in the exchange – the General Services Administration, the National Park Service, the federal judiciary, and Travis County – and said with a smile, “From good words, today we proceed to good deeds” (obliquely referring to the literal transfer of the courthouse deed). “This success was the result of several levels of federal and county government working together,” Doggett said, “to ensure the building would remain a place where justice, and its historic architecture, are preserved.”

The courthouse, built in 1935 and notable for its Art Deco and Art Moderne architectural details, has been vacant since the 2012 opening of the new federal courthouse on West Fifth Street, and will need major renovations. Eckhardt said that Commissioners Court has budgeted $28 million from reserves and certificates of obligation to complete the renovations – to restore the interior and bring it up to current building codes will cost about $20 million, she said, with $8 million necessary specifically to adapt the structure for use by the County’s probate courts. That move will also relieve some of the overcrowding at the Heman Sweatt venue, Eckhardt said, adding, “Travis County will ensure that the historic federal courthouse continues to bear witness to our civic history. The County will undertake design, construction, and contingencies to prepare the building to meet code requirements and County occupancy by 2020.”

Doggett particularly thanked Judge Eckhardt, Judge Yeakel, and GSA Administrator Sylvia Hernandez for their work to make the transfer possible, and concluded: “This deed ensures that the historic features of this landmark, inside and out, are preserved, and that it continues in the role originally envisioned as a home for justice – an old home for justice is now becoming a new home of justice. This building is more than its cream-colored limestone; it is built on more than its Texas gray granite base. It embodies the fundamental American belief that we are a nation of laws. Through the cooperation of many, today we ensure that the important work of justice continues here.”

Updated to reflect corrected date of November 2015 bond election.

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