Willacy County Courthouse wins honored place on National Register

HARLINGEN — The long campaign to put the Willacy County Courthouse on the National Register of Historic Places is finally a success.

Regrettably, no cash for the beleaguered courthouse accompanies the honor.

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of sites deemed worthy of preservation.

Created in 1966, the registry is part of a National Parks Service program to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.

The courthouse closed in February 2015 due to safety concerns after mold was found throughout the nearly 100-year-old building. County employees migrated to the county’s Administration Building, a move which cost $1.2 million to make it office-ready.

Estimates to renovate the stately Classical Revival-style, three-story courthouse put the cost at $8.5 million.

But the designation of being on the national register brings hope of finding new avenues to fund a courthouse fix.

“We frequently call it the face of the county, because really that’s what it is,” County Judge Aurelio Guerra said. “We’re thrilled that it is now considered a historic building, and indeed it is, and has been in our eyes.”

Willacy County fell on hard times following the closure of the Willacy County Correctional Center in 2014. The private prison employed 400 workers and its taxes contributed $2.7 million a year to the county’s $8.1 million annual budget.

Then a year later, Wal-Mart shuttered its store in Raymondville, and another 149 jobs vanished.

Last year the Texas Historical Commission offered the county an emergency grant of $402,970 to try to slow the tide of the building’s decay, and the county is working on coming up with matching funds to tap the grant.

Guerra said the county has yet to solicit private sector donations because the mechanism for fundraising, called One County, One Community, had yet to be fully formed.

“What we have done is we have created and established a nonprofit by the name of One County, One Community and that’s going to be specific for asking for contributions from the private sector and for us to do fundraising events so that we can maximize our means of being able to reach the outcome, which is total renovation,” Guerra said.

He said the Willacy County Commissioners Court has agreed to pump “seed money” into the 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, which just recently received the tax identification number it needs in order to proceed.

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Courthouse Facts

– Built in 1922 in Raymondville

– Classical Revival style designed by San Antonio architect Henry T. Phelps

– Phelps designed courthouses for Kenedy (Sarita, 1917), Atascosa, Dimmit, La Salle and Mills counties.

– The first Hispanic woman to be licensed as an attorney in Texas, Edna Cisneros, became district attorney in Willacy County in 1956. She held the office until 1984.

Source: Texas Historical Society