Architects, engineers continue to meet about courthouse preservation

 

Plans to restore the Van Zandt County Courthouse continue to move forward as architects and engineers from around the area and the state have been meeting.

Texas Historical Commission Architect James J. Malanaphy of Austin along with architects Michael D. Barham, Lowrie Floyd of Tyler and Jeffrey Lee Basehore of Edom visited and toured each room of the five-story courthouse July 19 and have been meeting on a regular basis since then, according to VZC Pct. 4 Commissioner Tim West.

“When you receive a grant through the Texas Historical Commission, they assign an architect to you and Mr. Malanaphy will be here about every two weeks to meet with our architects and engineers so that everyone stays on the right path,” emphasized West in an August 2 interview. “Wharry Engineering designed our courthouse that was built in 1937. Our architects and engineers along with Mr. Malanaphy went into every room on all five levels of the courthouse and did measurements and took pictures. They redrew the plans to see how they compare with what was here originally. Actually, our courthouse has had very few interior changes since 1937.”

The restoration plans of the courthouse gained momentum following the unanimous approval by the VZC Commissioners Court July 11 to approve funding for a planning grant and the hiring of architects as part of the VZC Courthouse Preservation process.

The planning grant received was for around $600,000 from the Texas Historical Commission of which the state will pay 50 percent and VZC will pay 50 percent, according to West.

During the July 11 meeting of the commissioners’ court, West estimated that the total cost to restore the courthouse would be in the neighborhood of $5-$6 million.

“The state historical commission every two years, through the state legislature, funds so many dollars that goes towards the planning and rebuilding of county courthouses in the state that are at least 50 years old,” said West in the July 11 meeting.

The county has also applied for a full restoration grant for the courthouse. If that grant is approved, the state will pay 85 percent of the costs while the county would be responsible for 15 percent.

West said that the biggest interior changes in the courthouse were found on the second floor when VZC was  given a County Court at Law which led to the tax assessor-collector’s office being moved to Highway 64.

“The only other change of any note was when we had to put in a handicapped entrance on the east side of the courthouse on ground level,” said West.

An engineer recently visited the courthouse to identify any asbestos issues, according to West. “Some of the pipes are wrapped in asbestos and some of the original flooring has asbestos in it,” pointed out West. “This is nothing to be alarmed about. You can overlay the floor tile. No asbestos was found in any of the walls.”

Two of the largest costs that will be involved in the courthouse preservation project will be the air conditioning and the electrical systems, according to the VZC Pct. 4 commissioner.

“In these old buildings like this one that have solid masonry walls, there is no place to run any electrical lines inside of them,” pointed out West. “We have a lot of exposed wiring in the building that will have to be addressed. We will go back to a central system.”

When the architects and the engineers had their first meeting July 19, West said that they spent some time together talking over what they wanted to look at before touring each room of the courthouse.

“Mr. Malanaphy told our architects and engineers what he needed to see,” said West. “They have been back two to three times since that initial meeting July 19. Fortunately, we still have the original floor plans for each floor in the courthouse and they have been studying those plans.”

West said that the top floor, the fifth floor, which used to be the jail, could be redone for office space use but there will have to be some significant changes done before that could happen.

“We will have to have a staircase coming down from the fifth floor,” emphasized West. “The new safety laws require that you must have two exits out of every floor not including an elevator. Right now, we only have one set of stairs that only goes from the fifth floor to the fourth floor.”

The fourth floor of the courthouse was used for juries that were sequestered and lived but it is now being used for file storage by the VZC District Clerk’s office, according to West.

“The fourth and fifth floors are currently not conditioned space (heat and air),” said West. “That is not good for keeping records. We now are having all of our records electronically saved. Those two floors eventually will be conditioned space. The state would love for us to leave in a couple of the jail cells just to serve as a reminder of what was once on the fifth floor. People in the sheriff’s department have told me that it would be nice to have a couple of cells available to use for arraignments but I am not sure that is going to happen.”

The process of finalizing the plans for the courthouse renovation should be completed by mid-October, according to West.

“After the final plans are submitted to the state historical commission, the next step will be getting into the costs,” said West, who is also a member of the VZC Historical Commission. “Overall, it may take the better part of a year to finalize the plans and the costs of this project. Updates on what has already occurred have been submitted to the Texas Historical Commission.”

So far as the grant process is concerned, West is hoping to hear from the Texas Legislature during their next regular session which begins in Jan. 2019.

“It may be Jan. 2020 before we really know about our grant request,” pointed out West. “I feel real good about our possibilities. We have applied for a full grant during the past two sessions and we did not receive a grant.”

The grant process involves answering a series of 21 questions, according to West. “One question addresses the age of the building,” said West. “Ours was built in 1937 but there are several courthouses in the State of Texas that were built in the 1890’s so they get a lot more points than we do. There is nothing we can do about that. Most of those courthouses have already received grants.”

VZC will be responsible for 15 percent of the costs when the full restoration grant is awarded. “We will put up the 15 percent but you do get more points from the state if you are willing to put up more money than that,” emphasized West. “Fannin County got a grant this past year and they received lot of points because of that. Their courthouse was condemned. They were not even using it. The total cost to redo their courthouse was around $16 million. The state’s maximum match is $6 million. Fannin County had to put up $10 million and they agreed to do that.”

The grant process also requires that a courthouse renovation project must begin within a year after the grant has been awarded and must be completed within a two-year period, according to West.

“We already have the planning grant,” said West. “All the county has to spend on that particular grant will offset part of that 15 percent on the full restoration grant which will help a lot.”

West said that he has been pleased so far with the work that has been done and is looking forward to seeing the process continue.

“I just don’t want people to get discouraged,” summarized West. “Right now, there is a lot of planning going on. Our courthouse structurally is good. It is just in bad need of repair.”