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Update on historic courthouse renovation given

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SydneyMurphy

By Emily Banks Wooten
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County Judge Sydney Murphy, accompanied by Jessica Hutchins, the county’s grants and contracts coordinator, presented an update on the ongoing extensive historic preservation of the Polk County Courthouse during Thursday’s meeting of the Rotary Club of Livingston.

The historic restoration and ensuing construction is part of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, a grant program administered through the Texas Historical Commission. Polk County’s grant application was successful in Round XI of the Texas Historical Commission Grant Program.

“Polk County has absolutely the best team that we could possibly assemble and we’re doing more work than ever before. Jessica is handling close to $30 million in grant projects and the big project is the courthouse and she has been there from the bottom up,” Murphy said.

Commenting that the original blueprint used for construction of the original courthouse was found, Murphy said it has been interesting going through the various layers of the courthouse, making discoveries.

“One of the unique things is the red concrete floor. We are one of two in the State of Texas that have that,” Murphy said. “The windows. The replicas are being built from a special metal sourced exclusively from Switzerland. The original frames of our courthouse possess a unique notch at the intersection of the grilles, which is no longer manufactured.

“On the east end of what we call the basement, we discovered a stage that was not unique to the original structure, but where events and performances for the county were held. A portion of it will be incorporated into the design,” she said.

“The primary purposes of the restoration are restoring history, consolidating county services and efficiently serving the public, but the main goal is the consolidation of services so the residents of Polk County will have a one-stop shop and not have as disjointed of service,” Murphy said, adding that the county will continue to maintain the sub-courthouses in Corrigan and Onalaska.

Something that many were unaware of is that the courthouse was built on an underground natural spring, located beneath the southwest corner of the courthouse square that disperses throughout the square.

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“While it’s been blamed for multiple floodings, the time’s when the courthouse flooded was due to human error. It’s a common misconception,” Murphy said, adding that with the new construction, a French drain will be placed along the entire building exterior to redirect drainage.

She added that the brick used for the construction of the original courthouse was manufactured at the local brick company in Polk County during the 1920s.

Murphy said a historical room for documents and displays will be created, allowing the information to be available for public viewing.

“Statistics show that historically renovated courthouses become an economic driving force as well. Why would we have it and not utilize it? Our hope is to get all of our services more consolidated. The district courtroom will go back to its original appearance and size, going back to its full historic look,” Murphy said, adding that the projected date of completion is January 2025.

The general contractor is JC Stoddard Construction. The architect is Komatsu Architecture Inc. The structural engineer is Salas O’Brien. The MPE engineer is Solare Engineering Ultd. Inc. The civil engineer is Whitworth Engineering.

Texas has more historic courthouses than any other state, with more than 240 still standing that are at least 50 years old. About 80 were built before the turn of the 20th century. By the end of that century, most of these structures were significantly deteriorated due to inadequate maintenance, insensitive modifications or weather-related damage. The Texas Historical Commission documented the condition of 50 of the state’s oldest courthouses in the late 1990s and determined that counties lacked the resources to preserve the buildings for future generations.

Providing assistance to counties reached a critical point when Texas county courthouses were added to the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places list in 1998. The state’s response was to create the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP), the largest preservation grant program ever initiated by a state government. This nationally recognized preservation program has turned around the trend of disrepair and begun the process of restoring the state’s most treasured historic landmarks.

Established in June 1999 by the Texas Legislature and Gov. George W. Bush, through House Bill 1341, the THCPP provides partial matching grants to Texas counties for the restoration of their historic county courthouses. The program typically awards the following types of grants: planning grants for the county to produce architectural plans and specifications; construction grants for the county to undertake construction of some kind; and emergency grants to address issues endangering a historic courthouse or its occupants. The program awards planning and construction grants based upon the sum of scores assigned to 20 criteria and emergency grants based primarily upon the score assigned to the endangerment category.

The program began with a $50 million appropriation for the grants, which were awarded in two rounds in 2000 and 2001. Subsequently, the program’s success led to continued funding from the Texas Legislature.

The THCPP has been recognized by the Texas Society of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation with honor awards. In May 2008, the program received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Today, a total of 136 Texas courthouses are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 145 are Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks and 109 are State Archeological Landmarks, and as of 2023, 78 of those have been fully restored through THCPP grants and another 37 have received emergency or planning grants.

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