Some local folks with a solid idea for what to do with the now-closed old United States Courthouse on West Eighth Street between Lavaca and Colorado streets are making their case to the feds.
The Austin Bar Foundation is pushing its proposal to the General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of figuring out what to do with the historic building. The foundation has an attractive plan, including making the building the home for a variety of non-profit legal services for low-income folks and others.
First, a bit about the old building that became what the feds call “surplus property” when the new U.S. Courthouse opened a few blocks away last December. A GSA website hails the old courthouse, completed in 1936, as “an excellent example of Depression-era Moderne architecture.”
“This style is revealed in its central massing, the rectangular form, the vertical flow of the window bays, the decorative metal grills and the geometric details,” it says, mentioning the edifice’s “restrained Neo-Classical influence.”
The top name on the building’s cornerstone, set in 1935, is Henry Morgenthau Jr., who was Treasury secretary at the time and whose public service includes a world class bit of trivia. For a week in 1945, he would have become president if Harry Truman died or otherwise became unable to serve. Truman, who became president when FDR died in April 1945, had no vice president. Under the law at the time, the secretary of state was first in the presidential succession line. But we had no secretary of state from June 27, 1945, when Edward Stettinius resigned, until July 3, 1945, when the Senate confirmed James Byrnes.
As Treasury secretary, Morgenthau was first in line for the presidency during that time. (This may be of more interest to me and some of my friends, but I think that meant Morgenthau came as close to the presidency as any Jew ever has.)
The old courthouse’s history adds up to a reminder about why it’s important to find a useful future for a building that served our community so well for so long.
The Austin Bar Foundation, in a proposal sent to GSA last week, is proposing a 99-year lease, with a six-figure annual payment as a starting point for negotiations, as well as money for repairs and rehab. Foundation Chairman David Chamberlain, in a very ballpark estimate, says about $1 million worth of work would be needed. The foundation’s plan includes preserving the second-floor courtroom, a major feature in the building that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for mock trials and other educational activities. It also could be used for real trials should the need arise.
The heartbeat of the building would be offices for a variety of legal aid services that now rent space around town. Chamberlain said the foundation would offer them space at cost.
“The Austin Bar Foundation would like the opportunity to utilize this grand historic building to create a home for nonprofit legal organizations serving the Austin community,” the foundation, which would move it offices from Eighth and Congress, says in its “proposal for repurposing” the building.
Legal services would be offered by agencies that serve a wide variety of low-income people in need of such help.
Seems like a suitable use for, as Chamberlain put it, a building that is “sitting there doing nothing right now but incurring expenses for the government.”
“And the government could make something out of it, too, and have that building preserved and taken care of,” he said, noting the proposal is backed by local members of Congress, Sen. John Cornyn and our local federal judges.
Foundation and GSA officials were supposed to meet late last year to discuss the proposal. The session, however, was canceled about two days before it was supposed to happen because, according to Chamberlain, the feds wanted to renew their effort to find a federal tenant for the old building.
“At that time,” he said, “they’d already been trying for six months and couldn’t.”
Chamberlain was told the GSA’s focus was on moving the local federal bankruptcy court, now in the Homer J. Thornberry Federal Judicial Building on San Jacinto Boulevard, to the old courthouse. Seems there was pushback from those folks based, in part, on the lack of parking at the old courthouse.
Last September, in a response to U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin, who supports the foundation’s effort, GSA Acting Regional Administrator Sylvia Hernandez of Fort Worth said her agency “always welcomes interest from non-federal parties in potentially excess real property.”
She also told Yeakel that the city of Austin, Travis County and the Mexic-Arte Museum also expressed interest in the old courthouse.
Sylvia Orozco, Mexic-Arte’s director, said the museum is “always looking at different opportunities” and might look at the old courthouse for temporary space at some point.
City of Austin spokeswoman Melissa Alvarado said “the federal government decided to keep the old courthouse for federal workers.” You probably recently read that the city is looking for additional space to make room at City Hall for its expanding council.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe says if the county ever was interested in the building “it’s news to me.”
The GSA isn’t saying much about its plans. Spokeswoman Tina Jaegerman at the agency’s regional office in Fort Worth, told me GSA “is working with the courts on options for re-use of the courthouse.” Pressed for a bit more detail, she said first choice still is to find a federal agency to put in there.
About the situation with the local federal bankruptcy courts, all I could get from her was, “We are still in the planning process and the specifics are not yet available.”
Chamberlain is ready to crank up the foundation’s effort and see if he can nudge the feds beyond the planning process.
“At that point if they respond with stony silence or just say no we can go to the congressional delegation … and see if we can get Congress interested,’ he said.
There’s precedent and an interesting footnote concerning congressional action on an old federal building. In 2009, Congress OK’d the sale of an historic, 1861 federal building in Galveston to the Galveston Historical Foundation.
The measure was the only one that now-retired U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, he of the quixotic presidential campaigns, ever got approved in his 23 years in the U.S. House.