San Antonio: Fisher Heck Unveils Restored 19th Century Bexar Courtroom
Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange
San Antonio – Any civil practice lawyer who did business at Presiding Court in the Bexar County Courthouse in the 1990s would not recognize the room today.
Fisher Heck Architects, with the help of an extensive design team and a long list of experienced contractors, restored the courtroom to its original 1896 grandeur.
The difference is mind-boggling.
Presiding Court–as it existed throughout the late 20th century and the first decade of this century–was a shriveled and dingy version of its former self.
Double doors that once led directly into the courtroom instead opened into a crowded little hall that had an entrance to the court on the right. Much of the original court’s footprint had been walled off and turned into offices along the entire length of the north, west and south walls.
Presiding Court itself was a chronically overcrowded room every morning of the work week. Dark wood paneling and drab painted walls sapped color from the room, almost enclosing visitors in a scene from the black and white 1957 court drama “Twelve Angry Men.”
A few unkempt windows behind the judge’s bench barely let in light. And several oddly placed steel columns standing just outside the south wall seemed entirely out of context.
Photo by Adolfo Pesquera
Those oddly placed columns, it turns out, held up a long ago hidden balcony where blacks were segregated during court hearings of a bygone era.
David Hannan Jr., a principal at Fisher Heck, stood in the fully restored court Monday, ready to walk San Antonio chapter members of the American Institute of Architects through the story of its rediscovery.
The idea for this restoration originated in a facility master plan the county developed back in 1999, Hannan said, but Fisher Heck was not involved until four years ago. Funds were raised through the Texas Historical Commission, county taxpayers and the County Commission’s Hidalgo Foundation.
Presiding Court is one of several recent or ongoing Bexar County Courthouse restoration projects. The Hidalgo Foundation estimates total project costs at $23 million. Alamo Architects is managing the red sandstone restoration of the west wall, said Fish Heck co-founder Lewis Fisher.
As Hannan explained, restoring the courtroom to its original features required considerable research and many educated guesses. The original architectural plans no longer existed. There was a single surviving photograph of the interior; it was taken by a photographer for the San Antonio Express-News from one corner of the balcony and it gave a grainy, narrow view of the center to northwest section of the courtroom floor during a trial.
Photo by Adolfo Pesquera
Fisher Heck’s other resource was a set of architectural plans from a 1926 demolition project that showed what was to be removed.
Understating the challenge, Hannan said, “We were missing elevations.”
The restoration began by meticulously tearing out the walls and pulling down one ceiling after another. The low acoustic tile ceiling was removed to reveal a plaster ceiling. The plaster ceiling hid the original double-height ceiling.
Windows that had been bricked in and plastered over were rediscovered, including a series of decorative rose windows that were re-created by relying on outlines left in the masonry. Hannan said.
Huge beams criss-crossed the ceiling, Fisher said. However, the only true structural beams ran north-south. The east-west beams were hollow and in place to enhance the decorative Romanesque Revival features.
The ornamental fluted columns were gone. Fisher Heck turned to other works by the original architect, James Riely Gordon. He designed two other Texas courthouses and the Arizona State Capitol shortly after. Armed with those details and the head of a column found in a Bexar Courthouse attic–the design team felt confident their reproductions would be historically accurate.
The general contractor, Joeris, and subcontractors were jointly decided upon by Fisher Heck and Bexar Facilities and Parks Department.
EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York City was hired to do the plaster work, which was one of the most detail-oriented tasks in the restoration.
“They had a lot of experience restoring decorative plaster throughout the country,” Hannan said.
As with every other decorative feature, most of the cornice work was gone. But a few sections that had not fallen away gave the designers what they needed to regenerate that visual, he said.
Fisher noted that the original gold tint on the cornice work used a gold mica that oxidized over time to brown. Gold leaf was used in the restoration to assure the color stays true over time.
The wood flooring came from 1880s timber taken from the old Joske’s Department Store at Alamo and Commerce streets. The 19th century lumber was milled and given new life.
Photo by Adolfo Pesquera
The design team was able to accurately estimate the position of the original lighting because original conduit was found over the ceiling. But of course, some restoration work involved new technology.
The lighting is LED and the judge’s bench, which doubles as the commissioners’ panel, has a movable platform installed by Lift-U. The platform moves because judges prefer to sit above the other court officers, but county commissioners consider themselves equals, Fisher explained.
The court is intended primarily as the new home of the commissioners, but will also be used for high-profile cases, the Bail Bond Board, and can be rented for social events.
Another innovation was the heating-cooling system. Rather than go with a conventional HVAC, the team opted for a Japanese-style variable refrigerant flow system. Because of the ceiling height, the only practical position for air vents was below the second-level seating of the balcony.
According to Johnson Controls, VRF systems deliver comfort with refrigerant through small pipes. They use about half the ceiling space required for conventional HVAC unit ductwork, allowing greater architectural freedom.
In addition to Fisher Heck and the county, the design team included ESA Mechanical & Electrical Engineering Inc., Lundy & Franke Engineering Inc., The Lighting Practice Inc., BAi LLC, Aon Fire Protection Engineering Corp., Center for Legal & Court Technology, Wiss Janney Elstner Associates Inc., historian Maria Pfeiffer, and Texas AirSystems.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.