July 27, 2022 1002 PM
MARFA — At the June 6 meeting of the Presidio County Commissioners Court, William Helm of In*Situ Architecture in El Paso gave a presentation on potential upgrades to the Presidio County Courthouse and Jail. The presentation was the latest in a series of discussions on how to upgrade the historic structures, which have electrical and air conditioning systems that have fallen out of code since the last major renovation in 2002.
County employees complained to Helm that the elevator — which makes the courthouse’s famous cupola and art deco courtroom lighting accessible to all — chronically gets stuck. “We’re trying not only to make the elevator more functional than it is today, but also to make it fully compliant with current elevator code,” Helm said. The commissioners could opt for an all-new system, but Helm advised that the elevator could be safely rehabbed using the existing car and rails.
The courthouse’s air conditioning system was also redone as a part of the renovations 20 years ago, but is already facing the challenges of aging. “It really is approaching the end of its lifespan, if not already past its lifespan,” Helm advised. The system also does not use air flow from the outside, which is a violation of current code. Instead of the existing old-school chiller and boiler system that runs on water, the system pitched by Helm uses refrigerant, cutting costs and allowing for more customizable heating and cooling options throughout the building.
Staff across the street at the Presidio County Jail have also complained of a leaky roof. At a commissioners court meeting back in October, County Clerk Florcita Zubia raised the alarm about the potential impact of rainwater on county archival materials housed in the building. “Your jail roof has a lot of issues related not to its age but to incorrect installation,” Helm explained. He advised a partial rebuild, peeling back the roof to its wooden deck in problem areas and replacing them as needed. “Obviously, replacing a roof on an active jail is a difficult endeavor,” he said.
Making improvements to the courthouse and jail while respecting their historical integrity will hopefully help Presidio County residents preserve a slice of their history. The distinctive pink courthouse — the tallest building in town — is recognizable enough that it has earned spoofs on The Simpsons and the popular blog Accidentally Wes Anderson, dedicated to real-life places that invoke the director’s signature twee style. Though the courthouse has become a visual shorthand for its quirky hometown, the county seat wasn’t always in Marfa.
Back in the 19th century, Presidio County also included what’s now Brewster and Jeff Davis counties. The first county seat was established at Fort Leaton just south of Presidio. In 1880, the seat was moved to Fort Davis. This second-generation Presidio County Courthouse was nicknamed the “Bat Cave Courthouse,” perhaps in homage to Fort Davis’s first jail — “a bat infested cellar under a house,” according to the Texas Historical Commission.
By May of 1883 — barely three years after its construction — county commissioners deemed the “Bat Cave Courthouse” unfit for use. According to a paper by Presidio County native Nancy Edwards, around the time the Fort Davis Courthouse was rapidly falling into disrepair, a lawyer from El Paso moved to Marfa and had the county records moved there from Fort Davis — in part to save them from the rickety structure, but also because he felt moving the county seat would increase the value of his new investment.
Edwards was a teenager when she wrote her paper “My Land, My Heritage, My Hope,” which was eventually chosen as a feature presentation at the Junior Historical Society annual meeting in Austin. Little did she know, her presentation — and accompanying photographic slideshow — would play a huge role in preserving a striking early image of the courthouse.
The photo was part of the collection of Lee Bennett, a legendary Marfa High School history teacher who encouraged local kids to connect the dots between Big Bend history and their own families. An archive of Bennett’s high school students’ work was digitized and made public by the University of North Texas. Since then, the image of the courthouse — a grand building that predates Marfa’s bustling downtown — has been widely shared as a testament to the stark desolation of the local landscape.
In his 1976 petition to the National Register of Historic Places, Willard Robinson, a professor of architecture at Texas Tech University vividly captured the photo in print: “Located on a flat plain with no vegetation except grasses, the courthouse along with a jail presented a lonely appearance when they were completed. There were no other structures of consequence near them and the streets were as yet mostly undefined,” he wrote.
Robinson’s petition goes on to explain the architectural significance of the courthouse. San Antonio-based architect Alfred Giles won a bidding war for the project in 1886; the building’s mix of Italianate and Second Empire styles is typical of 19th century architects’ taste for mash-ups. It was built of local brick and stone that were left exposed until 1929, when the building was stuccoed its signature salmon color. “It is one of the finest examples of 19th century architecture extant in the Marfa area,” Robinson wrote.
In*Situ Architecture’s suggestions for this latest renovation are just preliminary, offering estimated costs for each option that a potential contractor might charge. Because the courthouse is a protected historical site, keeping the building as intact as possible is a top priority. “We’re trying to limit the disturbance of building operations and of historic building finishes,” Helm explained.