Texans have always taken great pride in our state’s history, and our county courthouses are part of that history. All across Texas, these architectural treasures are important symbols of local governments and our heritage.
Texas has more historic courthouses than any other state, with more than 230 of our 254 counties still home to courthouses more than 50 years old. These buildings, which usually date from the mid- and late 19th century, were among the first permanent structures in many Texas counties. A total of 102 Texas courthouses are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 111 are Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks, and 91 are State Archeological Landmarks.
The number of historic courthouses and the size of the state have made a restoration program uniquely challenging. Our counties vary dramatically from Harris County with more than three million people to counties with populations of less than 1,000.
Some counties had the resources from tax revenues and private donations to initiate or implement restoration in the 1980s and 1990s. Those counties that had led the way, such as Tarrant and Denton Counties, inspired others to protect their courthouses even when restoration was not possible. Unfortunately, most counties could not implement restoration without federal or state grants.
Resources for Local Efforts
Three initiatives in the 1980s and early 1990s brought financial and community support to restoration projects. The Texas Main Street Program, the Texas Historical Commission’s grant program, and the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act allowed several counties to begin restoration or some level of preservation.
The Texas Historical Commission was a national leader in the Main Street Program, thanks to that program’s first director, Anice Read. With Read’s encouragement, Texas First Ladies have actively supported the Main Street Program. Rita Clements, Linda Gayle White, Laura Bush, and my wonderful wife Anita have each raised the visibility of Main Street Texas with their time and amazing energy. Many Main Street towns are in the county seat, with the Main Street passing the courthouse and town square. Today the Main Street Program remains strong.
In the 1980s, the Texas Historical Commission, the state’s preservation office, established a small grant fund called the Texas Preservation Trust Fund. While only minimal funding was available until the early 1990s, the grant process focused attention on the desperate needs of courthouses, especially those in smaller counties.
The third program that kept courthouse preservation alive was the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act administered through the Texas Department of Transportation. Federal matching dollars became available for courthouse restoration, and several counties benefited from grants to restore the exterior of their courthouses.
Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program
Still, the vast majority of Texas courthouses remained at risk. In 1993 a fire destroyed the century-old Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro, home of former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, raising awareness of this issue. In 1997 Governor George W. Bush believed the Texas courthouses were of such value to Texans that he proposed a courthouse revitalization project.
In 1998 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Texas courthouses to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In response, state government began a major historic preservation initiative. When I was elected lieutenant governor in 1998, I joined Governor Bush in moving this initiative through the Senate and it was funded in 1999. Later the Texas legislature created the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, appropriating the $50 million for the 2000-2001 biennium. Responsibility for implementing the program was placed with the Texas Historical Commission. Another $50 million appropriation from the 77th Texas Legislature for the 2002-2003 biennium provided funding for a second series of grants.
To date, Texas Historical Commission staff has assisted in the restoration and preservation of 46 county courthouse projects. The Commission has received 120 courthouse master plans, the required first step to receive state funding. Of those 120 plans, 104 master plans have been approved. To date, more than $97 million has been awarded to historic county courthouses through the Texas Historic County Courthouse Preservation Program, which has generated more than $32 million in cash matches from the counties.
An Ongoing Challenge
The threat to historic courthouses is real. In 1999 fires destroyed the 1911 Reagan County Courthouse in Stiles and damaged the 1891 Tyler County Courthouse in Woodville. In 2000 fire gutted the historic 1902 Newton County Courthouse just two weeks after the Texas Historical Commission approved their master plan for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.
The director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program, Stan Graves, has said, “As the largest preservation program of its kind in the nation, we believe it serves as a model of state and local partnership to preserve an entire class of endangered landmarks.”
I agree, and I applaud the many Texans who have worked so diligently to restore our Texas courthouses.
The Texas Historic County Courthouse Preservation Program faces a long road ahead. The Texas Historical Commission estimates that it will cost as much as $500 million more from state, county, and private sources in the next two decades to fully restore all of the historic Texas courthouses.
State leaders appreciate the importance of these landmarks; however, in a challenging economy, we face a tight budget that still must meet the critical needs of Texans. This means it will be necessary for local leaders and citizens to assume even greater responsibility for the protection of their courthouses. I am confident that if we work together, we can continue the efforts to preserve these important symbols of our past for future Texans to enjoy.
Publication Date: Fall 2002