Phoenix Rising: Destroyed Hill County Courthouse Emerges From the Ashes

By Mary Alice Robbins
Texas Lawyer
April 18, 2005

It took a fire to save the Hill County Courthouse that towers above the historic district in downtown Hillsboro.

Designed by architect W.C. Dodson and built in 1890, the massive three-story limestone structure with its 70-foot clock tower that housed a 1,525-pound bell had undergone numerous modernizations that threatened to rob the courthouse of its Victorian-era charm. Hillsboro solo Lee Harris says every room in the courthouse had been painted lime green, and a drop ceiling installed in the two-story 66th District Courtroom had blocked the balcony that overlooks that courtroom.

But then a fire, started by an electrical short, swept through the courthouse on the night of Jan. 1, 1993, destroying the interior and much of the exterior. Although the fire left most of the walls standing, the clock tower collapsed through the roof, leaving the bell sticking through the ceiling of the district courtroom, says Stan Graves, architecture division director at the Texas Historical Commission (THC).

"It was a lemon that night, but it turned into lemonade," Hillsboro attorney James Showers says of the fire.

"It's by far in better shape than it was when it burned," Hill County Judge Kenneth Davis says of the courthouse.

However, this phoenix didn't just rise from the ashes. It took hard work, some heavy-duty politicking and a little help from one of Hill County's most famous native sons to restore the courthouse to its late 19th-century splendor.

Tommy J. Walker, county judge at the time of the fire, says some Hill County residents didn't want to rebuild the courthouse, because they thought it was too old.

Showers, a partner in Martin, Showers, Smith & McDonald, says that the people who opposed rebuilding wanted to replace the more than 100-year-old structure with "a modern, more convenient courthouse." But supporters of the courthouse finally won that debate, he says.

"I promised the people that it was going to get rebuilt if we had to have a cake bake sale on the courthouse lawn," Walker says.

It would have taken a lot of cake to pay for the approximately $9 million to $10 million in building costs that it took to restore the courthouse, Showers says. The county had $3.5 million in insurance on the building, he says.

As it turned out, Showers played a key role in getting the fund-raising started. Showers says he received a call from country singer Willie Nelson's good friend Zeke Varnon, who told him that Nelson, who grew up in the small Hill County town of Abbott, was upset about the courthouse fire and wanted to do a benefit concert to help raise money to rebuild the facility. Varnon also said that Nelson wanted Showers to organize the concert.

"I said I'd do it if Willie asked me to," Showers recalls. "A few days later, I was at home and the phone rang. It was Willie."

After Nelson called and personally asked him to coordinate the concert, Showers says he felt he had to do it. He and a young associate formerly with his firm spent the next three months working on the concert, Showers says.

"That's all we did for three months," he says. "I had to put off [trial] settings."

Making arrangements for Nelson's March 28, 1993, "Blaze to Glory" concert included obtaining a permit to sell beer in a dry county, persuading a Burger King franchise owner to provide burgers for the concert, making arrangements with a heavy equipment company to donate generators to power the light show for the concert and working with numerous other businesses to set up the event, Showers says.

After the courthouse opened in the spring of 1999, Nelson made another trip to Hillsboro for a second concert, "Return to Glory," to once again benefit the courthouse restoration project.

Showers says he knew from the beginning that the $200,000 to $300,000 that Nelson raised would not pay for much of the rebuilding costs. But he says the concert money helped with promotions, fund-raising and grant-writing for the project, and it brought international attention to the courthouse.

Mike Cox, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, says his agency provided $3 million for the courthouse project. The money came to Texas through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, which included federal funds for the preservation of historical sites. Graves says the THC also awarded a Preservation Trust Fund grant of $5,000 for the project, and Walker says the county received many private donations.

Obtaining funding for the project wasn't the only problem. Graves says that when the courthouse in Hillsboro burned, only a few photographs of the building existed, and there were no blueprints to be found.

"In some ways, it raised awareness of the frailty of these old courthouses," Graves says.

Graves says that in 1995, the THC began a two-year project to document 55 of the oldest courthouses in Texas, gathering as many historical photographs and other documents as it could find. He says the Hill County Courthouse became a symbol for the THC's Courthouse Preservation Program, which began in 1999.

Larry Irsik, a principal in the restoration architectural firm of ArchiTexas and project architect for the courthouse in Hillsboro, says the exterior of the building, which blends Second Empire, Italianate and Classical styles, looks much like the courthouse did when it was built. Architects had two historic photos of the courthouse, shot quite a distance from the building, and an aerial photo made in the 1980s that allowed them to see where the pitches of the mansard roof — a steep, vertical roof — had been, Irsik says. When Hill County officials installed a composite roof over the courthouse's pressed metal shingle roof in the 1980s, the roofer made photographs of the sheet metal profiles and detailing, he says.

"We had the contractor bring out every single scrap [of sheet metal] after the fire and tagged each piece," Irsik says. "We had to put those together like a puzzle. Then we had to match the elements to the photos we had."

What was lacking, Irsik says, were photos and blueprints that architects could use in redoing the interior of the courthouse. Irsik says architects used the Hood County Courthouse in Granbury, also designed by Dodson and opened in 1891, as a reference for hinges and other details on the interior of the courthouse in Hillsboro.

Some of the finishes on the inside of the Hill County structure are not historical, and the interior has more of a "contemporary feel," Irsik says. For example, long leaf pine, although not in the courthouse originally, was used throughout the structure as part of the renovations, he says.

Davis says the long leaf pine used for the floors in the county and district courtrooms came from the Texas Capitol. Two Hill County contractors had purchased the lumber following a restoration of the Capitol, Davis says. "They still had it on hand when the courthouse burned," he adds.

Among the most notable features of the restored courthouse are its stained glass windows. Irsik says workers had a historic photo that showed the window design had two different colors, but they were unable to tell what the colors were. "We matched exactly the design," he says. "I don't know if we have the colors right."

Also of note is the courthouse's cave-like basement, where workers finished excavating under the entire structure and left the limestone walls unadorned.

Walker, the former county judge, says the courthouse's new 998-pound bell, donated by Taco Bell, caused quite a stir when it was delivered to the county from The Netherlands, where it had been cast. Someone asked him if he had noticed the misspelling of the word "January" in the date of the fire inscribed on the bell, Walker says. The word had been spelled "Januari."

"I said that it would be 170 feet off the ground, and no one would crawl up in the bell tower to look at it," Walker says.

County officials found out later that the Dutch had not misspelled the name of the month. "Januari is how they spell January in Holland," Walker says, chuckling at the memory.

Harris, who is a specially appointed felony prosecutor for Hill County, says courthouse workers spent six-and-a-half years working in a former five-and-dime building in Hillsboro while the restoration project was under way and were happy to move back into the historic building in May 1999. However, he says a hailstorm in March 2000 broke out more than 100 windows and ruined the new roof of the courthouse.

"We were only in here 10 months until we were back covered with scaffolding," Harris says.

Clyde Barrow Trial

Those who work in the renovated courthouse appreciate not only its beauty but also its history.

"It's been a fascinating place to work," says Judge F.B. "Bob" McGregor Jr., judge of the 66th District Court.

Not far from McGregor's second-floor office is a window that opens onto the balcony, where well-known speakers once addressed crowds who gathered on the courthouse lawn. Davis, the current county judge, says famous speakers who stood on that balcony include former President Lyndon B. Johnson, former U.S. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and William Jennings Bryan, a three-time unsuccessful Democratic nominee for president and a prosecutor in the 1925 trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school.

Among the most talked about trials in the Hill County Courthouse were those of Raymond Hamilton, a member of the Depression-era Barrow Gang. It took two trials before a jury sentenced Hamilton to life in prison for the murder of Hillsboro jeweler and service station owner J.N. Bucher during a late-night robbery on April 30, 1932.

Dick McMahan, a Whitney resident who is writing a book about the Bucher murder, says Hamilton shot Bucher to death. According to a March 20, 1933, order signed by then-66th District Court Judge Walter Wray, the first trial in State v. Hamilton ended in a mistrial after the jury could not agree on the verdict.

Now 73, McMahan says he doesn't have personal memories of Hamilton's trials but recalls vividly people talking about them for years afterward. He says Hillsboro residents were nervous about having Hamilton in the local jail, because Clyde Barrow — of Bonnie and Clyde fame — allegedly was with Hamilton during the Bucher robbery.

"The whole town was convinced that Clyde Barrow was going to break Raymond Hamilton out of jail in Hillsboro, and everybody was on edge," he says.

McMahan says Hamilton did escape from jail, but without Barrow's help, and was recaptured between Hillsboro and Whitney after enjoying only about three hours of freedom.

Sam Allred, Hill County's district attorney at the time, retried Hamilton in May 1933. As noted in court minutes of that trial, the jury found Hamilton "guilty of murder with malice of forethought" and sentenced him to life in prison.

McMahan says that in 1934, Barrow, Bonnie Parker and other members of the gang broke Hamilton out of the Eastham Unit near Crockett. Hamilton shot and killed a prison guard, Major Crowson, and was sent to the electric chair for that murder, he says.

Barrow also was tried in the Hill County Courthouse. According to Sept. 15, 1930, minutes of the 66th District Court, a jury found the outlaw guilty of burglary in State v. Barrow and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Hill County District Clerk Charlotte Barr says the 1993 fire destroyed many courthouse records but the court minutes escaped destruction, because those records had been stored in the district clerk's vaults. Barr says she ran across the records of Barrow's sentencing while looking for genealogical records.

Notes Barr, "Every now and then it happens that we find these case files."