May 13, 2024 - Politics

Restoration in works for Travis County Courthouse

A photo of two people sitting at a desk.

Heman Sweatt looks at paperwork in the Registration Office at the University of Texas. Photo by Neal Douglass via Austin History Center

An art deco building that played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement locally could soon get a makeover.

Why it matters: The Travis County Courthouse on Guadalupe Street downtown is where Heman Marion Sweatt, a Black postal worker from Houston, brought a 1946 lawsuit against the University of Texas to force it to integrate after he was denied admission to the law school on the basis of his race.

Driving the news: Citing the historic case, county commissioners this week will ask the Texas Historical Commission for $10 million toward the restoration and rehabilitation of the courthouse, built in 1931.

  • It's likely the first step in a long process to bring the courthouse back to its one-time art deco glory — and probably update it.
  • As part of the application, the county has pledged to throw in $5.7 million toward the project.

Dig in: The county wants to restore doors and windows, replace wiring and plumbing and remove:

  • Dropped, acoustic-tile-style ceilings;
  • Non-original floor finishes, such as carpeting;
  • And infill floor levels, such as cubby spaces and small rooms.

Worth mentioning: The 126th District courtroom, where the Sweatt v. Painter trial took place, is envisioned as a ceremonial courtroom, with an interpretive gallery space located across the corridor.

Flashback: "There is not the slightest danger of any Negro attending the University of Texas, regardless of what Franklin D., Eleanor, or the Supreme Court says, so long as you have a Board of Regents with as much intestinal fortitude as the present one has," Orville Bullington, a member of the board, said in 1944.

  • After Sweatt sued, a Travis trial judge allowed the state to establish a temporary law school to give him a separate education.
  • "It is fairly obvious that the Negroes are determined to make it as embarrassing as possible and as expensive as possible for us to maintain separate institutions for the two races," UT president Theophilus Painter wrote in 1948 to the chair of the board of regents.
  • Texas Attorney General Grover Sellers promised that Sweatt would "never darken the door of the University of Texas."

Yes, but: Pre-figuring the Brown v. Board of Education suit, the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Sweatt in 1950.

  • The justices held that the faculty, reputation and facilities of the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes were unequal to those at UT.
  • The Travis County Courthouse is now named for Sweatt.

Follow the money: Total future construction costs could top $120 million, per the grant application.

  • The greatest threat to the building is moisture infiltration, which has already led to some deterioration of masonry and floors.

What they're saying: "I've always admired architecture of the past because it indicates where we have been," longtime Travis County commissioner Margaret Gómez, whose office sponsored the grant application, tells Axios. "It certainly shows us how far we have changed to get to the present."

Zoom in: The 2022 Alex Jones defamation case also played out at the Travis County Courthouse.

  • Travis County civil and family courts now operate out of a new building on 1700 Guadalupe.

What's next: County officials expect to hear back from the Historical Commission this summer about whether their grant application is successful.

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