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Restoration coming for Corpus Christi Courthouse

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S.A. firm picked to rehab historic Corpus Christi landmark

W. Scott Bailey

For decades, countless motorists entering Corpus Christi from Interstate Highway 37 or the Harbor Bridge have looked to their left and marveled at one particularly grand -- yet obviously forgotten -- structure, wondering what it once was.

Finally, 26 years after it was abandoned, a San Antonio firm has been tapped to begin the initial phase of what is expected to be a $20 million restoration of the old Nueces County Courthouse into a new museum.

Nueces County Commissioners have selected Stoddard Construction Co. to begin rehabilitation work on the 89-year-old courthouse structure that rests in the heart of Corpus Christi but has been closed since 1977. Stoddard will oversee the initial phase of restoration and rehabilitation work on the 78,000-square-foot, six-story building at a cost of roughly $3 million.

Officials involved in the undertaking say phase one will take two years to complete. Work will include returning the old courthouse to its original state by removing partitions, walls and materials added since the building's original construction in 1914. Crews will also erect a new roof and additional weatherproofing.

One of the more complex facets of the restoration project will be the removal of more than 1,200 pieces of brick and terra cotta tiles from the building's south wing exterior. Project officials say a third of those tiles will have to be replaced, while the rest will be carefully cleaned and repaired by a California firm, one of only a handful of companies in the world that do such work.

"They are very qualified for this project and we are really excited about the opportunity to work with Stoddard," says project architect Brooke Sween-McGloin of Corpus Christi firm McGloin & Sween.

Sween-McGloin says a contract between the county and the San Antonio firm still needs to be finalized. But she expects there to be no problems. Her firm drafted the plans for the restoration effort and also helped county commissioners select Stoddard.

Stoddard has three decades of restoration experience, including work on high-profile projects such as the General Land Office in Austin, which took a year and a half to complete and cost roughly $4 million. In San Antonio, the firm did restoration work on the historic Exchange Building and the Tower of the Americas.

"You can imagine how excited we are," says Stoddard Vice President Keith Stoddard. "Like a lot of folks, we've looked at that building for years and wondered why nothing had been done to it."

Sween-McGloin says Stoddard was the clear choice among the four firms that submitted bids. None of those firms, she says, were based in Corpus Christi. She does add that some of the dozen or more subcontractors that will be working with Stoddard could come from the Coastal Bend region.

High hopes

Corpus Christi officials want to invest $20 million into full restoration of the old courthouse and then convert it into a major destination.

The intent," says Sween-McGloin, "is to turn it into a science and technology museum for kids."

She says the project would be modeled after the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is situated in a building constructed one year after the Nueces County Courthouse opened in 1914 -- with a construction price tag at the time of $250,000. Some sources say full restoration of the courthouse could take as long as 10 years to complete.

"We hope to remain involved (until completion)," says Sween-McGloin. "Time will tell. I do know that we probably know more about this building than anyone."

Asked if Stoddard could play a continuing role in later phases of restoration work, Sween-McGloin says, "I'm not sure. But our firm and Stoddard will definitely have a leg up."

Says Stoddard, "There's an excellent chance we will remain involved. Part of the reason we got the first phase is because we got this thing going as a team effort and because of our qualifications."

Stoddard adds that the full restoration could be completed in as few as five years and that the museum could go in a year sooner.

Some tourist-related businesses in Corpus Christi have complained recently about a drop in visitors. The museum could lure more people to the area.

"The museum will help the local populace," explains Sween-McGloin. "But it will also give more visitors a reason to come and stay an extra day."

Years of decay

Almost from the outset, the historic courthouse has suffered at the hands of mother nature.

"It's been rusting and corroding since 1914 because of all the iron it was built with," says Sween-McGloin.

She adds that a 1957 bond election that would have provided the funds to repair and maintain the facility failed.

"It wasn't a sexy enough reason to spend money," she says.

Storms have also left their mark on the structure, which is owned by Nueces County but was abandoned in 1977 when commissioners moved into a new facility a few blocks away. One of those storms, Hurricane Celia, blew into the area in 1970 with winds topping out at more than 160 miles per hour.

"A major portion of the building's facade fell off as a result of Celia," explains Sween-McGloin.

Although the courthouse has remained vacant since 1977, there have been suitors who have looked to do something with the large eye-catching landmark.

In 1979, developer Charles Bennett III purchased the structure. In 1992, Justice Building Inc., which was headed by Corpus Christi businessman Dusty Durrill, took over the title.

In 1999, the Corpus Christi City Council voted to help the Devary Durrill Foundation and Justice Building Inc. seek a $16 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation in an effort to convert the structure into a transportation history museum. Three years later, the Texas Historical Commission came through with a $2 million emergency restoration grant for the old courthouse.

Finally, last month, Nueces County Commissioners, after taking back the building, awarded the phase-one restoration project to Stoddard. In addition to the $1.9 million received from the Texas Historical Commission, project officials say nearly $800,000 in private donations have been committed to restoring the building's south wing.

Stoddard knows there have been numerous failed attempts to breathe new life into the old courthouse.

"There is still some chance this thing won't get done," he says. "But we're pretty confident that things will finally go the right way."

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I was in Corpus Christi at the end of October scaffolding was up and a construction crew was working on what looked like brick/facade restoration on one of the wings (check out the link in the previous post). I'm glad it's being restored and think it will make a nice museum.

Last I heard the south wing restoration had been completed. That was the part involving all those terra cotta tiles. This article is from April '06:CC Caller Times

It was meant as a demonstration project only, to generate more funds to fix the rest.

I hope they don't demolish it. My dad remembers the building when he was a kid, said it was great. My grandparents used to have to go there. He remembers a goldfish pond in the front that they weren't supposed to play with (but did anyway). And its one of few historical buildings here. I heard rumors that some stuff from the courthouse got used to make a club or restraunt or something for the owners son. Things like iron grillwork and stuff. Figures.

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