DALLAS (AP) - Dealey Plaza got a much-needed face-lift last year for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
But one piece of history right near the plaza remains, in essence, a hidden eyesore: the old Dallas County Criminal Courts Building.
The ornate brick building, at the northeast corner of Main and Houston streets, was completed in 1915. It was built foremost as a jail, but one designed to look like an office building.
Adjoining as it does the Dallas County Records Building and its annex, the old building today looks like just another cog of county government.
But the rot of time is taking a toll. The building has been neglected, even though (or maybe in part because) it houses a bit of unflattering Dallas history: the courtroom where Jack Ruby was tried for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.
For decades, the county has been spending money on maintenance and utilities for an outdated, mostly deserted building.
Now, two young preservationists - Inga Bursing, a 34-year-old lawyer, and Charles Stokes, a 22-year-old college student - are stepping forward to grapple with the building’s complex history as they push for its restoration.
The two came to the old building independently, and they have passions for different aspects of its history. But both were struck by the building’s remarkable past and the current reality of a missed opportunity.
“It’s very surreal that there is this place in the middle of downtown that everyone walks by and knows nothing about,” Bursing said.
The first people to visit the Dallas County Criminal Courts Building when it opened in May of 1915 were gawkers.
The county was so proud of the new building that it set aside three days for public tours. Of particular interest was its jail, described by one expert to The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1mZg9zz) as the “last word in jail building.”
The building cost more than $675,000 - around $15.8 million in today’s money. County leaders told The News that “no cost is too great if Dallas County is given an entirely modern jail.”
The basement was built with vaults for “all records of the county that may develop during the next 100 years,” according to The News. The first floor was for the sheriff and county attorney. The second floor contained courtrooms. On the third floor were jury rooms.
Above that were several stories devoted to the jail, which was thought - incorrectly - to be escape-proof.
Even then, Texas was known as a tough place for inmates. The new Dallas County jail reflected a different approach. The building’s architect, H.A. Overbeck, believed strongly in the humane treatment of prisoners.