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Trinity Standard - Local News

Copyright 2011 - Polk County Publishing Company

 

Public given view of courthouse work
Trinity Standard -

By GREG PEAK
Area news editor

GROVETON – What was described as a “long, long journey” is drawing to an end and a public ceremony was held Friday to celebrate the trip. Although county departments will not begin moving in for another week or so, the Trinity County Courthouse in Groveton was officially rededicated following a two-year long restoration. More than 300 officials and members of the public braved the summer heat and gathered on the courthouse lawn to mark the occasion and to see the changes made in the 97-year-old courthouse. Former Trinity County Judge Mark Evans was the keynote speaker and recalled the 12-year-long process that resulted in the courthouse’s restoration. “When you really get down to it, the restoration process really began in 1995 when we were able to get an inmate squad from the Eastham Prison to come in an paint the courthouse,” Evans recalled. During that process, the work crews began discovering things about the old building that officials at that time did not know. Pointing to the main courthouse doors behind the speaker’s podium, Evans noted that the inmate crew discovered that underneath layers of green paint, those double-doors were actually made of copper. Evans, who was just beginning what would be 16 years in office, indicated it was at that time he realized the courthouse needed to be returned to its full glory. During the mid 1990s, Evans noted a study was released indicated that Texas courthouses were among the most endangered buildings in the nation. Aging electrical wiring and other problems were taking a major toll on the county buildings around the state. “Then Gov. George W. Bush jumped on the problem and managed to get $100 million appropriated that year to repair courthouses around the state,” he said. The Courthouse Preservation Program was operated by the Texas Historical Commission (THC), which took grant applications and funded them on a points basis. Evans said Trinity County’s involvement in that program began in 1999 when the county commissioners agreed to hire architect Michael Gaertner of Galveston to help them draft their THC application. The grants were awarded in two-year cycles and during the early rounds, Trinity County’s bids fell short – sometimes by only one point. Finally, in 2003, the county was awarded a $273,000 planning grant that would allow them to have Gaertner draft the construction plans for the courthouse’s restoration. By winning the planning grant, the county was almost assured of being funded in 2005 with a construction grant, however, fate and the state legislature intervened to delay things. Evans noted that in the 2005 funding cycle, the legislature approved funding for the courthouse program once again but tried to be too creative in coming up with the money. They earmarked federal transportation funds sent to Texas and the Federal Highway Administration subsequently blocked its use for the THC grant program. Because of this, no grants were funded that cycle and Trinity County had to wait until 2007 to win a $5 million THC grant. “Getting the grant turned out to be the easy part,” Evans noted. The grant would only cover 80 percent of the project’s costs and the county was required to come up with a 20 percent match – in this case $1.6 million. Coming up with that money involved issuing certificates of obligation, which are sold to banks and investors and then repurchased over time with interest by the county. It also involved adding three cents to the yearly tax rate until the debt is repaid. “When you talk about issuing $1.6 million in debt and increasing taxes, believe me you hear about it from the public,” Evans said. The former county judge said that despite some vocal opposition from some county residents, the county commissioners realized this could be their only chance to improve and restore the courthouse. “That was out biggest challenge -- to come up with the $1.6 million. We moved forward and once it was done, we knew that regardless of what else happened, we were going to restore the courthouse.” Evans publicly thanked all of the commissioners who worked on the project over the years. Despite early opposition from some taxpayers, Evans noted they were unanimous in their support and belief that the project was needed to save the courthouse for future generations. And Evans emphasized that without the restoration, there was a real danger that the courthouse could be lost. “It was like a sugar cube that has been saturated with water,” Evans told the crowd. “It still looks good and holds its shape, but if you touch it, it crumbles.” He noted that in 2006, a fire in what was then the county clerk’s office on the building’s first floor could have easily spelled doom for the building. An electrical fire that began in a wall outlet erupted about 5:30 p.m. when the courthouse was closed and could have easily gotten out of control. Fortunately, two men walking behind the building spotted the fire through a window and summoned help. “We came within about 10 minutes of losing the courthouse that day,” Evans told the audience. Under the restoration project, not only was the aging electrical system replaced, but the old plumbing was as well. The building also now is equipped with an elevator connecting all three floors as well as additional handicapped accessible sidewalks. The building’s first central heating and air conditioning system also is up and running. A closed-circuit security camera system and fire suppression sprinklers are in place. The courthouse’s exterior has been returned to its original appearance, with mismatched bricks from earlier wall repairs replaced to give the outside a uniform appearance. New wooden window frames also were installed throughout as was as new roof. While the building’s offices have been modernized to make them functional in the 21st century, light fixtures, wall paint and door hardware have been changed to match what would have been used when the building opened in 1914. The second floor district courtroom also has been returned to its original configuration, although it also has been modernized with a new sound system and audio-visual equipment. And the ugly green paint has been removed from the cooper doors that work crews discovered 16 years ago. The 1914 structure was designed by C.H. Page & Brother Architects of Austin to incorporate a two-story records vault built in 1908. Today that vault is the eastern wing of the courthouse. When completed, the three-story building became the county’s sixth courthouse. Reflecting the neoclassical style, a monumental portico supported by limestone columns punctuates the red brick façade, framing a unique copper entryway. According to THC officials, notable architectural elements were uncovered in the double-height courtroom during the restoration, including the exposure of cast plaster ornamentation and original light fixtures that had been hidden for decades by a modern suspended ceiling. “Our historic county courthouses are important symbols of civic pride,” said THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe. “When restored they become economic engines for revitalization in historic downtowns. They attract heritage travelers from near and far, helping visitors better understand the real stories of Texas history.” The THC’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program was announced in June 1999 and since its inception, the program has awarded $227 million to counties, and local governments have matched this with more than $150 million. Courthouse restorations have generated more than 8,579 jobs throughout Texas and more than $19 million in local taxes. The recently adjourned 82nd Texas Legislature included $20 million in bond funding to continue future grant rounds of the program. In addition to Evans and Wolfe, other speakers during Friday’s program included current County Judge Doug Page, who served as the master of ceremonies and accepted the dedication plaque from THC Director of Architecture Stan Graves. Gaertner also addressed the audience, describing his role as the project’s architect and his pride in the building’s restored appearance. Trinity Mayor Lyle Stubbs helped open the program by singing “God Bless America”; Groveton Mayor Byron Richards provided the welcoming address; Bonnie Kennedy and Kim Williams performed “America the Beautiful” and “Texas Our Texas”; the Rev. Leroy Brown of Trinity gave the invocation; the Rev. Dr. David Horace of Groveton provided the benediction; and members of the Trinity County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6899 of Trinity posted and retired the colors.

 

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