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A Courthouse Reborn

An $8.6-million renovation restores the Comal County Courthouse to its 1898 glory
Written by Michelle Burgess. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

(Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

There’s renovation the way most of us do it—repainting the front door, updating the fixtures in the bathroom, hanging new window treatments—and then there’s renovation the way it’s been done in New Braunfels by the engineers, architects, and civic leaders behind the Comal County courthouse makeover. A decade in the making, the meticulously executed $8.6 million project has restored the stately limestone structure to its original 1898 glory.

Unveiled earlier this year, the restored courthouse is a crown jewel in the “I Love Texas Courthouses” campaign, which was sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Texas, and the Texas Historical Commission to encourage interest in these landmarks. According to the Historical Commission, the state has allocated $247 million for restoration and other projects at 84 of Texas’ 235 active courthouses. At least 75 counties await funding for restoration of their historic courthouses.

Because nearly half of the project’s funding came from the THC, simply making a functional, refurbished structure wasn’t going to be enough. The building had to mirror as closely as possible the original J. Riely Gordon-designed, Romanesque Revival-style edifice—excepting the addition of modern restrooms, heating and air-conditioning, an elevator, and fire sprinklers.

The restored courthouse is a jewel in the crown of the 'I Love Texas Courthouses' campaign sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Texas, and the Texas Historical Commission to encourage interest in these landmarks.

Architects removed additions such as a jail built in 1930 to restore the building’s Greek-cross configuration, which facilitated ventilation in the days before air-conditioning. And the courtroom itself is again painted pink—once considered the manliest of colors—and the room’s 115-year-old pine floors gleam anew after workers removed eight layers of paint and stain. Elsewhere in the building, workers removed as many as 30 layers of paint to uncover the interior’s original bright blue color—at the time fashionable but very rare in Texas—and used a lacquering technique called Japanning to restore the tiger-striped finish on hinges and knobs.

Project manager Tom Hornseth asked longtime New Braunfels residents to send him old photos for help in re-creating the courthouse’s details. The images he received—now enlarged and on display—were instrumental in ensuring that, say, hat racks and long-stored furniture were placed correctly. Even the once-ubiquitous spittoons have resumed their rightful place in the rear of the courtroom—though these days, they’re for show only. Furnishings and accents that couldn’t be found and reinstated were meticulously re-created through the efforts of Austin-based Volz & Associates, a firm that specializes in historic architecture.

“One of the most useful photographs I received came from an old-timer in New Braunfels,” says Tom. “It was an original, 1898 photo of workers installing the fixed-audience seating in the district courtroom. Before that, we had an idea of what the seats would have looked like, but we had no evidence. The photo also showed the edge of the balcony, the wallpaper, and the way the lights were arranged. Each of the photos we received provided important information to make the restoration authentic.”

These days, Tom is one part walking encyclopedia and one part proud papa when it comes to the courthouse, eager to share behind-the-scenes stories about the venture. (For example, some residents initially protested that bright blue paint shade, as they distinctly recalled the color of the courthouse walls as green. Turns out, it was nicotine from years of pipes, cigars, and cigarettes smoked in the building that had yellowed the blue walls.)

Thanks to this attention to accuracy, the finished product will delight any history buff or Texas courthouse aficionado who takes the free, self-guided tour. Of course, it’s not as though New Braunfels—only 45 miles from Austin and a half hour from downtown San Antonio—was lacking in ways to draw visitors, what with Schlitterbahn Waterpark a stone’s throw from the city center and the glorious Comal and Guadalupe rivers beckoning tubing enthusiasts when the temperature and humidity rise.

But the new, old courthouse is a fitting anchor for a region so rich in history and things to see and do. Six miles from the downtown plaza is the shopping and entertainment treasure of the Gruene Historic District, a self-contained mecca for antiques hunters, live-music fans, and anyone who appreciates the laid-back vibe of the completely walkable, tucked-away corner of the city. Founded in the mid-1800s and resurrected in the 1970s, Gruene has long been a destination on its own.

This reverence for old things delights longtime New Braunfels residents, including Comal County Historical Society Commission chairman and sixth-generation New Braunfels resident Karen Boyd and her mother, Myra Lee Adams Goff. Myra Lee says that the New Braunfels of today retains much of the small-town feel it had when she was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s.  She recalls childhood birthday parties at Landa Park, jaunts to nine-pin bowling alleys, and the old German dancehalls that dotted the countryside.

While the town’s population has grown to some 60,000 people—up from 16,000 in 1950—many of the touch points from Karen’s formative years now star in the city’s “Footprints in Time” self-guided tour. Dozens of homes dating to the mid-1800s line several streets near the town center; Henne Hardware still operates steps from the courthouse in its 1893 location; and Naegelin’s Bakery, one of the oldest German bakeries in Texas, still sells lebkuchen cookies on the corner across from the plaza.

It isn’t unusual, of course, for towns in the Hill Country and across the rest of Texas to hang on to their history in the way of old homes, downtown buildings, and significant landmarks. But few cities of New Braunfels’ size have preserved as much of their tangible past while experiencing such growth—in this case, a whopping 114 percent population increase since 1990. Requests for historical markers “are coming one after another, almost more than we can handle,” Karen says. “It’s great!”

And so it is. The must-see attractions with a nod toward history are plentiful, and most are a comfortable walking distance from the courthouse. Many now sport signs labeled with smart phone-compatible QR codes; scanning them provides more expansive information than could be provided in a brochure. And there’s the elegant Faust Street Bridge, a 640-foot-long, wrought-iron structure that was at the time of its 1887 construction the only way to cross the Guadalupe. Its placement sowed the seeds for New Braunfels’ status as a major waystation between larger cities and ultimately served as a marker for the placement of Interstate 35. Bridge buffs will appreciate its Whipple truss construction; the rest of us can’t help but admire the mid-1990s renovation that turned the structure into a picturesque, pedestrian-only walkway.

If New Braunfels’ first settlers came back today, they would recognize much of what they see. And that should feel awfully good to those folks who work to keep the past very much alive in New Braunfels’ present.

For more details on courthouse tours, as well as information on attractions, events, lodging, and restaurants in New Braunfels and Gruene, contact the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, 888/579-1668.

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