It is 23 down and 232 more to go! That's how many Texas county courthouses National Trust staff will have to visit to join the elite club of folks who have visited every courthouse in the state. Along with my colleagues Beth Wiedower and Jason Clement, I got started on this quest as part of our "I Love Texas Courthouses" campaign during the month of February. Though we saw only a small fraction of the state's amazing collection of historic courthouses, it was a great way to learn about how important these public buildings are to Texas communities.
Our February tour included stops at many courthouses that have been completely restored with help from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, which is managed by the Texas Historical Commission. The physical benefits of this grant program are immediately apparent: roofs replaced, towers rebuilt, windows restored, courtrooms returned to grandeur. But it was from talking to some of the 2,200 people who joined us at our tour stops that we learned how the benefits of courthouse restoration go well beyond bricks and mortar.
In Goldthwaite, the county seat of Mills County, the mayor told us how the restoration of the 1913 courthouse has helped revitalize more than a dozen Main Street businesses across the street. In Atascosa County, the county judge noted the tourism benefits of restoring her county's rare 1912 Prairie-Style landmark, with weekly visitors stopping in from around the state – and beyond. In Lampasas County, where the 1883 courthouse was carefully restored, a local volunteer paused when I asked her about her work on the project. "Other than raising my family," she said, "that was the most important experience of my entire life."
Life changing and community changing restoration projects like these have been completed in 83 of the 254 counties across Texas. But many other counties have not had the opportunity to benefit from the state grant program. One of those courthouses awaiting grant funding is in San Saba County, a rural area in the hill country northwest of Austin. The county judge there is a great advocate for the restoration of his county's 1911 courthouse. "In San Saba County, we are old fashioned," he said. "We see the courthouse as the heart of our county. And just as with our physical bodies, when the heart is healthy, so is our society."
There are at least another 70 counties across the state just like San Saba, with restoration plans and matching funds ready to go, lined up and waiting for the opportunity to apply for grants from the state Courthouse Preservation Program. These are the places – and people – that we have in mind as we work with our statewide partner Preservation Texas to make the case to the Texas state legislature to continue funding for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.
Our advocacy campaign is coming down to the wire this month. We need everyone -- especially our Texas members and those who took part in the February celebrations – to reach out to their state representatives to urge full funding for a program that is bringing these great old buildings – and the communities around them – back to good health.