Texas Works to Restore its Historic Courthouses

Wharton County Courthouse
There are 254 counties in Texas. Many county courthouses were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some counties have chosen to tear down the old structures and build new ones, but as Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports, the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program has been working to restore some of the states most historic buildings.

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In 1973 the state legislature passed a law that no county could demolish or radically change a courthouse without involving the state historical commission. Since then only a few old courthouses have been lost. So far 39 have been fully restored and 125 others are on the way to being fully or partially restored.

The process begins with local supporters hiring an architect and laying out a master plan for the restoration. Stan Graves is the director of the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program.

"We review that master plan and make sure it's appropriate to our preservation guidelines. And once that's approved they can apply for grants in he various grant rounds we have. We score these projects on 21 criteria ranging from their age to their endangerment to their historical significance. If they score high enough they get the funds and this is where we end up."

Wharton County Courthouse before:Wharton Courthouse before restoration
Wharton County Courthouse after:Wharton Courthouse after restoration
Where we ended up was at the rededication of the Wharton County Courthouse earlier this month. The finished product has absolutely no resemblance to the courthouse before restoration began.

"This is the poster child for the most dramatic restoration so far in our program. Many of them have a lot more of the original elements left. This had been so altered through the years that there was a lot of alteration here so this change is dramatic."

You can see pictures of the before and after courthouse at kuhf.org. Gerald Moorhead with Bailey Architects of Houston was the project architect for the Wharton courthouse job. He says restoration work has its unique problems.

"This project and many like it are a constant process of investigation and analyzing clues and just trying to learn from what you find to develop the most complete restoration that you can, sometimes from very little evidence."

Moorhead says discarded lumber over the year helped to identify molding and trim in the original building and workers found some old metal work buried on the courthouse grounds that turned out to be the fence like metal cresting on the roof that may have been blown off during the 1900 hurricane.

"We were able to replicate the exact cresting from those fragments. That was a big surprise."

Architectural problems aren't the things standing in the way of courthouse restoration. Wharton County Judge John Murrelie says from the beginning this project had a lot of opposition.

"Because of the cost and how old the building was and how terrible in shape it was too."

But he says the restored courthouse has won over most of those who had objected to the project. Stan Graves the director of The Texas Courthouse Preservation Program says that's usually the way it works.

"I've been to 37 rededications and I not met a single person yet that was not a hundred percent behind the project after it's all finished."

To find out more about the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program and the historical work that Bailey Architects has done, you'll find links at kuhf.org.

Bio photo of Rod Rice

Rod Rice

Local Anchor, Morning Edition

Rod Rice became fascinated with radio at an early age, while sitting on his Grandfather’s lap listening to his "programs" on the big Emerson Radio...