MASON, TX — The Mason County Courthouse, a magnificent historical building built in 1910, was destroyed by an arsonist on the night of February 4, 2021. After the fire that engulfed the entire structure was finally extinguished hours after it began, all that was left of the courthouse, that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, were four exterior stone brick walls.
Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden vowed to rebuild the courthouse the next day. Since then, the community of Mason, located in west Central Texas, rallied with generous help from many corners.
Bearden said the budget to rebuild in the courthouse was $20 million.
“You know, it only cost $40,000 to build it in 1909,” Bearden said with a grin and a bit of irony.
For Bearden to promise a complete restoration at that time was risky. County budgets in Texas are a big deal because so many parts of each county’s property and sales tax revenue are allocated — some say mandated — to pay for basic necessities like the judicial system, the sheriff, and the jail and little is left over. Unanticipated expenses over and above about $250,000 at a time concern a commissioners’ court for counties the size of Mason (population 3,953 in 2020). There just isn’t that much cash flow left after the required expenses.
Help was on the way, however.
Judge Bearden said $5 million of the restoration costs came from private donors. Greater amounts came from the building’s insurance policy purchased through the Texas Association of Counties. The Texas Legislature and the Texas Historical Commission also pitched in with large grants.
The renovation will completely rebuild the old courthouse with modern construction and engineering techniques. As of this weekend, large steel pier and beams can be seen inside the four remaining walls that outline what where the original porticos. Bearden said the courthouse will have brand new steel I-beam bones to include the roof trusses. In mid-September, Bearden expects the installation of the roof’s light metal trusses to be complete. Some of the load-bearing portions of the rock structure have already been replaced shoring up the walls’ integrity.
Official and historic records had been removed before the arsonist broke inside the courthouse and doused it with gasoline.Yet, the historic antique pieces like the judge’s bench, jury box, and gallery benches were burned to dust.
“Luckily, one of our citizens had an old bench from the courthouse,” Bearden said. Using the that bench and old photographs from inside the courthouse, a San Antonio company is recreating the original fixtures and furniture. Another company in Fort Worth is restoring the metal and iron fixtures like the vault door, Bearden said.
The Courthouse was destroyed when a man named Nick Miller, allegedly enraged over a domestic dispute and that the Mason County judicial system treated him unfairly. He allegedly broke into the historic structure and doused both floors with gasoline and set a match to it. The mostly wooden structure quickly was fully engulfed with flames reaching heights 2.5-times the height of the tall, two-story structure leaving only four walls and rubble after the flames were extinguished hours later.
Miller was caught the next day after a 38-mile high-speed chase on I-35 that he filmed live on Facebook. His trial is scheduled in Mason County on January 23, 2022.
Judge Bearden closely monitors the timeline of the restoration and noted many of the challenges with supply chains. The latest delay was procuring the light metal trusses for the roof that he said was recently resolved. He noted at the bell tower portion, called the cupola, was being constructed off-site in Canada and will soon be ready to join the tip-top of the roof.
“We’ll have that roof on by Thanksgiving,” Bearden said.
The project should be complete “about a year from now,” Bearden said. “August 2023. Mark your calendar. We’re going to have a huge celebration.”