A courthouse screening

After a $65 million makeover, the historic Harris County Courthouse becomes a movie star

After a $65 million makeover, the historic Harris County Courthouse becomes a movie star

When more than 30,000 people first treaded up the pink granite steps of the Harris County Courthouse on Texas Independence Day, March 2, 1910, they were welcomed by an awe-inspiring five-story atrium crowned by a stained glass dome and a double-height courtroom with a mezzanine.

Gray marble from a quarry near Tate, Ga., mantled the sides of a grand double stairwell. The same stone veiled columns that rose toward the skylight. Dignitaries were fascinated by the shapes and forms imagined by contemplating the marblings in the rock. 

Geometric mosaic floors, plaster moldings and handcrafted ornaments broadcast that inside this facility important business was conducted everyday, including approximately one third of the litigations in the state.

It had elevators, separate rooms for white citizens, black citizens and women. 

The courthouse, designed Charles Erwin Barglebaugh, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, and Land and Witchell of Dallas, cost $500,000 to erect at the time. A 1954 renovation covered, destroyed and ignored much of the details that experts felt represented the spirit of the largest county in Texas.

The 1910 Harris County Courthouse reopened in 2011 after the completion of a multi-year, $65 million capital campaign that restored this building to its former splendor.

 "It's hard to believe it looks as beautiful as it does today. Most people had forgotten those details existed."

A new documentary by the Texas Foundation for the Arts, produced by Kim Lykins and Jim Bailey, chronicles the origins, wretched 1950s makeover and renewal of the historic "temple of justice." The 1910 Harris County Courthouse is set to premiere on HoustonPBS Ch. 8 on Sunday at 5:30 p.m., with an encore presentation on Monday at 10 p.m.

"I was in there several times for jury duty before the renovation began, and it was always very dowdy, very depressing," Bailey says about the dark wood panels, florescent lighting, suspended ceilings, air conditioning and the 28 auxiliary court rooms plus structural add-ons post 1950, all of which were annexed to accommodate the growing demands of an already stressed courthouse.

"It's hard to believe it looks as beautiful as it does today."

For the film, period photos and images were sourced from the Harris County Archives and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library. Little footage of the early days of the courthouse existed as judges didn't allow cameras in the courtrooms until more recent times, Lykins explains.

"Having a traditional courthouse square is reminiscent of so many counties in Texas, and we saw quite a few when filming our three-part PBS series The Golden Age of Texas Courthouses," she continues. "The courthouse was a hub of activity for emerging towns and cities 100 years ago, and towns grew up alongside their courthouses. There's a sense of place for each courthouse square, Harris County included."

Filming for the documentary started in 2004, before physical restoration efforts began in 2007. The producers biggest surprise was seeing original architectural features that had been covered up for more than six decades.  

"As with any historic structure, the ghosts of so many people who went before are all around."

"Most people had forgotten those details existed," Bailey says. "During the past nine years we have filmed more than 125 of the 254 county courthouses in Texas.

"So it was very rewarding to the see the historic Harris County Courthouse restored to its original glory. It speaks for the importance of the law."

Twenty hours of interviews entwine to tell the story in this 30-minute documentary, among them Harris County archivist Sarah Canby Jackson, Fulbright & Jaworski attorney Frank Jones, PGAL senior project manager Ruben Martinez, historic preservationist Anna Mod, Preservation Houston's Jim Parsons, Harris County architect Dan Reissig, architect Kim Williams and retired 127th District Judge Sharolyn Wood.

Personal accounts are fused with historical data to reconstruct the building's journey.

"People who work in the restored courthouse have real pride about working there," Lykins says. "And those affiliated with Harris County who were involved with the restoration process remember 'what was,' and they almost have a reverence for the way it is now. They feel a strong sense of the history of the building."

That pride is the rationale for a sneak peek screening in the courthouse scheduled for 4:45 p.m. Wednesday (RSVP required).

"Being able to show our film in the large north courtroom means a lot to me as we are now part of the history of this 102-year-old building," Lykins says.

"As with any historic structure, the ghosts of so many people who went before are all around."

Harris County Courthouse, remodel
Just one of the special touches of the courthouse. Photo by Jim Parsons/Preservation Houston
Harris County Courthouse, 1910
Harris County 1910 Courthouse before renovation efforts. Photo by WhisperToMe/Wikipedia
Sneak peek documentary screening: <i>The 1910 Harris County Courthouse</i>
The 1910 Harris County Courthouse is set to premiere on HoustonPBS Ch. 8 on Sunday at 5:30 p.m., with an encore presentation on Monday at 10 p.m.
Harris County Courthouse, remodel
Harris County Courthouse, 1910
Harris County Courthouse, remodel
Harris County Courthouse, remodel
Harris County Courthouse, remodel
Sneak peek documentary screening: <i>The 1910 Harris County Courthouse</i>
Harris County Courthouse, remodel
Harris County Courthouse, remodel