- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

THROCKMORTON, Texas (AP) - They lay scattered across Texas like battered pearls from a broken strand.

Crafted of stone and mortar, brick and wood, these tired and worn behemoths beg for attention, for the chance to look as they did when they were new.

The state of Texas is home to more than 235 historic courthouses, more than any other state.

Throckmorton is home to one of those courthouses, and it’s in the middle of a restoration to return it to the way it looked when it was built in 1891.

That renovation is possible because Texas is home to the largest historical program ever initiated by a state, according to Sharon Fleming, the program director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Project at the Texas Historical Commission (THC).

In the late 1990s, the commission had “documented the condition of the 50 of the oldest courthouses and determined that the counties lacked the resources to preserve the buildings.”

Then, the Texas County Courthouses were added to the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Properties list in 1998. The National Trust is a 118-year-old organization that works to preserve the nation’s heritage.

When then-Gov. George W. Bush was campaigning to keep his seat in the 1998 Texas election, creating a program to save those historical buildings was one of his campaign platforms. He established the preservation project in 1999.

“The program provides partial matching grants to Texas counties for the restoration of their historic county courthouses. The program began with a $50 million appropriation for the grants, which were awarded in two rounds in 2000 and 2001” according to the Texas Historical Commission website.

“We owe him a big debt of gratitude,” Fleming told the Abilene Reporter-News (https://bit.ly/1jSwfqY). “It was extremely popular from the get-go.”

Every two years, the THC applies for funding from the Texas Legislature. In the early years, grants ranged from $40 million to $60 million. The amounts dropped to around $20 million in the last four to five years. But the most recent grant was a mere $4.2 million.

Most of those funds will go to courthouses with emergency needs, said Debbie Head, senior communications specialist for THC.

Kenath Hawkins of KBL Restoration is the project superintendent for the Throckmorton courthouse. He said the initial work on the courthouse began long before a single hammer fell.

“They’ve been working on this for eight years,” Hawkins said. “They work on the design for years before we work on the courthouse.”

This isn’t Hawkins’ first courthouse renovation. He served as project superintendent on several courthouses, both on his own and with his partners at KBL Restoration.

The physical work on the Throckmorton courthouse began Nov. 4 and is expected to be completed this November.

Before the restoration work could begin, the demolition team had a huge project to complete.

An extension was added to the courthouse in 1939, Hawkins said. To be true to the 1891 original, that had to come down.

“They (THC) told us, ‘Take the extension off or we won’t fund it,’” he said.

The closer the renovation is to the original, the more points the project receives. The more points, the higher the priority of the renovation.

With demolition well underway in mid-February, dust covered everything in Hawkins’ office in one of the rooms of the courthouse.

He pointed out a black-and-white photo taken May 4, 1928, when the first train came through Throckmorton. About 15,000 people filled the streets to watch the historic event and the courthouse, in its original state, sits smack dab in the middle of it.

It serves as a kind of talisman, showing Hawkins what he works toward every day.

The weather occasionally has interfered with the project. The cold, icy, snowy days this winter and spring hindered workers getting to the courthouse, and the low temps made it impossible to work with mortar and cement in the unheated building.

By mid-February, most of the extension building was gone, but crews were still digging the foundation out of the ground, leaving a big hole and scattered rubble.

The back wall of the courthouse, where the extension once connected, looks like a piece of furniture stripped of paint and stain, naked and vulnerable.

Men stood on the scaffolding covering the front of the building, working on the stones that cover the exterior, cleaning them and preparing them for new grout.

Walking through the interior of the courthouse, it’s a mess. Piles of dirt, holes in the floor, narrow sections of walls cut away to allow conduits for electricity, plumbing and mechanical all look chaotic.

Near the ceilings on the first floor, exposed rocks look like a rustic wallpaper border.

On the second floor the courtroom has been gutted to its bare bones, black plastic covers holes that used to be windows. The ceiling is gone, taken down to skeletal supports.

Hawkins said the changes happen on a daily basis and that in a month, everything will look different.

He was excited as he pointed out the long-leaf pine flooring peeking out from beneath the oak floorboards. The oak will come out and the pine will be refinished.

“Long-leaf pine grows like redwoods,” he said. “In the 1800s, they were cutting down trees that were 200 feet tall.”

Many people might find it difficult to envision the finished building while looking at this austere structure. But not Hawkins - he has a complete vision in his mind.

Whether it’s because he’s done so many restorations or because his vision makes him the right man for the job, Hawkins’ passion is obvious as he gives a tour.

“Hell, we love doing this,” he said. “These buildings are inspirations to people.”

Six weeks later, in early April, another visit to Throckmorton shows just how hard everyone has been working. As promised, the progress is apparent.

The scaffolding has moved from the front of the building to the side. The big hole in the back has been filled in and smoothed out.

All the wainscoting on the first floor has been removed and some plastering has been added.

Steel plates, half-an-inch thick, each designed to support thousands of pounds, bracket the wooden roof supports in the courtroom upstairs. The 40-plus plates take the place of steel trusses in the original plan.

Hawkins said he will work with about 40 different contractors on this project, from plaster specialists in Abilene to the historic restoration company rebuilding the cupola that will once again top the courthouse.

Even the smallest details, like the hardware on the windows or the color of the paint, must be as close to the original as possible. They also need approval from the THC.

The original weather vane also received a touch-up and waits to be placed on the top of the cupola.

An elevator is being added to comply with accessibility laws.

An 800-pound safe from the 1930s will stick around, but they had to build a concrete underfloor because it would have broken through the pine, Hawkins said.

Five months into the project, with seven more to go, things are going well.

“The Texas Historical Commission is very happy with it,” Hawkins said.

Another of Hawkins’ teams began work on the Dickens County courthouse, northwest of Abilene, the last week of April. His contact at THC for both the Throckmorton and Dickens projects is Eva Osborne, an architect very excited to work on the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Project.

“The one in Dickens is really super-duper cool,” Osborne said. “They chopped it in half in the 1930s. Right now there is an emergency grant to save one of the walls, trying to make it safe to work.”

She’s new to the THC, having previously worked in Oklahoma and Florida.

“I really wanted to work with the courthouse project here in Texas,” she said. “The project is famous and very unique.”

What makes this project so unusual is the sheer number of historic courthouses still intact, Osborne said. Plus, the program has the support of the various communities and the Texas Legislature, both important to the continuing success of the program.

Though she’s only worked with Hawkins a short time, she said they already have a good working relationship.

“He’s real personable and open. He’s really good with telling me what’s going on,” Osborne said. Sometimes when doing the restorations in an old building, something might turn up in the walls that go back to its origins. “It’s so important to document that.”

Great importance is placed on the rededication of each renovated courthouse. The recent rededication in Hardeman County included a huge celebration with two senators in attendance, barbecue, schoolchildren singing and the high school band playing.

Although the Throckmorton courthouse completion date isn’t until November, the expected delivery and installation of the cupola in June may be cause for a celebration, Osborne said.

With more than 65 courthouses across the state restored, the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Project has accomplished much since 2001, when the Shackelford County Courthouse became the first one restored under the new program.

“It’s been a huge success story for us,” said Head, the THC’s senior communications specialist. “It’s an award-winning program that has gained national attention.”

There is a coffee-table book on the Texas courthouses and visitors frequently have traveled to Texas just to see those courthouses, Head said.

The goal of each renovation is to make the building look as authentic as possible and still be a functional, safe building that will carry it into future generations, Head said.

Since 1999, $247 million have been awarded to the project and the restoration of these vital pieces of Texas history.

“They are the hearts of these communities,” Head said. “It’s where births, deaths, marriages and trials are recorded, where the annual Fourth of July party takes place.

“They are distinctive, they tell the story of each county like no other building does.”

And even with huge cuts to the program, the THC isn’t giving up, said Fleming, the preservation project director.

“The courthouse program has always had the goal of restoring all the historic courthouses of Texas,” she said.


Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, https://www.reporternews.com

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