ANAHUAC — After years of indecision, the Chambers County Commissioners Court had a tough choice last week: the future of Anahuac versus a continued embrace of the county’s past.
History lost on a 4-0 vote.
At issue was the location of a new county courthouse and justice center.
The existing courthouse, a three-story modern-style limestone structure built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Texas Historic Landmark.
It also is showing its 87 years, built when the county’s population was less than 6,000. Since then, the county has grown to nearly 47,000.
The building houses both county government offices and its criminal justice system, including courts and the county jail.
The jail has been out of compliance with state jail standards since 2022, and the county has three years to rectify the situation. In the meantime, the county has been forced to spend $100,000 a year to house inmates in other lockups in Texas and Louisiana.
Meanwhile, the administrative offices and courtrooms are outdated and far too cramped for the growing county.
The decision for Commissioners Court was where to build a new courthouse.
Build it on a plot of county-owned land on the town square and it would force the relocation of Chambersea, the home of the county’s namesake. Thomas Jefferson Chambers, according to the home’s Texas Historical Association marker, was an “early civic and business leader whose love for Texas was proclaimed by the ‘star’ window in the west gable” of the structure.
The 19th century home, where Chambers was assassinated in 1865, also is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Moving the house, however, would cancel its historic designations by both the state and the National Register, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
The alternative was to build the new courthouse outside of Anahuac, a move local leaders and the business community feared would cost jobs and revenue in a town whose largest employer is the county.
In 2017, the center would have cost taxpayers $87 million to build, Commissioner Jimmy Gore said, but after years of fence-sitting the price has doubled.
It was, Gore said, a no-win situation.
In the end, the court opted to keep the courthouse in Anahuac, voting to build the $164 million justice center on the square.
“What I can say … is that it’s been a decade-plus of talk about a new jail and justice center,” Commissioner Ryan Dagley said. “Maybe there’s not a perfect solution.”
Years of delay
The new justice center is a project eight years in the making. Plans call for a 200,000-plus-square-foot campus with a 336-bed county jail, four courtrooms, a new county law enforcement center with a 911 dispatch center and additional parking.
It will serve one of the top five fastest growing counties in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The growth has stretched the county’s public safety resources thin, prompting the court to begin discussions about a new jail in 2015.
The business community quickly backed the project, which the Anahuac Area Chamber of Commerce expects will draw significant revenue to the county seat’s local economy.
In 2021, Commissioners Court took up a motion to move the Chambers house to make way for the justice center, but ended up tabling it in the face of an upset community.
Many Anahuac residents were protective of this piece of history they had grown up visiting during holidays and community events.
That changed when Commissioners Court members began to question whether the justice center — Anahuac’s largest employer — belonged in town if the Chambers house was going to pose that much trouble.
To Liz Royer, chair of the chamber of commerce, the choice was clear.
“Our history is not bringing in any revenue,” she said.
Last week the court finally approved a development agreement with CFP3, a public-private partnership company, for the new courthouse. The county will lease the land to CFP3, which will work with developer Americus Holdings to build the justice center.
Nathan Watkins, project manager at Americus Holdings, said CFP3 will own the facilities in the justice center until the county finishes paying off the $164 million price tag during the next 30 years.
‘No win situation’
Despite advocating for the justice center, Royer understands how important history is to her hometown.
Her own grandmother serves on the historical commission.
“I get it,” the Anahuac native said. “I initially thought it was ludicrous to move that home, but if county government leaves, our town dies.”
Sheryl Shaw said the county had plenty of time to satisfy all parties.
“The court had years to respect history, law enforcement and the business community,” said Shaw, the chair of the Chambers County Historical Commission.
Gore, whose precinct includes Anahuac, told residents during a town hall last month that he had made numerous suggestions to his fellow court members over the years to create a plan that would keep the justice center in Anahuac but not relocate the Chambers house.
Now, it may be too late.
The Texas Historical Commission clarified in a letter to state Rep. Terri Leo-Wilson, R-Galveston, and the county historical commission that relocating the Chambers house without consulting and receiving explicit approval from the National Park Service will result in its removal from the National Register of Historic Places.
The Chambers house also likely would lose its recorded Texas Historic Landmark and State Antiquities Landmark statuses if it is moved, according to the state.
In an email to Houston Landing, Leo-Wilson wrote there was confusion over whether her office could get the house’s historical designations reinstated after the property is moved. It cannot, she said.
“According to the letter, it sounds very unlikely the Chambers house will retain any of the three historical designations,” she wrote. “These decisions are made solely based on historical data and evidence.
Chambersea is the last physical remnant of Thomas Jefferson Chambers’ plantation, which grew cotton and vegetables. In Chambers County, the county’s namesake owned 5 leagues, or more than 22,000 acres.
In total, Chambers held more than 137,000 acres across what is now Milam, Travis, Hays, Navarro, Ellis, Galveston, Liberty, Chambers, San Jacinto and Trinity counties.
Chambers was a prominent lawyer, land speculator and surveyor with a complicated legacy. He was a pioneering Texan who reformed the state’s judicial system, played a role in Texas’ early history, but also enslaved 16 people, one of whom bore him a child outside of his marriage, Shaw said.
Today, a collection of 19th-century furniture — replicas and originals — as well as portraits of Chambers and his wife, Annie Chubb, decorate the board-and-batten house.
Shaw said many believe Chambers’ home is haunted due to his being shot to death in 1865 on the second-floor. His murder remains unsolved to this day, although local lore and Texas historians suggest it was over a land dispute.
To Shaw, that history, and the stories that come with it, are worth preserving.
“We can sympathize with other points of view,” she said, “but we exist to protect history.”
Royer noted the new courthouse’s costs include $300,000 to relocate and renovate the Chambers home.
Shaw and Leo-Wilson, however, worry about what may lie beneath the Chambers house and the surrounding land.
“It’s very possible there are slave graves on the land,” Shaw said.
Shaw asked the county to hire an archeologist who has experience with the National Park Service to survey the area first to determine whether construction of the justice center could disturb potential graves or other historic artifacts.
So far, the court has not responded, She said.
“We feel the county is making a big mistake by spoiling the historical integrity of the Chambers home and what little land is left around it,” she said.
Construction for the justice center is expected to begin in November and will take approximately 27 months to complete, according to the court.