In an era of social media crushes and online dating, preservation groups are seizing on the romantic month of February to spread the love for a completely different kind of treasure: historic county courthouses.
It may sound like a stretch, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Texas Historical Commission, and Preservation Texas want Texans to hold their courthouses close to their hearts and help protect them from the detrimental effects of disrepair and apathy.
I can appreciate the sentiment. I’ve had memorable experiences at county courthouse squares in Texas and beyond—lounging on the grass of the Denton County Courthouse while a band played live music at Denton 35; attempting to chase my daughter around the Caldwell County Courthouse after gorging on barbecue across the street at Smitty’s Market; marching up the grand staircase of the McLennan County Courthouse to report on trials and commissioners’ court meetings. In each case, it’s the historic location and grandeur of the setting that define my memories, more so than the fleeting events of daily life and work.
The National Trust launched the “I Love Texas Courthouses” campaign in late January to generate support for historic courthouses and push for continued state funding for the Texas Historical Commission’s Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. In both 1998 and 2012, the National Trust included Texas courthouses on its annual list of the country’s 11 most endangered historic places.
“This campaign is designed to call attention to what has been accomplished and what remains to be done to help save these great historic landmarks,” says Jim Lindberg, field director for the National Trust. The courthouses “represent an amazing diversity of architectural styles. Some are quite grand, some quite modest, some are from as far back as the 1860s. … They really are representative of our nation’s history, Texas history, and local history as well.”
Texas is home to 235 courthouses in active government use, 139 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1999, the Texas Legislature has allocated $247 million to support the Historical Commission’s preservation program, contributing to restoration and repairs at 83 courthouses. Those counties contributed an additional $174 million in matching funds. According to the Historical Commission, another 75 courthouses need funding for repair and restoration work. The commission is seeking $20 million in state funding to continue its preservation program for the coming biennium, spokeswoman Debbi Head says.
From a travel and tourism perspective, cities and towns value courthouses as the anchors of downtown squares. Many travelers are attracted to the types of unique local businesses that tend to populate downtown squares. The Texas Historical Commission reports that the Dewitt County Courthouse in Cuero, an 1896 building that was fully restored and rededicated in 2007, drew visitors from 29 states and seven countries during a three-year period. There’s also the movie business factor, with movies such as Bernie, True Grit, Lone Star, and The Tree of Life shooting scenes at Texas courthouses.
“These are exactly the kinds of places that more and more travelers are seeking out as they look for places of real authenticity to visit that tell the story of a place,” Lindberg says.
Are you smitten yet? Visit the campaign’s website to learn more and sign a love letter, if you feel so moved.