MERIDIAN -- Looming over the trees along the Bosque River, the Bosque County Courthouse's clock tower and turrets stand sentinel over Meridian like a medieval castle.Closer up, the beautifully restored 1886 Renaissance Revival building, constructed of massive limestone blocks carved from the local hills, dominates the small town's courthouse square."To me, it's a symbol of who we are," County Judge Cole Word said. "It is the heart of our community."Topped by four clock faces, a cloaked Lady Justice (the 19th-century original featured bare breasts) and a patriotic eagle weathervane, the majestic courthouse reflects an era when Texas communities expressed their civic aspirations with architectural gems that boldly announced they were here to stay.But days of such grand flourishes have faded.For the second time in 14 years, Texas' stately courthouses have landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.The emergency to-do list for some of the most endangered courthouses includes leaking roofs, bat infestations, flooding basements, ancient electrical systems, foundation problems, falling bricks, mold and termites. Last year, Wilson County had to abandon its elegant 1914 Italianate courthouse because of fears about an unstable brick foundation.After courthouses were first named to the endangered list, Gov. George W. Bush and the Legislature created the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program in 1999 to address the widespread deterioration.Administered by the Texas Historical Commission, the program has awarded $247 million to fully restore 62 courthouses and partially renovate 21, said Stan Graves, the program's director.The state grants have been matched by $150 million in local funds, he said, adding that the restorations generated more than 8,500 jobs and $19 million in local taxes.But budget woes have prompted Texas lawmakers to slash funding for the program by about 60 percent in four years, from an average of $25 million a year to about $10 million, said Graves, who announced last week that after 31 years with the historical commission, he will retire in August."It's a good time to go," he said, noting that 75 courthouses still need restoration. "We had requests for $158 million for the biennium but only $20 million to award. There were a lot of upset people."And with Gov. Rick Perry advising state agencies this month to prepare to shave costs by 10 percent more in the next budget cycle, the program is in further jeopardy."That's a pretty fair assessment," Graves said. "For the next biennium, it doesn't look good."The endangered listing is reminder of the work still to be done, said Jim Lindberg, field director in the Denver office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.He said 234 of the 244 county-owned courthouses, built from the 1850s to the 1950s, are in active use. Of those, 139 are in the National Register of Historic Places."We wanted to do two things: One was to highlight and celebrate the great work accomplished by Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program and the state Legislature in preserving these amazing courthouses. But we also wanted to remind people that the job is only about halfway done. We know that funding is tight; we just need to keep it going," he said.The courthouse archThe Bosque County Courthouse follows a trajectory that parallels the narrative arch of courthouses across Texas in the late 1800s, says Brantley Hightower, a San Antonio architect who is working on a study of Central Texas courthouses.Bosque's first was a one-room log cabin built in 1854. Four years later, it was replaced by a frame building that burned in 1871. County business was then conducted in a tent before another one-room structure was built in 1872.A two-story stone courthouse was erected in 1875 but it was falling apart by 1885, setting up the biggest political fight in Bosque County history.Meantime, the Texas Legislature had changed the game in the mid-1880s when it passed a law that allowed communities to float bonds to build county facilities, said Hightower, an Arlington native.That was just one factor in a confluence of forces that enabled the "magnificence in scale" of the period Texas courthouses.A population surge provided cheap labor, including German immigrants who were skilled masons, and an influx of architectural design talent. At the same time, the cattle and agricultural industries were booming and the state's railroad network was rapidly expanding, pushing growth in what had been remote hinterlands and allowing for the import of new building materials."All these things happened within 10 or 15 years of each other. If the population boom had happened 10 years earlier or the railroads came 10 years later, I don't think you would see this body of work," Hightower said.'Turret Day'But building a new courthouse didn't come without a fight in Bosque County. An armed mob threatened the lives of the three county officials who cast the deciding votes to build it for $65,000. The opposition feared it would raise taxes and bankrupt the county."Things haven't changed; they still don't want to spend the money," said Word, who is the fifth Word to serve as county judge.By 1935, bats had taken over the clock tower of the Bosque County Courthouse, creating a stench that fouled the building. County officials, including Word's great-uncle, came up with a solution that also followed a new trend across the state, they "decapitated" the building, slicing off the elaborate clock tower and four turrets, Hightower said.In the ensuing decades, the building continued to deteriorate. There were structural problems, the electrical system was overloaded and more handicapped access was required, Word said."When you saw that wiring, you couldn't believe this courthouse was still standing," he said.Bosque lost out during the first two rounds of funding from the highly competitive state restoration program, but county officials and concerned residents stuck with it and won a grant in 2004 for nearly $3.5 million."We had to match that, and we've been broke ever since," Word said of the county, which has only 18,000 residents. "We're a poor county, but it was worth it."The clock tower and turrets were reconstructed off-site and on "Turret Day" in 2006 there was a fish fry and celebration on the square when the 17-foot-tall steel turrets were craned into place. A few months later, the top of the new clock tower, a newly modest Lady Justice and a weathervane crowned the courthouse. The building was rededicated in September 2007."We couldn't have done it without that grant money," Word said.Emergency concernsThe preservation effort is on display across Texas.Courthouses, she said, are essential center points in counties."Historic buildings give you a touchstone to the past and a sense of place," Gammage said.Hood County completed a complete interior restoration of its Second Empire-style courthouse early this year."If we hadn't gotten the grant, we wouldn't have done the restoration," County Judge Darrell Cockerham said. "They paid 85 percent of it. It was a $5 million deal, but when we got in there we kept finding things and it ended up costing $7 million."It's beautiful now and we should be good for another 100 years," he said.Tarrant County's historic 1895 courthouse is considered one of the finest in the state and a county-funded $4.5 million makeover of its clock tower illustrates the enormous cost of preservation.The county has applied for state grants but came in "dead last" in the final phase, facilities manager David Phillips said."Sometimes last is good; we're not endangered. We've kept up our maintenance and you don't get money for that," he said, adding that a $5 million restoration of the courthouse's west entrance and grounds is next on the preservation agenda.Melding 21st-century technology with a 19th-century building has been problematic for Bosque County, which won an award last year from the historical commission for its stewardship of the courthouse, facilities manager Dennis Willingham said."We have guidelines with the historical commission for keeping up maintenance."It's a much more complicated building now; our maintenance costs went from $50,000 to $160,000. We need one guy doing preventative maintenance in the courthouse year-round."But Word says it's worth it when he sees tourists and courthouse buffs snapping photos and stopping in to use the men's room that has a vault door. "We went from one of the ugliest courthouses to one of the most amazing."Hightower says that the state program has done "amazing work" but that the job is far from finished."The reality is that we have funding problems in Austin. We can't raise taxes from a political standpoint; and with all the things that state government needs to do, if the choice is between education and preservation, then that's a hard bargain to call."On the other hand, this is who we are. This is part of our history."Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981
The courthouse preservation program has addressed problems at 83 Texas courthouses, but 75 more need various levels of restoration. Here are some of the most endangered:
Karnes County Courthouse, Karnes City: The 1894 building is endangered by structural movement, poor roofing, bat problems and substandard plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems.
Dickens County Courthouse, Dickens: The recent extreme drought led to structural shifts that forced the county to vacate the second floor of the 1893 building.
Tyler County Courthouse, Woodville: Drastic modernization, which began in the 1930s, has made the 1891 building unrecognizable from its former grand appearance. It faces various threats, including basement flooding, termites, a leaking roof and foundation settlement.
Armstrong County Courthouse, Claude: The county judge was electrocuted when adjusting the electrical system controls after a water event. The basement has flooded several times, and bricks are falling off the 1912 building.
Duval County Courthouse, San Diego: The 1914 building has many problems including hazardous wiring, basement flooding, rotted windows, mold, and malfunctioning heating and plumbing systems.
Fannin County Courthouse, Bonham: A 1930 fire dramatically altered the 1889 building, destroying the gable roofs, tower and cupola. In 1966, the limestone facades were covered by a modern slipcover.
Kleberg County Courthouse, Kingsville: The 1923 building has been poorly maintained inside and out. Duct tape holds glass in the window frames. A bad remodeling of the second floor courtroom prevents reoccupation of the third floor.
Lynn County Courthouse, Tahoka: The 1916 building has overloaded electrical circuits, deteriorating masonry and structural failure of exterior balconies. The county is ready to renovate the structure pending state grant assistance.
Marion County Courthouse, Jefferson: The county received an emergency grant award this year to repair deteriorated windows in the 1914 building, which also suffers from a leaking roof and a dangerously outdated electrical system.
Polk County Courthouse, Livingston: The 1924 building suffers from an "unsympathetic" modernization that lowered ceilings and incorporated carpeting and plywood paneling. It also has a leaking roof, deteriorating windows and basement seepage.
Upshur County Courthouse, Upshur: The 1933 Art Deco building lacks access for handicapped people. It also has a leaking roof, interior plaster damage and poorly maintained casement windows.
Wilson County Courthouse, Floresville: The 1914 building has been remodeled several times, including a rear addition. Because the brick foundation has moved, the county abandoned the courthouse in 2011, fearing that it was unstable.
Grants distributed to counties by the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program
Requested in most recent round of courthouse grants
In grants available in last round of funding
Local funds spent on courthouse restorations
Local taxes generated by restorations
Of the state's 244 county-owned historic courthouses are still in active use.
Texas courthouses listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Full restorations funded by the program in 12 years
Partial restorations funded
Historic courthouses still in need of critical repairs
Source: Texas Historical Commission