For many small towns, county courthouses are a link to the past and an elegant symbol of community. But they’re often in need of expensive upkeep.
The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, which awards funding to courthouses across the state for restoration, rehabilitation, and planning, announced nine new grant recipients last week. The nine counties will receive a total of $20 million, and Callahan, Mason, and Taylor counties received grants to fully restore their courthouses.
Callahan County Judge G. Scott Kniffen says the full restoration grant for the courthouse, located in Baird, is a tremendous opportunity.
“In many cases, when a full restoration has been done on a courthouse, owners of properties around the courthouse stepped up and restored some of their buildings,” Kniffen says. “I see [this grant] as a catalyst for economic development in the Baird area.”
The Callahan County Courthouse was built in 1929 in a transitional Classical Revival style. Among the restorations set to take place, Kniffen notes making the building ADA compliant, returning the interior to its original design, adding a second staircase, repairing the original water and sewage pipes, and moving the elevator to a different location.
The Mason County Courthouse in Mason was constructed in 1910 and is almost two decades older than Callahan County’s courthouse. Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden says its age has started to show itself in recent years.
“The porch is completely separated from the courthouse,” Bearden says. “We’ve got structural problems. Some doors you can’t lock. When you’re 110 years old, you have a tendency to tilt a little bit.”
The funding will go toward a full exterior restoration, replacing mechanical and electrical systems, and getting rid of non-historic interior finishes among other things.
Elsewhere, Taylor County has two courthouses that sit 300 feet apart in Abilene, one built in 1915 and another in 1976. Last summer, the county rededicated the older courthouse as the official county courthouse and named it the 1915 Taylor County Courthouse.
“What I realized very quickly is this building is not done,” says Taylor County Judge Downing A. Bolls Jr. “It has and will continue to have an importance to the community. It serves as an anchor point for that community activity that will build in the downtown and the south downtown area.”
Taylor County received nearly $6 million toward restoration, which includes removing walls and non-historic additions; replacing the roof; adding a new elevator; and replacing old mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.
Duval and Lee counties received emergency grants, while Kimble, Washington, Wise, and Willacy counties were awarded planning grants.
Susan Tietz, the grant program coordinator, says a committee awards points to each county on a scale of 1-20 in 22 different criteria. This includes age, architectural significance, and county revenue—a new criterium this year. The committee then tallies up all the points, and the counties with the most points receive the full restoration grants.
Duval County’s emergency grant will be used to help fix electrical wiring, drainage systems, and damaged bricks and stones, while Lee County is putting the money toward foundational repairs. For the four counties that received planning grants—Kimble, Washington, Willacy, and Wise—the funding will help them secure and update the documents needed to be “shovel ready.”
“The courthouse is paramount to every county in Texas—all 254 of them,” Kimble County Judge Delbert R. Roberts says. “I don’t think you need to justify courthouses. They are a must.”