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La Salle may secure more state funds for historic courthouse
When it was built 90 years ago, the jewel in architect Henry Phelps’ crown was the first skyscraper between San Antonio and Laredo, the most prominent structure in La Salle County, and one of the largest and most stylish courthouses in all of South Texas.
It still meets many of those boasts.
But it didn’t have air conditioning.
New funding has become available through a state grant to pay for upgrades, repairs and improvements to La Salle County’s recently restored courthouse.
In a letter to county commissioners this month, Texas Historical Commission Executive Director Mark Wolfe wrote that the county may have a portion of $25 million allocated by the 87th Texas Legislature for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program in 2022-23.
La Salle County has already hired a consultant and developed a preservation master plan for its government building, a move that has placed it on the list of those receiving the lion’s share of the state grant, as much as $6 million.
The announcement marks the second time that La Salle has been identified as an appropriate candidate for millions in grant funding for its county courthouse, a structure regarded as architecturally and historically significant in Texas.
Designed in the Zigzag Moderne style of Art Deco popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the massive La Salle County Courthouse was four stories high with its top-floor jail, featured vast courtroom spaces and enough square footage in offices to host not only county government but also the school district administration and a public library. Its electric Otis elevator was one of the safest and most advanced of its day.
Critically, the building consisted of a core framework of steel and concrete piers and beams, an innovative design at the time, used in construction of all urban skyscrapers from that period and for the next half century.
Phelps designed La Salle County’s newest pride and joy with enough floor space to accommodate many new offices and government departments in future decades, expecting the county to continue growing.
The courthouse would meet its county’s needs for generations to come.
Some of that floor space would not be used until more than eighty years later. Portions of the third floor would be left unfinished and unoccupied for more than 30 years. The elevator didn’t even stop at the third floor until 1967.
County commissioners set aside $150,000 for construction, and Phelps’ embellishments to the building included gold-leaf eagles on each facade, remotely operated jail cell doors, polished stone hallway walls, hand-laid linoleum and cork tile throughout, exterior custom-designed terracotta and tile featuring the letters ‘LS’ on all four sides, marble-like footings, a curtain-wall exterior brick facade in a glowing sandy gold, and entrance doors featuring a sunburst design of glass plates to match the metropolitan Art Deco style of the period.
Some features of Phelps’ design were never finished or installed, including an underground car park and large clock dials set in the round stonework faces on each of the four facades.
Since the building was supported from within by its piers and beams, the exterior brick shell was not load-bearing and could therefore be lined on all four sides and at every story with the largest windows that could fit between the reinforced beams.
The more windows, the better, according to today’s county judge, Joel Rodriguez, who says the building’s lack of air conditioning in the South Texas heat meant as much cross-ventilation as possible would be necessary.
It also explains why most of the building’s offices have hinged windows above their doors. Air circulation was vital, Rodriguez says.
In January 2014, the La Salle County Courthouse emerged from its dust shrouds and scaffolding, restored to the specifications Phelps had laid out in his 1931 design and appearing as he had envisioned.
Funded in large part through the Texas Historical Commission’s grants for preservation and restoration of the state’s vintage courthouses, La Salle’s example of Phelps’ work took years and millions of dollars to bring back to its former glory.
This time, an air cooling system was added.
San Antonio-based architect Killis Almond, whose specialties include public facilities and historic restoration, was contracted to draft the blueprints for a rejuvenation of Phelps’ masterpiece. By breaking open walls and ceilings between the building’s core framework, Almond was able to embed modern fixtures and fittings, added conduits for computer connections, additional electrical outlets, a fire suppression system, and a geo-thermal cooling system. He also eliminated portions of rooms on each floor in order to widen the elevator shaft, thereby accommodating a cabin that meets government-mandated access specifications and is large enough to transport a medic’s gurney.
When it was finished, the La Salle County Courthouse looked outwardly and inwardly as close to Phelps’ design as could be achieved, including paint colors, tile, flooring, door handles, even ground-floor office furniture.
And the building was cooled.
Drop-ceiling tile that had concealed a late-addition air conditioning system above the district courtroom was gone, revealing the two-story high open space Phelps had intended for the room, and cooled air was injected through piping concealed in Almond’s new flush-fitting plaster ceiling.
In order to cool the water that in turn chills the air circulating in the courthouse today, Almond drilled at least 120 wells below the building’s rear parking lot, dropped piping into the holes and employed a system that chills the building with Earth’s own cooler temperatures.
Judge Rodriguez describes the geo-thermal system as being “like a radiator.” He told commissioners last week that the county may have more funding to upgrade the system.
“We have been invited to apply for the funding,” the county judge said at an August 9 meeting. “Killis [Almond] says this is a good grant for the ventilation, heating and cooling system, as well as other technological upgrades.”
Commissioners learned that despite the county having a rigorous maintenance schedule for the cooling system, repairs will be necessary and modernization is already possible.
“The Texas Historical commission allowed air conditioning to be installed under the original restoration grant,” the county judge said. “That’s why we drilled a hundred and twenty wells in the parking lot.
“We asked Killis a couple of years ago to look into making improvements to keep this building cool,” Rodriguez added after commissioners had voted unanimously to file a grant application for $6 million. “We need to visit with him to see what can be done to keep the system running.”
In his letter to the county, Wolfe noted that a successful applicant would have to ante up 15 percent in matching funds for the grant. In La Salle County’s case, that amounts to $900,000.
The newest round of funding through the THC, Wolfe said, “offers an opportunity for more participants to restore the historic integrity of these cherished symbols of local government while upgrading the buildings to meet modern requirements.”
It is this clause in the THC’s announcement that Judge Rodriguez believes opens the door for La Salle to seek more funds towards its courthouse project, even though the building has been restored.
“The program may award construction grants for full restoration and rehabilitation, planning grants for developing architectural construction documents, and emergency grants to address critical needs that endanger the building or its occupants,” Wolfe wrote.
Applicants for the new round of state funds will have their entries scored and prioritized. Wolfe told the county judge that La Salle will need to have architectural plans and specifications at least 95 percent complete by April 18 next year in order to be considered “shovel ready” and earn extra points in the scoring.
Since its inception in 1999, the Texas courthouse preservation program has funded the full restoration of 74 historic county courthouses and assisted 28 additional applicants with emergency or planning projects. In partnership with program participants, the state reports that it has contributed nearly $320 million and local governments have contributed over $265 million towards courthouse preservation.
“In addition to providing safe and functional buildings, revitalization of these landmarks benefits local and state economies,” Wolfe wrote, “generating investment in the area’s construction industry, reinvigorating downtowns, and promoting heritage tourism.”
When tourists view the Art Deco gem perched on a hill in the middle of Cotulla, they will see it with its windows closed, as its interior is cooled in ways that an avant-garde architect could not have accomplished 90 years ago.
If La Salle County commissioners are granted what they need to keep a 21st century geo-thermal cooling system running, the courthouse windows will remain closed to the searing South Texas heat.