By Jennifer O’Hair, THC Senior Web Coordinator
In a city rich in heritage, San Antonio’s 1896 Bexar County Courthouse is once again basking in its former glory. The courthouse was rededicated in a ceremony on July 14 after a long, multi-phase restoration project came to fruition.
The Romanesque Revival-style structure was designed by architect J. Riely Gordon and constructed from 1892–96. It boasts being one of the largest historic courthouses in Texas, a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, State Antiquities Landmark, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the courthouse sees more than 10,000 people a day conducting county business.
Over the years, the Bexar County Courthouse has undergone numerous remodels and additions, obscuring its original architecture. In addition, there was significant deterioration of the exterior sandstone, granite, and terra cotta, and damage from groundwater seeping into the stone foundations.
A 2001–2004 restoration project initiated by the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP) addressed historic fabric in danger of loss: restoring exterior stone and terra cotta elements, investigating water damage, cleaning, pigeon control, and repairing and replacing custom iron railings.
More recent grant work has focused on demolition of additions constructed in 1963, 1970, and 1972. It also included restoration of the original 1896 double-height courtroom, one of the most elaborate designed by Gordon, which now dons impressive coffered ceilings, gilding on the plaster moldings and capitals, and 12 decorative windows based on the design of the rose window of San Antonio’s iconic Mission San José.
Accessibility and security upgrades have also been greatly improved through the construction of two additional accessible entrances, new interior exit stairs, and upgrades to the alarm, fire sprinkler, emergency generator, and electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems. To improve the building’s longevity, additional preservation work included waterproofing the basement walls and foundations, cleaning pigeon guano, and installing screening systems to prevent further damage.
The restored outdoor terrace, previously hidden by the 1963 building addition, now serves as a new entrance and gathering spot between the historic courthouse and the new Civil Courts Building. The terrace will also provide access to a remodeled Spanish Archives and Bexar County History Center/Visitor Center/School Tour Center.
During the July 14 rededication ceremony, County Judge Nelson Wolff, THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe, and THC Chairman John L. Nau, III, as well as other county officials, spoke to the crowd gathered in front of the courthouse.
"Our courthouse program combines state dollars, local matching funds, and a lot of hard work and perseverance at the local level," said Nau. "Statewide, our courthouse restorations have contributed more than 10,000 jobs and $288 million in income."
Following the unveiling of a new cornerstone and a ribbon-cutting, the ceremony moved into the double-height district courtroom, where Wolfe presented the THC's Distinguished Service Award to the Bexar County Historical Commission.
Through matching grants, the THCPP helps preserve and restore Texas’ historic county courthouses to their original splendor and make them safe, functional, and a source of pride for Texas communities. Learn more about the Bexar County Courthouse restoration project and other projects in our 2015 Courthouse Cornerstones publication (PDF) or visit the THCPP online.
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