When it was built in 1914, the Nueces County Courthouse was both majestic and massive. The local newspaper proudly declared “the new building poses us an empress, sitting on her throne with her courtiers, the city of Corpus Christi lying at her feet.” The impressive Classic-Revival structure was the county’s third courthouse, built during a time when county buildings represented more to the people than mere offices and courtrooms. It was symbolic to the arrival of Corpus Christi Bay as an economic center of South Texas.
During the twentieth century Nueces County exploded in size, eventually outgrowing the square footage of the building. The courthouse battled progress, technology, and multiple hurricanes but ultimately it lost its fights with capacity, deterioration, and maintenance funding. Since the county moved out in 1977, the courthouse has spent forty years unused and deteriorating while Corpus Christi’s most decorated civil servants debated its future.
In 2017, that future may finally come into focus.
cover photo courtesy Carson Crisp
Nueces County Courthouse History
Nueces (pronounced “new-aces”) County, Texas, was established in 1843. In 1857 the fledgling county built its first courthouse, a $4,000 building which took more than three years to build and did not contain a jail, which the citizens soon realized would be a necessity.
A second, larger courthouse with jail was built next to the first courthouse in 1875. It was named the Hollub Courthouse for its architect.
The second Nueces County Courthouse cost $15,000 to build and dwarfed the first courthouse, which now resided in its shadow. Nueces County’s final public hangings took place on the platform behind the jail of the Hollub Courthouse.
After thirty-eight years with the second courthouse Nueces County was outgrowing its facilities once more. Four research members of the commissioner’s court traveled across Texas to view other courthouses and speak to other judges. The common theme learned from the visits: Build the courthouse bigger than you need. Nueces had already outgrown two courthouses, County Judge Walter Timon received the message.
Citizens were nervous about the planned cost and size of the courthouse, but a $250,000 bond issue was approved in 1913. Architect Harvey L. Page (1859 – 1934) of Washington D.C. was hired to design the building, while the Gordon-Kruger Company of San Antonio handled construction. Groundbreaking took place on St. Patrick’s Day of 1914 and construction was finished by December of that year.
Gordon-Kruger announced the new courthouse would be ready for occupancy on January 1st, 1915. The older courthouses remained, and would be torn down after another year. A June 1914 news article went into detail about the period construction methods:
“Inside the brick, hollow tile is being placed, which has now been considered to be a great asset in building, for it covers a great deal of space, gives the same amount of space, allows air passage, and is considerably lighter in weight.”
Nueces County Courthouses: Cost vs. Service Life
- 1857: $4,000 (S.L.: 21 years.)
- 1875: $15,000 (S.L.: 39 years.)
- 1914: $250k + $150k + $77k + $85k = $562k (S.L.: 63 years.)
- 1977: $19.6 million+ (S.L.: 40+ years.)
1914 Nueces County Courthouse
Architect Harvey Page designed a showpiece for Southern Texas, molded in the shape of a T. A primary six-story wing stretched east-west, flanked by two four-story wings that reached north and south. Building composition was chiefly brick and stone with hand-crafted adornments reflecting a less-hurried age: Terra cotta trim work, towering Ionic columns, and Caryatid pillars.
An east-facing grand staircase led visitors up to the second-floor main entrance, which opens to what serves as the primary level. It was built to suit the climate; louvered interior doors, light fixtures with built-in fans, and a large well cut through the third and fourth floors allowed for airflow through the building from the second-floor lobby. Many Nueces citizens were introduced to new inventions such as the elevator and typewriter by the courthouse.
Inside, the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse was no less an impressive structure. Visitors were greeted by long corridors with expansive, fourteen-foot-high ceilings. The first four floors contained offices and courtrooms, the latter of which occupied grand rooms with viewing balconies in the terminus of each wing. The fifth and sixth floors of the east-west corridor housed the county jail; it was separated from the rest of the building by an additional air space incorporated to eliminate noise.
1914 Nueces County Courthouse postcards, circa 1915-1920s
The sheriff’s department had its own special elevator with a separate ground-floor entrance that allowed for easier movement of prisoners. Apartments were provided for the jailer and other county officials, several of whom resided in the building until the 1950s. On the sixth floor two jail cells were converted into a private “death cell” gallows with trap doors, so prisoners “would not have to go outside for execution and undergo any humiliation.”
Underneath the gallows was the prison kitchen. Prisoners used to joke about where the meat came from, but the courthouse gallows were reportedly never used. Shortly after the courthouse was finished the state outlawed hangings and responsibility for carrying out executions shifted to state-level. The Corpus Christi Democrat said:
“If it were in the power of prisoners of centuries ago to postpone their crimes until the present day, it is almost a surety they would have committed these crimes in Nueces County, when the jail was completed, when they could be carried to their room in the county’s hotel in an exhilarating elevator ride of five flights, and on reaching the top, they would be greeted with a view of the beautiful Corpus Christi Bay that is seldom afforded to anyone.”
click thumbnails to enlarge
vintage photos courtesy the Itinerant Photographer
In addition to prisoners the 1914 courthouse housed numerous families throughout its early days and up until the early 1950s. Among its full-time residents were the standing jailer, who lived with his family in a fifth-floor apartment, as well as other full-time county services such as emergency response and maintenance crews who lived with their families in small apartments on the second, third, and fourth floors. This practice continued for forty years.
When the Nueces County courthouse was new, it was an immense and impressive structure that attracted visitors from all over the state. Charles P. Taft, brother of the former president, once said the Nueces County Courthouse was “worthy of being the state capitol.”
Courthouse landscaping was the work of Corpus Christi resident Julia Caldwell. Her combination of palm trees, hardy flowers, and ornamental shrubbery complemented the peaceful fountain and goldfish pond with water lilies. Caldwell’s work was laudable and recognized when the Nueces County courthouse won five successive Everts Cups, an award for having “the handsomest, cleanest, most sanitary building, and best-landscaped grounds in the state.”
1919 Texas Hurricane
Before the courthouse reached its fifth birthday, it was called upon to protect residents from the fourth-deadliest hurricane of the 20th century. On September 14th, 1919, 110 mile-per-hour winds and 16-foot tidal waves crashed upon downtown Corpus Christi. More than 2,500 townspeople risked their lives to make their way to the strong Nueces courthouse for refuge in its upper floors. One account tells of how the town’s men formed a human chain that stretched across the street to catch those attempting to swim through floodwaters to the courthouse for safety.
After the storm grim headlines revealed a death toll that grew by the day. On September 17th, 1919, the Caller-Times announced “The death list exceeds 200 and may even reach 300 indicated by latest figures.” Two days later the paper proclaimed “the death list will exceed 300 and may go above 400.”
On September 22nd, 1919, the number was greater still: “Death List Now Exceeds 400.” The final numbers are uncertain, however Nueces County estimated the loss of at least 400 lives and $20 million in property damage.
Nueces County Courthouse: Early Years
Fourteen years after it opened the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse was still collecting accolades. For three successive years (1927–1929) the courthouse won a Silver Loving Cup for the best-kept building and grounds, and in September of 1929 the courthouse was officially recognized as “one of the most imposing and best-planned county buildings in the state.”
The courthouse jail also remained one of the premier in the state, having been called “one of the best equipped and best kept jails in Texas.”
The same courthouse that once appeared over-sized to its citizens lasted all of fifteen years before the booming Nueces County population caught up in size, and eventually overcrowded the building. A proposed $100,000 addition – approved by the Commissioner’s Court in August of 1930 – added 18,000 square feet. This was accomplished by extending the length of the east-west corridor nearly one hundred percent, a move which increased the building’s overall square footage to 86,400. The courthouse extension extends west from the original foundation. It took just under a year to build and was ready for occupancy by July of 1931.
One of Nueces County’s largest jailbreaks in history came in December of 1937, when nine men escaped from the sixth-floor courthouse jail. Officers said the escapees worked several rivets loose and made a small hole in the wall, which gave them access to an outside window. They reached the ground by means of a rope made of blankets, sheets, and other mattresses coverings.
A footnote to the story was the misfortune of Eduardo Ramirez, an overweight prisoner who reportedly got stuck in the wall during the escape. Fellow escapee Willie Rodriguez later described how he had to twist Eduardo’s nose to get him through the hole:
“He got stuck in the hole, with his head on one side of the wall and his feet on the other. Two of us pulled like everything and two other pushed, but we couldn’t get him through that little hole… That hole was plugged, and the other two men who were still inside were about to have to stay inside. So something just had to be done, so I twisted Eduardo’s nose hard and it made him wiggle through. That way we got out.”
Nueces Courthouse 1940s-50s: County Outgrows Building
Ten years after the west wing addition was completed, overcrowding remained an issue. In March of 1941 three county divisions were forced to move out of the courthouse.
In September of 1941 the Nueces County Courthouse became a hurricane shelter again, this time to 600 refugees during the 1941 Texas Hurricane. Damage to the courthouse was mostly superficial, however reports of the building’s crumbling terra cotta first appeared in October of 1943.
The Caller-Times noted “along the south side of the entire east wing of the 30 year-old structure the terra cotta between the fourth and fifth floors has sagged, threatening to collapse and fall to the ground.” In 1943 the Commissioner’s Court spent $14,000 to repair the façade.
[ Humor: In April of 1947 the county’s gardener noticed a “pretty plant growing in the flower bed” of the courthouse. He couldn’t identify the vegetation and assumed it must have sprouted from seeds in a corsage a prisoner tossed out of a jail window. A Federal narcotics agent visited in July and identified the pungent foliage as a marijuana plant… growing in the courthouse garden. ]
More county division offices moved out of the Nueces Courthouse in October of 1954; the Texas Department of Public Safety, Drivers License Division Office, and Highway Patrol Office relocated to the new Public Safety Headquarters building. This was followed by the County Tax offices, which moved into a building on Shoreline Boulevard near City Hall in the late 1950s.
Another well-publicized Nueces Courthouse jailbreak came in May of 1955. Two prisoners made their way down an improvised rope made of rubber hose to escape from the top floor jail, but what particularly concerned officers was that one of the escapees – a known member of a crime ring who was due to testify that week – had told another prisoner he had a machine gun “stashed out” for use after his escape.
Unhappy was District Attorney Sam Jones, who believed the escape was an inside job and proclaimed to reporters “Somebody let him out of jail… somebody didn’t want [him] to testify… The sheriff has the keys to the jail. I do not.”
By the mid-1950s not only was space an issue, the building was fast becoming outdated as well. New courthouses had central air conditioning, large parking lots, lower ceilings, modern elevators, and separate quarters for male and female jurors. In 1955 the Commissioner’s Court appointed a Citizens Courthouse Advisory Committee (CCAC) was to study capacity and service issues with the 41 year-old courthouse.
In February of 1956 Nueces County received its first offer for the courthouse. A group of New York real estate dealers sent the county a letter claiming interest in “acquiring prime office building property in the southwest.” The offer was referred to the CCAC, but the deal never got off the ground.
Nueces Courthouse 1960s: Annex, Expansion vs. New Build
In 1957 County Commissioners ordered an engineering report for the courthouse, conducted by W.A. Raatz of Corpus Christi. This report was influential in determining whether the courthouse would be remodeled and expanded, or a new building would be constructed.
Ultimately it was determined it would be less expensive to repair and expand the existing courthouse for an estimated $2.7 million, than to build an entirely new structure for an estimated $5 million. It was expected voters would agree to pass a bond issue for the $2.7 million refurbishment, however voters struck the proposal down altogether.
The fallback plan was the annex building, also known as the “Jury Building” or “Jury Room.” It was constructed in the northeast corner of the courthouse lot in 1961 with $77,000 from the courthouse’s maintenance budget. The lack of a publicly funded bond meant the annex was architecturally basic, had little features, and took several years to complete.
Facing the courthouse, the 1961 annex sat just to the right of the main entrance and in front of the North Wing. It was neither as large nor ornate as the main building, and for most of its life sat hidden behind a row of thick trees. The Jury Building connected to the main courthouse via ramp to the main floor, passing through what was once the Tax (and later Commissioner’s) offices.
The annex’s differing architectural style and lack of historical significance led to the addition being demolished in the mid-1990s; today it’s a large patch of grass.
Nueces County Courthouse Annex, R.I.P. (1961 – 1996)
Courthouse & Harbor Bridge Infrastructure Project
One of the most drastic changes to the Corpus Christi landscape occurred with the construction of the Harbor Bridge and the extension of Interstate Highway 37 from 1957 to 1959.
The Nueces County Courthouse stands on the northeast intersection of these two large infrastructure projects. One ramp for highway 181 still carries vehicles within yards of the building today, and the pedestrian walkway which allows visitors on foot to walk within fifty feet of the building’s south entrance is still open.
A corollary to such progress was the disruption to the historic street grid system in downtown Corpus Christi; the new bridge and highway essentially cut off entire blocks from the rest of the city, making places like the courthouse less accessible to the community.
[ Maybe it was Awarded to Someone Else? In March of 1960 the Caller-Times asked about a large presentation cup on display in the county commissioner’s courtroom. It had been there as long as anybody could remember, but nobody seemed to know much about it. On the cup was engraved: “The Arthur Everts Cup, Awarded for the Best Kept Court House Grounds in Texas, Civic Dept., Texas Federation Woman’s Clubs, 1915.”
The confusion lies behind the fact courthouse landscaping was not underway until the previous courthouses were demolished in 1916. For the first year after the 1914 courthouse was built, the old courthouses remained beside it on the property. Additionally, a review of Commissioners’ Court minutes in 1915 and 1916 show no award received for landscaping nor one issued by the Federation of Woman’s Clubs. ]
By 1962 the courthouse was nearing the end of a five-year refreshment that saw significant interior changes. The main floor received fresh paint and new lighting while the courtrooms were given new false ceilings and “remodeled into attractive chambers.”
New glass doors added to the main and side entrances brought natural light inside and added a modern touch. The former tax offices had their cages removed and partitions were installed to create new offices. Jails received new showers and a glassed-in booking area. Air conditioning units were added and building’s terra cotta was face-lifted and repaired.
In a sign of the times, one of the advertised improvements was “…all steam pipes have been wrapped with asbestos.”
Aside from the roof, the building was “sound as a dollar,” according to Superintendent Leslie Chappell. The Caller-Times acknowledged the improvements brought forth by Nueces County. “The once dull and decaying building, reflected by the old houses and buildings that surrounded it, now looks imposing and bright, with the wide expanse of the freeway giving a clear view of its classic beauty.”
Victories were short-lived; by 1967 the Nueces County Courthouse resumed its regimen of falling apart, starting with the terra cotta. In 1969 county employees at the courthouse were “hoping and praying” the building could hold together “before it collapses completely.”
Ceilings in various offices began to cave in periodically, and on occasion old hot water pipes exploded under pressure. By 1971 the crumbling had become so common, some courthouse workers began to come in to work wearing hard hats.
[ Humor: In 1967 workmen started replacing tiles on one section of the roof. A passerby remarked: “They ought to jack up the roof and run a new courthouse under it.” ]
Nueces Courthouse 1970s: On Life Support
On August 5th, 1970, Hurricane Celia pounded Corpus Christi for nearly two days. It was the third major hurricane for the old Nueces County Courthouse. The building lost significant portions of its facade while broken windows and water damage to various offices led to an estimated total loss approaching $64,000. Much of the damage was not easily quantifiable, such as the loss of old records stored in a loft of the district clerk’s office which included immigration and naturalization papers dating back to the last century.
In April of 1971 County commissioner Solomon Ortiz proposed that an exercise area for county prisoners be provided on the roof of the Nueces County Courthouse. Ortiz said some prisoners serve as long as two years in county jail and that many now have been there longer than a year. “We need to get these people out in the sunshine.”
While the old courthouse was crumbling, a movement began in the summer of 1972 to hold a bond election to build a new courthouse. However support was not coming from the county’s citizens, who rejected plans for a bond issue. Said one letter-to-the-editor, “the taxpayers will not accept any grandiose plans nor support any huge unrealistic bond issue which proposes an enormous building and grounds at an enormous price.”
Meanwhile, terra cotta continued to shed itself from the courthouse. The single largest collapse came in late June of 1972, when several thousand pounds of terra cotta on the north side of the building came crashing down and destroyed a several-ton air conditioning unit next to the annex. As a result, protective wooden scaffolding was erected around the entryways, and the grounds were fenced off from the public.
Also nearing critical failure was the courthouse jail, which by the 1970s was falling apart. Metal shards were broken off from crumbling bars and bunks and were being fashioned into knives. Walls were falling down (one prisoner escaped by pushing out his wall), chains were being stolen, and the overall safety and security was a serious concern.
In 1976 the county commissioned Associated Planning of Chicago, IL, and Eugene Wukasch of Austin, TX, to produce a study that identified potential adaptive uses for the old courthouse. A September 1976 General Services Administration (GSA) study was conducted to test the feasibility of using the old Nueces County Courthouse as a federal courthouse. The GSA report estimated it would cost “around $7 million” to renovate and restore the old building, while pointing out the building’s courtrooms are “relatively small by today’s standards” and its exterior has “a decidedly decaying appearance.”
The GSA passed on the 1914 courthouse, and eventually built a new Federal District Court three blocks east of the 1914 building on Shoreline Boulevard in the year 2000.
The 1914 courthouse had no shortage of detractors, including Ed Harte, publisher of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Harte was given a personal tour, after which he remarked “that’s the ugliest building I’ve ever seen.” Newspaper columnist and reporter Nick Jimenez agreed. “Let’s face it, the old courthouse isn’t all that beautiful, inside or out.” More succinct was his claim that the 1914 courthouse was “the most terrible building I’ve ever been in.”
Other reporters compiled their own sarcastic list of building reuse proposals, including “using it as a bat house and then harvesting the guano” to “filling it up with historians and sealing it off.”
Building a Replacement Courthouse
In July of 1972 the County began organizing a bond issue election to build a new courthouse at one of two sites for an estimated cost between $12 and $14 million. By August the site was chosen and the estimated cost had escalated to $14.5 million. For this sum, county officials and architects estimated the new complex would be adequate “for at least 20 years.”
First the county would have to get public approval for the bond issue. As part of the publicity campaign to seek approval, a series of advertisements were released in the summer of 1972 titled “Our Nueces County Courthouse. It’s a Shame.”
“It’s a Shame” Nueces County Courthouse campaign, circa 1972
The campaign was a success and won approval for the bond election. By June of 1974 ground preparations for the new courthouse were underway, and by July the foundation was poured. By February of 1976 the bond issue for the new courthouse had grown from $14.5 million to $18.5 million.
By Texas law the Texas Historic Commission (THC) must be told six months before any county courthouse is vacated or demolished; in March of 1976 the county notified the THC of its intentions to move out of the building in the fall of that year.
THC preservationist and attorney Cecil Burney quickly moved to have the 1914 structure added to the National Register of Historic Places, on which it was officially placed on June 24th, 1976. The Nueces County Courthouse became the first structure in Corpus Christi to be listed on the national register. This designation did not ensure salvation, but it complicated demolition and made restoration projects eligible for federal funds.
In June of 1976 the new Nueces County Courthouse was nearing completion. Commissioners discussed listing the old courthouse for sale at a minimum price of $500,000, however some commissioners were in favor of implementing usage restrictions on the building for prospective buyers, including that the property would not be used to sell alcoholic beverages nor be turned into a massage parlor. Said Commissioner J.P. Luby, “this is sacred ground to me… I’d just hate to see something like ‘Courthouse-a-Go-Go’ or some wild place.” Commissioners Carl Bluntzer, Mike Westergren, and Robert Barnes all believed any restrictions imposed might restrict its value and hurt its sale.
To the courthouse employees who heard the sound of thunder one morning in August 1976 as more terra cotta facing fell off the old courthouse, the move to the new building could not come soon enough.
Rainy weather in the fall of 1976 pushed the estimated completion date for the new courthouse to March of 1977. Additional delays due to worker strikes pushed the completion date to the summer of 1977. By this time, the construction price for the new building had risen to $19.6 million.
Friends of the Courthouse
The Friends of the Courthouse was a non-profit organized in late 1976 by four high-profile historians from various backgrounds. Cecil Burney was a decorated attorney and representative of the Texas Historic Commission, Lee John Govatos was a local architect, Margaret Ramage was a journalist with the Caller-Times, and Margaret Walberg was President of the Art Center of Corpus Christi and the Nueces County Historical Society.
One of the Friends’ first steps was to submit a historical marker application. In September of 1976 another round of courthouse re-use proposals emerged, this time calling for the use of the building as a central headquarters for state agencies or offices for the United Way. Cecil Burney suggested that a consolidation of the state agencies into one building could save taxpayer money:
“It would be an ideal place to locate all the state agencies in one building. Currently, there are 29 state agencies occupying 61,957 square feet at a cost of $249,752.01. And if all these agencies were housed in one location, it would be easy for people to find them. If you ever tried to find a state agency, you know what I mean.”
In November of 1976 the Friends of the Courthouse put forth an application for $775,000 in federal funds to renovate the courthouse. County Judge Robert Barnes took exception with the application and responded by asking “Were taxpayers misled? People were told this building wasn’t usable. I think that pushed the bond issue along. Much of the literature and arguments in favor of the new courthouse indicated that the building was unsafe and unsightly.” Barnes did however support the Friends’ attempt to seek $5,000 in federal money to fund a feasibility study on what to do with the old courthouse.
In January of 1977 the THC announced the approval of a $40,000 federal grant through the National Historical Preservation act for the Friends toward their acquisition of the old Nueces County Courthouse. The group would have to match the funds approved through the National Historical Preservation act before the federal funds could be released.
The month-long migration to the new courthouse facility at 901 Leopard Street began to take place on July 29th, 1977. Also happening in the early hours of that morning was the moving of prisoners to the new jail. With little notice prisoners were separated into smaller groups and whisked away in armed convoys on a route heavily guarded by 80 sheriff deputies, directly up the hill to the new location less than a mile away.
Only one hint of an escape attempt came, at 5 a.m., when a deputy intercepted a paper plate lowered on a string from the old jail. On the paper plate was written, “moving to new location.”
The new jail was such a stark contrast to the old jail. One bondsman joked “This place is too good. The prisoners don’t want to get out.”
The first official day for business in the new courthouse was August 1st, 1977. While the building was officially open, county offices would continue moving in throughout the week. Employees said the new offices were “like getting a raise.” One downside to the massive new structure was the first month’s $32,000 utility bill, nearly three times what the county had been paying in the old courthouse.
On August 2nd, 1977, county courthouse employees gathered at the old courthouse location, lined up like a graduating class, and took a sentimental ‘family photo’ together. Courthouse officials gathered as many present and retired courthouse officials for “one last class photo.”
By August 11th, 1977, the courthouse was empty. Only the goldfish remained, oblivious residents of the small pond in front of the courthouse steps.
In July 1977 the courthouse was finally cleared to be offered for sale with “no strings attached” after the motion to add restrictions to the sale failed. The auction for the courthouse took place on August 25th, 1977. The County Commissioners had set a minimum price of $500,000, however there were no bids for the old building. The Caller-Times noted “not even from a cartel of massage parlor operators and sex movie producers as was feared.”
Margaret Walberg of the Friends of the Courthouse said a lack of bids meant the group could proceed with getting a feasibility study for a use of the courthouse.
In September of 1977 the county held an auction for hundreds of items in the old building, ranging from prison mess kits to chairs, desks, typewriters, and filing cabinets. County purchasing agent Herbert Esse once again led the auction, with a minimum bid on every item being just $1.
As soon as the county departed the building, the Friends of the Courthouse attempted to line up non-profit organizations to rent offices cheaply in order to keep the place in daily use. For insurance reasons and to avoid commitments that might hamper restoration, the building’s ownership discouraged such rentals, leaving the massive building open only for tours and special occasions.
A Vacant Life
County officials preferred demolition; however when it came to re-use, officials could live with a public ownership plan. Ideally a discounted sale to the city – who could then demolish the building and turn the property into a park. The fact a private party could turn the old courthouse into a hotel or nightclub still made some commissioners nervous. “I think it would be considered an outrage if it was sold to a private bidder,” said Judge Barnes.
The gravity of the old courthouse’s addition to the National Register hit County Judge Barnes like a ton of terra cotta in October of 1976. By listing the courthouse on the Register, preservationists had severely reduced the possibility of demolition. Barnes said the county would now have to get a permit from the state committee to demolish, something that would be difficult to obtain.
In December of 1977 the Friends of the Courthouse organized a public meeting to discuss potential uses for the old courthouse. Among the suggestions to come out of the meeting were turning the structure into a public library or public offices for the Council of Governments or possibly opening a restaurant, a tea room, or law offices in the building. It was also suggested that the building could be used to store voting machines or could house classrooms for branch courses from Del Mar Community College.
“I don’t see why anybody would want to buy it for use when they’ve choked it down our throats that it’s not any good.”
– Jeff McVoy, resident & auction attendee
Dark Ages: County Sells 1914 Courthouse
The historic building ended up in the hands of the Friends of the Courthouse for $200,000 in 1978. Machinations behind the transaction were complex – the Friends obtained the property with help from $100,000 in federal acquisition grants; however to be eligible for the grants, the land required its owner to provide a forty-year preservation deed covenant to the THC. This covenant, which protects the building from demolition and serious modification, was set to expire on May 31st, 2018.
Nueces County was unwilling to underwrite such a covenant, so a temporary corporation was formed (LexLand Limited) to purchase the property at auction and endorse the covenant on behalf of the Friends. The Friends could then qualify for the federal funds and purchase the building from LexLand Limited.
The Friends of the Courthouse then sold the building to Charles Bennett & Associates in 1979. Bennett owned the courthouse for twelve years and never developed the building. During that time he accumulated an ongoing delinquent tax bill with the city that eventually eclipsed six figures. Little changed for the courthouse during Bennett’s ownership, but in 1983 the building was designated a State Antiquities Landmark (SAL).
Nueces Courthouse 1990s: Courthouse Solutions & Justice Building
Dusty Durrill was a former Navy pilot who became enamored with Corpus Christi after spending time at the area’s naval air station. He settled in Corpus in 1961 and purchased a beer distributor, which he owned for forty years. In the community Durrill was a popular philanthropist, known for his generous donations totaling millions of dollars to various charities and schools.
In 1988 Durrill and Bennett registered the company Courthouse Solutions, Inc., in preparations to transfer the building from Bennett to Durrill. According to the THC, Courthouse Solutions assumed ownership of the deed in 1991. The following year the deed was then transferred to Justice Building, Inc., another Durrill-owned corporation which purchased the building for about $300,000 in back-taxes.
Durrill hired grant writers to apply for state money to save the building, including applying for a $10.9 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation to turn the old courthouse into a Transportation History Museum and City Visitor Center. Additional restoration ideas were floated for the building, including a Tejano Music Hall of Fame and a campus for Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Durrill lacked the money to conduct a full restoration of the building, however he did take steps to stop the deterioration, clean the grounds, install spotlights, restore utilities, and protect the building from vandalism.
In the early 1990s the 1961 annex on the northeast corner of the lot was demolished by the National Guard. Because it was a later addition and did not contribute to the design or historic status, supporters had lobbied for state Historic Courthouse Preservation Program funds and organized matching-grant campaigns and even an “Annex Asbestos Angels” campaign to fund demolition of the 1961 annex. One city council member suggested offering the rest of the courthouse to a Hollywood studio to blow up for an action movie.
Friends founder and longtime Caller-Times contributor Margaret Ramage pushed for the addition of the courthouse on the list of Texas’ Most Endangered Historic Properties in 1995. Ramage also unveiled a new Historic Marker for the courthouse in front of a small crowd with cameras.
In 1998 the courthouse was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the “Nation’s 11 Most Endangered Places,” while a Needs Assessment and Restoration Study was undertaken by Killis Almond Architects. The study demonstrated the 1914 courthouse could be technically and physically restored at a cost of $13.6 million. The report mentioned “differential foundation movement,” and noted that the west end of the 1930 addition had settled approximately two inches at the time of their investigation.
Nueces Courthouse 2000s: Back to the County
At the turn of the century a new state program offered a lifeline to the old courthouse. The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP), created in June of 1999, was initially endowed with $50 million to be issued during two rounds of grants in 2000 and 2001.
Officials wanted to take advantage of this courthouse-specific program, however for the courthouse to qualify Nueces County would have to hold the deed. On January 5th, 2000, Nueces County Commissioners voted to foreclose on Justice Building in order to reclaim and renovate the courthouse, which by this time owed the county “more than $740,000 in back taxes accumulated since the late 1970s.” Complicating matters was the fact that the city of Corpus Christi, Del Mar College, and the Corpus Christi Independent School District each had claims to the back taxes, which would also have to be relinquished before the process could begin.
The county worked out a deal to acquire the property back from Durrill and satisfy each of the parties to the tax lien. Local architects McGloin and Sween were hired to produce the Nueces County Courthouse Preservation Master Plan. This was a pre-requisite for grant applications and offered a detailed breakdown of the work required to preserve and restore the 1914 courthouse.
Their first award came in October of 2000 by way of a $333,401 Emergency Planning Grant, offered to the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse by the THCPP during its second round of grants. The grant came with requirements, such as that the county maintain the property and observe a 25-year preservation easement to be held by the THC.
Combined with additional funds and easements the courthouse would earn two years later, the final easement expiration was set to be September 1st, 2027.
In 2002 the THCPP awarded the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse $1.9 million for the Phase I rehabilitation of the South Wing. Phase I restoration involved the waterproofing of the building and repairing the terra-cotta, brick, and other architectural details.
The plans for the restoration were drawn up by McGloin & Sween, with the goal to turn the building into a $20 million-dollar science and technology museum.
Final approval came from the THC in the fall of 2003.
South Wing Renovation: 2004-2006
A second grant application was submitted in 2004 for $3.8 million to carry out the remainder of the Phase I restoration for the south wing. The emergency grant consisted of $1.9 million in state funds plus $883,000 in matching funds (a 2:1 match was a requirement for THCPP emergency grants). Friends of the Courthouse president Margaret Walberg raised the $900k in local donations for the match, which triggered the $1.9 million and allowed renovation to continue.
From 2004 until 2006 the south wing of the courthouse received a major facelift. Masonry was torn down to the concrete frame, a fiberglass reinforcing membrane and hurricane windows were installed, and stainless steel wall ties were used for the brick veneer and outrigger cornice supports.
photos courtesy Robert Parks
New Caryatid pillars were installed on either side of the south entrance.
More than 2,300 new pieces of ornamental terra cotta were installed over a reinforced mounting system. Crews left the interior alone aside from hazardous material abatement (note: South wing only) and installation of a security system.
The Phase I renovation was completed on November 27th, 2006. Final cost was $2.7 million, more than one million dollars under budget.
Nueces Courthouse Late Aughts: Reversion to the Mean
Since 1995 County Commissioner Richard Borchard had been a valuable ally, a supportive voice in a position of authority who had done much to facilitate courthouse grants over the years. Such support came to an end in 2003, when Borchard left office and the county “partially reverted to its earlier wariness” with the courthouse.
In October of 2004 the Texas Historic Commission offered a second major construction grant of $1,766,599 as a “supplemental award” for partial exterior restoration of the East Wing. However the additional funds were rejected in August of 2005 at a meeting of the Nueces County Commissioners who failed to second a motion to accept the matching grant from the THC.
The butterfly effect of this budgetary policy change was the death of the planned $34.8M South Texas Exploratorium, the ongoing Sween-McGloin project at the courthouse since 2004.
Nueces Courthouse 2010s: Threat of Demolition Returns
In 2010 LNV Engineers was commissioned to perform an engineering study of the structure. The report found “significant evidence of differential movement of the foundation systems.” The LNV report also noted the west end of the 1930 addition has settled a total of four inches (an additional two inches since the 1998 Killis Almond investigation), and that “approximately 60%-80% of the concrete framing members do not have adequate capacity to withstand the loads required by current adopted design codes.”
One sentence in the report particularly stood out:
“Restoration and/or rehabilitation of this structure would be a major undertaking both financially and construction wise.”
LNV estimated the structural repairs alone could approach $24 million, while demolition would cost closer to $3 million. Considering the report’s stated margin of error, potential full renovation costs could approach $58 million. This prompted county commissioners to re-negotiate with the THC to lift the deed restriction protecting the building. Remarked one county commissioner, “we can either try to move forward or stand here for the next 15 years and watch the building crumble brick by brick.”
The Corpus Christi City Council, bolstered by its success in recently getting Memorial Coliseum demolished in June of 2010, voted unanimously to also back efforts to demolish the old courthouse. Said one city council member “Would we miss the structure? Yes, but it’s time to move on.”
“We’re having a hard enough time as it is not raising your taxes and still fixing all the things that we want to fix for people to have an accessible community. We don’t have $40 million dollars lying around to fix a building.”
– Commissioner Brent Chesney, Nueces County
photos circa 2006, courtesy Robert Parks
In light of the results of the LNV study, county commissioner Mike Pusley began a county-wide effort to raise support to demolish the 1914 courthouse. In 2011 both the Corpus Christi City Council and the Nueces County Commissioners passed resolutions supporting the cause. Neither were enough to override the deed covenant owned by the THC, which had by this time made known they would sue if necessary to enforce the 1978 preservation covenant.
What this likely means is the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse will remain in its place on the corner of Belden and North Mesquite Street until at least September of 2027.
What Happens until 2027?
With demolition out of the cards county officials decided to renew restoration talks. Those talks would be limited to just that–when the county reached out to the city for support in September of 2014, the city gave its blessing but said “Don’t come asking for money anytime soon.”
However the courthouse does qualify for the recent Texas Historic Preservation Tax Incentive program, implemented in January of 2015, which credits twenty-five percent of rehabilitation costs toward the repair of buildings listed on the National Register.
In 2015 Nueces County records indicated $15,000 was spent to maintain and secure the 1914 courthouse. Despite the county’s efforts, homeless and vandals continue to find ways inside. In June of 2015 the fire department believed a fire started in the courthouse was arson.
As of 2017, the building remains fenced off with conspicuous “No Trespassing” signs on display. According to public works director Glen Sullivan, about $3,000 is spent on maintenance and security for the property.
The grass is mowed and repairs are made to fencing on a regular basis. The doors and (most) windows are boarded. There is an alarm system, although its functionality is questionable after years of exposure.
The Texas Historic Commission developed the Town Square Initiative (TSI) “to provide specialized technical assistance for vacant and underutilized historic properties in communities that have already demonstrated a substantial commitment to historic preservation.” The TSI took an interest in the former Nueces County Courthouse and in January of 2016 produced a re-utilization report, which identified the courthouse as a good candidate for conversion into a 62-unit luxury residential tower with 15,000 square-feet of commercial space. It noted a new estimated construction cost of $53.5 million and pointed to an $8.7 million-dollar funding gap (see below) that would have to come from a private investor.
That number by the way, only grows the farther out any redevelopment is pushed.
[ Cycle of Life: In April of 2016 a reader-submitted article appeared in the Caller-Times noting the ‘new’ courthouse is already “outdated and falling apart.” A juror reported a poor experience after her visit: “I made a quick stop in the ladies room. It looked like stepping back into 1975, complete with orange restroom doors; worn-out, rusted fixtures; partitions with holes from previous hanging dispensers, etc. The soap dispenser that should have been hanging on the wall near the sinks for hand-washing was completely torn off the wall and sitting on the counter top, with no bag of soap in sight. I don’t think it had just happened that day.” Time to build a new courthouse? ]
A New Hope
In September of 2016 county commissioners passed two resolutions for the 1914 courthouse. First the county rescinded its 2011 resolution to demolish the building. Second, the county passed the motion to list the courthouse for sale. During an October meeting the court approved an asking price of $800,000. This would be in addition to the $1.5 million owed in back taxes, leaving buyers with a total price of $2.3 million to acquire the building.
“Someone may come in and offer less,” Commissioner Mike Pusley said. “If we get a decent offer, they’ll be getting a courthouse. We had to start somewhere.” Buyers will find the fallen terra cotta and brick façade elements that have been collected over the years are stored in the basement.
Real estate agency Joe Adame & Associates, Inc. was tasked to handle the listing of the 1914 courthouse (view online ad).
“Redevelopment Opportunity – Former Nueces County Courthouse. Built in 1914, 1930 addition, the building consists of a six story structure which includes a basement level. The building structure consists of reinforced concrete columns & beam framing. Exterior walls are clad with structural clay tile infill walls with a brick mason veneer & terra cotta coping and fascia. Buyer shall be responsible for roughly $1.5M in owed back ad valorem taxes. All buyers considered must demonstrate significant successful expertise with historic renovation projects similar in size and scope. Full property condition report available upon request. Zoned CI – Intense Commercial District”
In October of 2016 the THC gave its blessing to the TSI report’s suggestion to convert the building into luxury apartments.
Then in December of 2016, for the first time in more than a generation, Nueces County received a bid for the building. In January of 2017 the Nueces County Commissioners voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with the Nueces County Courthouse Development Partners, LLC, (NCCDP) to develop a purchase agreement that will “enable them to purchase and restore the 1914 county courthouse.”
In February of 2017, 3News revealed the company stepping in to give the courthouse a facelift was Coon Restoration and Sealants out of Ohio. Project manager Jim McCue said the company has a long history of keeping old buildings from the wrecking ball. “You don’t go into a project like this just hoping for the best. We do our homework very carefully.”
The men behind NCCDP are Fort Worth-based financier Steve Goodman and contractor Jim McCue of Coon Restoration and Sealants, Inc. and Sandvick Architects, Inc. McCue first discovered the Nueces courthouse when his daughter, who works in nearby Port Aransas, sent him a photo of the old building and asked if he could save it.
In April of 2017 Commissioner Pusley revealed the selling price to NCCDP was $1,000, however he noted the purchase agreement requires the buyers pay $1.5 million in accrued back-taxes as well.
Pusley is sanguine on the deal’s prospects: “This is sort of like Halley’s comet. It’s only going to come by once in our lifetime, and hopefully we get to see it.” Progress will have to wait until the deal closes, which commissioner Pusley expects to finalize in the summer of 2017.
As for the development team, they have already begun working with city planners. Project Manager Jim McCue estimates the project could take two years to complete. “We’re excited on all different levels. The courthouse is in the heart of downtown, and to reclaim that area and make it a focal point is exciting to us. Corpus Christi is on the threshold of revitalization and we’re very excited to be a part of it.”
Deterioration of an abandoned building is not linear, but rather progresses on an exponential scale. As building materials fatigue and their integrity fails, it creates a cascading effect that rapidly accelerates other failures. If corrosion is involved this is amplified.
The 2010 LNV report illustrates this point with the following description:
“Because of the salt in the air the natural deterioration process is accelerated. A small crack in a concrete member will allow moisture to penetrate to the reinforcing steel, allowing corrosion to begin. As the steel reinforcing corrodes, it expands in volume, causing larger cracks to form in the concrete, which eventually result in portions of the concrete becoming displaced or breaking loose completely, also known as spalling.”
The report also said there is “visible evidence of differential settlement between the exterior entry stairs and the north and east wings,” and that “almost all the [metal corrugated] ties have corroded away and no longer provide support to the brick… Broken windows have allowed rain and humidity to infiltrate the building envelope. The roofing material is in very poor condition and the concrete roof slab is completely exposed in several places.”
Not unlike collector cars, original historic buildings are the most desirable. In the case of the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse, its value has been challenged by its many alterations over the years.
Ceilings were lowered, walls were removed and new partitions added. Windows were covered up and louvered doors boarded over while other doors were sealed and new holes cut through walls. One set of stairs leads to a brick wall that once contained a door now long ago removed, and for what reason nobody could recall. And of course there was that annex.
The last forty years have not been glamorous for the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse, but it remains part of the fabric of Corpus Christi, a symbol of its transition from town to city. It has watched passersby in everything from horse and buggy to Ford Model T’s to hybrid Toyotas. The Nueces Courthouse was standing when the city built Memorial Coliseum, and it was there when the city demolished Memorial Coliseum. It watched as the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge was built, and it will likely be watching in the coming years when the bridge comes back down.
Few buildings in Corpus Christi can boast such an impressive resume. Coincidentally, the remainder can be found down the street in the Heritage Park District.
Where are they now?
The debate over the courthouse has dragged on for so long, most of the original cast in this story are now deceased. The Friends of the Courthouse last filed a tax return in 2001 – although records show its members were involved with the courthouse as recent as 2004.
Friends of the Courthouse founder and former THC official Cecil Burney, responsible for getting the courthouse added to the National Register in 1976, died in June of 1989. Friends founder Margaret Ramage, responsible for the site’s historical marker, passed away in May of 2000. Their Friends compatriot Margaret Walberg passed away in January of 2015.
County Judge Robert Barnes, who oversaw the move out of the old courthouse, died in March of 2007. J.P. Luby, the former commissioner worried the courthouse could be turned into a Go-Go club, died in June 2012. Philanthropist, courthouse benefactor, and former owner Dusty Durrill died in April of 2016. Sween-McGloin of the Texas Exploratorium proposal re-located to California, and now works for the Public Works Department of Santa Monica.
One long-time critic of the 1914 courthouse building is still around: Caller-Times columnist Nick Jimenez was the newspaper’s front lines during the courthouse transition in the late 1970s. He is the person who notably referred to the courthouse as “the most terrible building I’ve ever been in.”
Forty years later Jimenez is still composing for the Caller-Times and the courthouse is still decomposing on Mesquite Street.
Some things don’t change.
2006 interior photos courtesy Robert Parks