Texas keeps old buildings

gkocher1@herald-leader.comSeptember 9, 2008 

While Kentucky has chosen to build 65 new judicial centers at a cost of more than $800 million, Texas has distributed about $270 million in matching grants for the renovation of 60 courthouses.

The Texas Historic Courthouse Renovation Program has restored about 50 county courthouses in the past nine years, said Stan Graves, who directs that effort for the Texas Historical Commission. It is the largest preservation grant program ever initiated by a state government.

"We have in no case allowed under our program the demolition of a historic courthouse to put a new judicial center in that spot," he said. "To me, a demolished building has a lot less significance than one that's had to be altered to accommodate some security concerns."

Texas has 254 counties.— more than twice the 120 in Kentucky — and roughly 235 Texas courthouses are considered historically significant. Of those, about 150 were built before 1920, and about 80 were built before 1900.

(In Kentucky, 77 county courthouses are at least 50 years old — the age at which they are considered historic, according to the Kentucky Heritage Council. Thirty-four are more than 100 years old; six are more than 150.)

In Texas, about 25 to 30 courthouses were torn down in the 1950s and '60s. In 1973, the legislature passed a law that prohibited a county from demolishing or altering a courthouse without notifying the Texas Historical Commission. Counties also had to wait six months so the commission could review any plans.

"That worked well in stopping the demolition, but it didn't stop the neglect and bad alterations and other issues counties were facing," Graves said.

Then, on New Year's Day 1993, the century-old Hill County Courthouse was destroyed by fire. That stirred action among preservationists to prevent similar tragedies. Nevertheless, by 1998, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had named Texas courthouses among the most endangered buildings in the country.

So, in 1999, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush made courthouse preservation a part of his legislative agenda. The Texas legislature appropriated $50 million for a matching-grants program to start restoring courthouses.

The program has continued to receive funding every two years; in recent years funding has come through the issuance of bonds. To date, some $270 million has been distributed for 60 projects. The state chips in 65 to 80 percent of the restoration cost, and the county picks up the rest.

The buildings get new electrical and mechanical equipment, oftentimes new elevators, and complete exterior restoration. All interior public spaces, such as the public hallways and courtrooms, are also restored.

The average cost for a smaller courthouse of 15,000 to 20,000 square feet is $4 million to $6 million, Graves said. Larger buildings will cost more. Some improvements to security are made to old courthouses that are renovated, such as putting in metal-detecting devices.

But for the most part, "Security is not very good in those older courthouses," said Carl Reynolds, director of the Office of Court Administration in Texas. "The prisoner issue, that's only being dealt with in the newer county facilities. ...These old courthouses weren't built with security first and foremost by any stretch."

"We do have the same problem you're talking about, the judicial side of things that always want the state-of-the-art security and separate entrances and holding cells," Graves said. "And some of these buildings don't accommodate that well at all."

Texas has some judicial centers similar to those in Kentucky, but they are built in urban areas of 500,000 or more with bigger court dockets, said Elna Christopher, media relations director for the Texas Association of Counties. In Kentucky, even a county with only a few thousand residents gets a large new judicial center under the current program.

In May, the White House recognized the courthouse program with a Preserve America Award.

"We've also gotten awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Association of Preservation Technology and other groups around the country," Graves said.

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