Historic Tarrant County Courthouse about to get some breathing room

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- After more than five decades of being crowded cheek-to-jowl by its ugly cousin next door, the landmark Tarrant County Courthouse is finally getting some breathing room again.

In a project delayed for years by recession-induced belt-tightening, the shuttered Civil Courts Building, a monument to bad 1950s architecture hiding behind a 1980s faux paint job, is being "surgically demolished" so as not to disturb the sight of the regal courthouse that has presided over Fort Worth since 1895.

"We have a very beautiful courthouse and the only thing wrong with it is that piece of junk sitting on the west end," County Commissioner J.D. Johnson said. "It's going to be like it was and should have been."

The "breathing room" afforded by the demolition will help showcase the "much-loved" courthouse's monumental yet graceful scale, said architect Arthur Weinman, who has been working on the project since 2006.

The job will include rebuilding the west entry and restoring the formal landscaping included in the courthouse's original footprint as well as adding a handicapped accessible entryway and parking spaces, said David Phillips, county facilities manager.

Replaced by the nearby $53.5 million Family Law Center in July 2005, the civil courts structure has long been ridiculed as the "ugliest building in Fort Worth," Weinman said.

The boxy five-story structure originally featured metal louvers covering windows from the second floor to the roof, said Weinman, who also worked on $4.5 million restoration of the courthouse's clock tower that was finished last year.

In the late 1980s, a $1.5 million makeover aimed at easing the jarring architectural juxtaposition between the two buildings replaced the louvers with a faux paint job over synthetic stucco.

That lipstick didn't win any hearts, either, Weinman said.

The lone adornments on the stark original design were four 10-ton limestone carvings of a winged Lady of Justice. They were spared the scrap heap when a public outcry by "angels" fans swayed county officials to grant them clemency.

Three of the angels have since flown the coop, with one poised to go. Two will eventually land on the exterior of a $67 million Civil Courts Building under construction a few blocks east on Weatherford Street. It's expected to be completed in early 2015.

The other two angels will be mothballed for possible use on future projects, Phillips said, adding that the angel bailout cost $307,000.

$10 million job

County Judge Glenn Whitley, who has a bird's-eye view of the courthouse from his office across the street, says he's been vexed by the Civil Courts Building for years.

"It's very exciting to see it coming down. ... I'm anxiously awaiting the leveling," he said. "I'm very excited about having the courthouse back to its historic form."

Meantime, another scourge of the 1950s -- asbestos -- was found embedded in the civil building's walls last week, and abatement of the toxic material will slow its removal.

"It's going to come back and haunt us a little bit more before it lets loose," Whitley said.

The abatement could put the demolition several months behind schedule, Phillips said. He expects the building to be erased by the end of the year and that restoring the west entry and landscaping should be completed in the second half of 2014.

All told, the complicated demolition and restoration will cost $10 million, Phillips said. It entailed moving the courthouse's chilling plant from the Civil Courts Building across the street to the basement of the county administration building as well as moving utilities, including the county's phone system.

The basement hole will be partially utilized as a giant 45,000-gallon cistern that will be used to store water for irrigating the courthouse landscape. The water itself will be collected from old leaks in the city water system that now migrate at the rate of 2,800 gallons a day into the basement, Phillips said.

Another big chunk of money, including $1 million in granite, will go toward reconstructing the canopy, stairs and columns for the west entry that was discarded in the 1950s.

The new granite came from the same Central Texas quarry that supplied the pink stone for the courthouse.

That process has been complicated, too, with some of the stone "whittled" at the quarry and other pieces shipped to Minnesota for fabrication, Weinman said. Sitting in a county store yard since 2008, the identifying markings on the nearly 400 pieces have faded, so the architect and stonemasons will have to put the puzzle back together.

Completing the stonework took 10 months, nearly as long as the one year it took to build the courthouse, he said.

Full circle

For Weinman, whose father and grandfather were architects; the courthouse has been a cornerstone in his life.

"It's one of the finest courthouses in the country. That design was accepted as part of a national competition that had 19 entries," he said, adding that his grandfather submitted one of the bids that weren't accepted.

Restoring the west entry will bring Weinman and the courthouse full circle.

When he was 11, he watched the destruction of the entry and snagged a piece of the granite steps. It sits in his office today.

Unlike today, local officials had no respect for the courthouse back in the '50s, Phillips said.

"They wanted to put Main Street right through it," he said.

The Civil Courts Building was planned to be twice as tall with a mirror image building on the other side of the courthouse. Officials then wanted to demolish the old masterpiece and "have a grand contemporary plaza right between them with North Main and South Main united where the courthouse stands," Weinman said.

"The only thing that kept them from doing it at the time was that it cost too much," he said.

Phillips said the restoration will help return the courthouse to its past as a gathering place.

"Can you imagine how grand it was back in 1895 when this granite masterpiece towered over all the other little wood buildings?

"It's going to make a big difference to open it up and give people an inviting place to go. We'll have benches under trees where people can rest. It's going to be a great place to hang out."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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