Resiliency is a remarkable trait, a characteristic strength inherent in both the Texas legacy and its citizenry. It could also be used to describe what is perhaps at the heart of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program, a strategic alliance between local communities and the Texas Historical Commission designed to rescue, preserve and restore some of most important historical monuments of early Texas civility. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in Newton County, site of one of the most dramatic Texas courthouse restoration projects in the modern age.
A three-story, Second Empire structure built in 1903, the Newton County courthouse’s best features included masonry walls of hand-made brick, an attractive, four-faced clock and bell tower, and a stucco finish that provided a pleasing contrast to the red brick façade. The popular Second Empire design reflected the influences of a 19th century Napoleon France, a somewhat surprising choice for a turn-of-the-century work of architecture. But the courthouse was a classic of the design, featuring a steep, dual-pitched hipped roof with cresting ironwork. The architect, William Martin, and his contractor/partner Peter Moodie, were responsible for a number of Texas government buildings, including the Comanche County jail and the Irion County courthouse, across the state.
The Newton County courthouse structure had been altered since its completion, including the addition of an annex, a jail, and a stucco exterior coating in 1936. The interior had been altered several times as well, first in 1919 then again in 1925 and finally a renovation in the 1970’s that significantly compromised the historical integrity of the original courthouse design. Restoration work began in 1999, but within the year the project would require far more than expected.
On the evening of August 4, 2000, Newton County citizens witnessed a conflagration erupting inside the courthouse attic. According to the official report, faulty wiring near the bell tower ignited a fire that burned through the roofs, compromising the structural integrity of the attic’s wooden frame. During the fire, the entire wooden structure of the attic, roofs, and bell tower collapsed into the center of the courthouse, bringing down the wood frame floors of both the third and second stories with it. By the time the flames were under control the fire had destroyed most of the courthouse above the first floor along with many county records and documents.
Undeterred, Newton County citizens and THC forged ahead, performing a re-analysis of the restoration that provided a workable template for restoring the courthouse to its 1937 iteration. Work proceeded, including the return of the beloved clock tower. Fortunately, tower dimensions were taken for the project pre-fire and, together with historic photographs, enabled an accurate reproduction including the clock faces and the bell.
Despite a devastating setback, Newton County citizens rededicated their restored courthouse in 2012.
Newton County Courthouse
Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.