Let’s Save Our Courthouse

CORSICANA, TX — If a person reaches 105 years of age, he or she usually needs help from friends and family to accomplish life’s everyday chores. The same is true for buildings such as the Navarro County Courthouse, which has withstood the test of time and stands serenely and stately, surrounded by tall, mature trees nurtured by many hands throughout the years.

Built on one of the highest points in the county, the clock-domed structure daily guides the public not only directionally but also through the business transacted in its hallowed halls. “It’s sitting there saying, ‘Come fix me up,’” Judith Steely, chairperson of the Corsicana Preservation Foundation (CPF), stated.

Designed by famed Dallas architect James E. Flanders, who was responsible for many Texas courthouses that still stand today, the Navarro County Courthouse is an example of Beaux Arts Classical Revival architecture — a style that was considered progressive as the 1800s turned into the 1900s. The previous courthouse, the county’s fourth, had proven to be too small for the amount of business the booming oil fields were producing. It was experiencing foundation problems that brought about its eventual condemnation. Navarro County had to build another courthouse when most courthouses were already built.

With boom time’s oil money plentiful and fresh memories of the mistakes that had resulted in the condemnation of the previous courthouse, the county built the current facility to high specifications. First, it is one of only two courthouses in Texas built in the Beaux Arts architectural style. Secondly, stained glass windows and gold trim were used as decorative treatments, and the original vault was not only able to protect treasures but is a treasure itself. However, the most unique architectural component is the scagliola technique used on freestanding iconic interior columns. Only three courthouses in the United States have incorporated this technique.

Visitors to the courthouse may believe the interior columns are marble, but that is the secret of scagliola, created in Tuscany in the 17th century. Marble is mimicked on the plaster of paris columns by using a composite of pigmented gypsum, glue and other natural pigments. Various methods were used to create the marble veining; for example, one method uses strands of raw silk saturated in pigment and drawn through the plaster-gypsum mix. Once an authentic marble effect is achieved, flax oil brings a brightness and smoothness to the surface and then the surface is waxed for protection. While less expensive than natural marble, columns built using the scagliola technique are labor intensive and still costly. “Each one is a handmade piece of art,” Michael Steely, Judith’s husband and CPF board member, said.
Today, the priority for the foundation is to slow the process of decline in the building, beginning with the columns. Each column has a different set of problems as assessed by professionals such as Jhonny Langer, paint conservator, and Karalei Nunn, president of 1113 Architects.

Other needs, such as an electrical and overall renovation, are necessary. Technology requirements have far outstripped the current electrical wiring. The county has outgrown the current space, as it is configured, with too many employees working in crowded office spaces and a busy courtroom docket bringing visitors to the courthouse. Records are kept in a basement, which floods during rainy weather.

Photographs of earlier times show that much of the furniture has not been replaced; the oak chairs and desks are original to the courtroom. The photos also show the placement for the stained glass windows that need to be returned to their original positions and the gold trim that was painted over and needs to be restored. Judith recalled a tour of the courthouse during which the group noticed a window that was propped open with of all things — a hacksaw file!

The Corsicana Preservation Foundation is working with County Judge H.M. Davenport and the Commissioners Court as well as other interested groups in restoring the courthouse to reflect its true historical beauty, while making it a functional structure in this modern business and political world. Aware that funds have been made available through grants from the Texas Historical Commission, as part of the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program, the foundation has proposed repainting the courthouse an esthetically and historically appropriate color and restoring the columns. The county secured the required master plan in 2003. “We have done everything we were supposed to do,” Hugh Stroube, CPF board member, said.

Pictured L to R: Michael Steely, Judith Steely and Jerry Steely.

However, renovating a courthouse is not an inexpensive undertaking. The grants from state and federal sources for this proposed renovation amount to about 60 percent of the total cost, making the courthouse renovation a possibility with the county matching those funds. The CPF and its coalition of other interested groups and individuals want to make the public more aware of this unique jewel of a building so that citizens will wish to donate time and money to save it. The painting alone will cost approximately $394,741. Judith is positive the job can be done.

“We are very good in raising funds; we have had lots of experience,” she said. “This is a city that cares.” The CPF has given money to aid in the restoration of the Temple Beth-El, and in April 2010, donated to the city of Corsicana the Town Oil Field Plaza. “The modern oil industry started here,” Michael said.

Other projects of interest to the foundation are improving the entrance to Oakwood Cemetery and working with the Main Street Project to promote the brick streets and restoration of downtown buildings. “We want to give incentives to residents to take care of their own buildings,” Hugh stated, as property values could increase and Corsicana could be proud of its heritage as well as its future. Improvements could also promote more tourism. “There’s no reason why Corsicana can’t have that kind of economic influence,” Hugh added.
May is National Preservation Month, and the 2011 theme is “Celebrating America’s Treasures.” The 167 members of the CPF hope Navarro County residents will join the financial drive to save the Navarro County Courthouse by making tax-deductible donations and contributing their change in the collection boxes located around town. “We all grew up here and know what it can be again,” Jerry Steely, another CPF board member, said. “It’s almost a question to the community: Why not?”

Written by Virginia Riddle