County courthouse celebrates 100th birthday

With 100 years under her belt, the McCulloch County courthouse is nothing short of historical. McCulloch County itself was created out of a portion of the former Bexar District in August 1856. Bordered on the north by the Colorado River, McCulloch County encompasses nearly 1,000 square miles of land that makes up the geographical “Heart of Texas.” For two decades, the county had too few citizens to form a fully-functioning county government. It was not until 1876 that enough officials were elected to necessitate the selection of a formal county seat. In the early days of the McCulloch County judicial system, court was held in a rented house until a proper courthouse could be constructed. In May 1877, the County Commission engaged John McDonald of Austin (who coincidentally was the only bidder) to build the two-story stone building for the purpose of county government on the current courthouse square. By the time the lower four rooms were completed in January 1878, cracks had already appeared in the plaster walls and had to be repaired. In November 1880, impending structural failures required the installation of iron bars through the length of the building in order to better secure the walls to the frame. By the late 1890s, the users of the courthouse realized that a new building would soon be necessary. As a result, in the summer of 1899, commissioners voted to approve the bid of Comanche-based builders William Martin and Peter Moodie. Given a 12-month time frame, the old courthouse was to be demolished and a replacement (which is still in existence today) was to be completed. With a budget of only $33,000, work commenced on June 28, 1899. The building, which was built to reflect the Romanesque Revival style, was constructed of sandstone from local quarries. Thomas Netherwood, an Englishman, was retained by the county to act as project superintendent for the sum of $3 per day. The local Masonic Lodge laid the cornerstone on Sept. 29, 1899. Work proceeded at a rapid pace. The courthouse was present for final acceptance less than one year later. After the building was accepted by the commissioners and new furniture for the courthouse selected, stone watering troughs were placed on the northeast and southwest corners of the square. In addition, hitching posts and chains were placed around the square and a new fence with four single gates and one double gate was built. The north and south entries are flanked by turrets. The roof terminates vertically in a large, low clock tower. The rusticated exterior is constructed of native sandstone, warm in color. Originally, the pressed metal, simulated stone clocktower was painted to match the stone walls. The unusual round window in the east facade is an addition rather than an original feature as many believe. The north and south facades are designed to present an impressive face to those approaching from the main thoroughfare, the modern North and South Bridge Streets. The east and west entries have more in common with the original ground floor windows than with the north and south entries. Arched windows are a detail commonly found in historic buildings. The feature that makes these windows and entries unique is the styling of the arch. The surrounding masonry is cut into the keystones rather than vice versa. The two porches on the north and south entrances are each spanned by a large spring arch and decorative balcony. With turrets on either side, the entire center section of the facade effectively becomes part of the entry. Unfortunately, the courthouse has fallen victim to the winds of change a number of times in its long history. County records describe a courthouse in a never-ending state of improvement and repair. Even within the first decade of operation the building underwent highly visible changes. Around 1905, the east facade was altered to include a round window. The window was installed directly behind the judge’s bench in the district courtroom. That same year, electric lighting was introduced. Twelve, bare-bulb electric lamps were installed, rendering the original coal oil lamps obsolete. In the 1920s, a major change occurred inside the courthouse. Though not yet substantiated by written records, it is believed that in theory the original two-story courtroom was reduced to one story, adding considerable floor area to the third floor plan during the early years of the decade. Clues, such as the pattern of the metal ceiling installed in the infilled ceiling of the current courtroom, as well as the 1923 installation of new courtroom wiring and a metal fire escape servicing a previously unreachable window, point to the early 1920s as the likely time of alteration. Other changes occurred on the plaza grounds. In 1921, the county spent $8,000 to landscape the entire area. Flower beds, sidewalks, curbs and foliage were installed all around the base of the building and all over the courthouse square. Street lighting and concrete benches were also installed. The county then paved the plaza in 1924 and added new sidewalks curbs and gutters. In 1935, it was determined that the flower beds installed in 1920s were having a detrimental effect on the building foundations. They were promptly removed and concrete sidewalks (still used today) were put in their place. Only once in the past century has the courthouse undergone an expansion. During the early 1940s wings were added to the east and west faces of the building to accommodate additional office area and modern restroom facilities. Early in the 1970s, and concluding in 1973, a new roof was installed. The original tin shingle roof was removed and replaced with a synthetic slate material. Fortunately, the ridge caps were reinstalled or reconstructed to maintain the profile of the roof peaks. In 1973-74, a major renovation of the building and all of its interior spaces was undertaken. The county engaged Shiver/Megert & Associates, AIA of Amarillo to conduct the renovation. Apparently in an effort to please those wanting a new courthouse, the architects removed much of the wealth of historic fabric that had survived three-quarters of a century in operation and replaced it with modern finishes and materials. During the renovation, the 1940s’ wings were demolished, and the restrooms moved inside the original building. A handicapped access ramp was added to the west entry. Carpet was laid, cooling units were installed and many of the original doors were replaced. Throughout the years, the McCulloch County courthouse has withstood countless repairs and renovations and has managed to stand as firm and as solid as the rock that binds its outside walls. As in the early 1900s, the courthouse will long be an important center of regional social and economic activity in the “Heart of Texas.”

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