The seat of Bexar County government has remained within two blocks of its present location since the Spanish established Villa de San Fernando in 1731, over two hundred and fifty years ago. The county’s previous Spanish citizenry, as well as those who followed including Mexican nationals, Texians, and finally the first Texans, could never imagine that the restoration of the county’s current courthouse, built in 1897, was accomplished with the aid of a pair of Brokk 250’s, two remote-controlled drones used to demolish a 1970s addition to the massive Romanesque Revival structure. In fact, most Bexar County citizens before 1900 would have difficulty recognizing almost everything about their region as it exists today. The Bexar County seat, San Antonio, is ranked 25 among the nation’s cities with the highest population of a metropolitan area. And the city’s River Walk, a beautified, meandering network of shops, clubs, hotels and museums would be unrecognizable to citizens accustomed to a San Antonio River with uncontrollable flooding and expansive pastureland along its banks. Even the courthouse, restored now to its 1926 iteration, would only be fully recognizable to a segment of the population in their prime almost one hundred years ago.
Although it took the county five years and five bond issues to construct the 1897 edifice – four stories of native granite, red sandstone, terracotta, beehive dome) and towers, and red tile roofs – it took county business less than fifteen years to outgrow it. The 1914 San Antonio Light described the courthouse in its January 1st edition as “...so crowded that no county officer has sufficient room in which to transact public business and in which the jury rooms for the jurors' accommodations are so lacking in comfort as to make jury service a real hardship." The 1926 modifications included a three-story addition to the south side as well as an entire remodel from the basement up. It was also during this renovation that much of the red tile roof was replaced with the attractive green clay tiles seen on the courthouse today.
Although county officials complained once again about needing more space and better facilities within three years after the 1926 renovations, few additional changes were made for the next forty years until District Attorney Hubert Green, Jr. decided he needed some air conditioning for his office. Green, using money from his discretionary fund obtained through nefarious operations like gambling and drug proceeds, purchased a small window unit, snuck it into the non-air conditioned courthouse, plugged it in, and shorted out the entire building’s electrical system.
Remodeling and modernization proceeded in the 1960s and 1970s, including a 24,000 square foot addition to the southwest corner of the courthouse. Full restoration of the courthouse, with funding assistance from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, is occurring in stages, including the removal of the addition using the Brokk 250 “robots”.
During the initial analysis carried out for restoration, a consensus of historians and architects agreed that most of the existing courthouse structure was built in 1926, thus this was chosen as the date of significance and all decisions regarding the restoration referred to it. The courthouse exterior, composed almost entirely of stone, required a repair philosophy as well, a determination that prompted restorers to preserve as much of the original material as possible. The oldest portions of the building were the most deteriorated and, in some places, architectural stone masonry was in danger of detaching and collapsing onto the heads of pedestrians below.
Today, however, the courthouse stands with its structural integrity intact, able to serve Bexar County citizenry through its third century and, gratefully, completely air-conditioned throughout.
Bexar County Courthouse