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For decades, the county has been spending money on maintenance and utilities for an outdated, mostly deserted building.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.
Inmates had access to chapels. There was a barber shop. A gym would later be installed. There were plans, never completed, for a pipe organ so inmates could be lulled to sleep at night.
“It was the most luxurious jail of its kind in the South, maybe the country,” said Mark Cowan of the Texas Historical Commission.
But it was still a jail.
Its early inhabitants included Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde; Raymond Hamilton, a member of the Barrow gang; and Harvey Bailey, once known as “the dean of American bank robbers.”
The jail earned a measure of notoriety in 1925, when a lynch mob nearly took over. Gene Autry memorialized the building in the early 1930s with “The Dallas County Jail Blues.”
“High Five is the fifth floor in the Dallas County jail,” he crooned. “When you get in ol’ High Five, no one will go your bail.”
Over the years, the jail held other infamous prisoners, including the swindler Billie Sol Estes. One of the building’s state district courts was presided over by Sarah Hughes. She would later be appointed to the federal bench, where her moment in history came on Nov. 22, 1963: She was the judge who swore in Lyndon Johnson as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field.
And the old courthouse played host to the media spectacle that was Ruby’s trial.
Represented by the colorful San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, Ruby was convicted in March 1964 of murdering Oswald. The conviction was overturned on appeal, on the ground that Ruby should have been granted a change of venue. He died of cancer on Jan. 3, 1967, just before a new trial was to begin in Wichita Falls.
Over time, the grandeur of the old Dallas County courthouse diminished.
The courtrooms were abandoned in the mid-1960s, though one was refurbished in the 1980s for use as a probate court. The jail closed in the mid-‘90s.
Now, aside from those headed to the probate court, the most common visitors to the building are the birds who’ve managed to find ways in through faulty windows. It could be years before the county develops a broader vision for the old building.
But Bursing and Stokes, the two young history buffs, have independently pressed ahead, highlighting two distinctive parts of the building: the Ruby courtroom and one particularly spooky room in the jail.
“There are just so many interesting stories,” Stokes said.
Bursing first became acquainted with the building before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, when she was an intern for state District Judge Martin Hoffman.
That was until Bursing walked into the room.
False walls and drop ceilings have been added. Water had damaged the courtroom’s decorative plaster. The floor is peeling. The Ruby-era furniture is gone.
Mothballed after Ruby’s trial, the courtroom now serves as storage space.
“I was just astounded,” said Bursing, now an attorney with Sawicki & Lauten.
There were plans in the 1980s to refurbish the Ruby courtroom along with its twin across the hall.
But there was only enough money - $222,000 - to renovate one courtroom. Officials picked the other one. There were never-materialized plans to raise private money for the Ruby courtroom.
Why would the county choose the less historically significant courtroom? One clue comes from notes of the county historical commission, which was proposing at the time a historical marker for the criminal courts building.
Early drafts didn’t even mention Ruby.
After discussions with the Texas Historical Commission, mention of Ruby was added to the marker’s text. But a handwritten note, labeled the “Jack Ruby Problem,” suggests that the Dallas group wasn’t thrilled.
“The Old City Hall marker inscription confronts the issue head on and publicly,” the unidentified author wrote, referring to the building where Ruby shot Oswald. “Doesn’t this sufficiently fulfill our obligation to history?”
She has adopted the Ruby courtroom as a side project, persuading the county to include the courtroom in a broader space-utilization study.
And she helped organize a visit last year from staff members of the Texas Historical Commission, who were amazed at how many elements in and around the room were still intact, including murals that probably date back to the 1920s.
Bursing would like to see the room restored and turned back into a working courtroom.
“It’s just something that needs to be done,” she said.
His father, also named Charles, knew the jail well, having served for years as a county court at law judge. The younger Stokes, a computer science major at Baylor University, is a member of the Dallas County Historical Commission, as were his father and grandmother. He drives in from Waco to attend commission meetings.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Dallas‘ history,” he said.
Stokes has focused on the old jail, photographing many of its distinctive features.
The death row cells. The gymnasium where hangings were said to be conducted in the jail’s early days. The double cell where Ruby was kept. The bullet holes visible in one wall. The railings that, according to legend, came from the Battleship Texas.
He’s taken a special interest in a cramped, windowless room up a narrow flight of stairs.
It’s known as the baptismal room.
Inside is a solitary bathtub, apparently used to baptize inmates. The walls are filled with murals of Jesus, painted decades ago by inmates. The dingy lighting creates an otherworldly aura.
“There must be a really touching story behind the murals,” Stokes said.
There’s an urgency to his quest to preserve them. The murals are peeling, the result of water damage. Their condition has deteriorated significantly, even in just the last few years.
Finding definitive answers about the room and its paintings has proven difficult. Stokes has tracked down old jailers and even recruited an art restoration expert.
He’s determined to raise enough interest - and money - to save the murals. He would like them removed, restored, and displayed somewhere like the Old Red Courthouse.
Then others could share his reaction at finding paintings of Jesus in such a dark and dreary place.
“I was amazed,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe that they are there.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com