HEMPSTEAD — Danny Rothe worries that it’s only a matter of time before a rusted, galvanized pipe explodes beneath the floors of Waller County’s courthouse, causing catastrophic flood damage to the 1950s-era building.

Such a disaster would shut down the courthouse, preventing county residents from attending court hearings, speaking at the commissioner’s court or obtaining a marriage license.

“We could go down tomorrow if a major pipe severs,” Rothe said.

The Waller County Courthouse in downtown Hempstead is falling apart, government officials say. The foundation is crumbling, the heat and air conditioning are prone to failure, and most of its pipes have rusted beyond repair.

For the last three years, a plan has been in the works to demolish the Cold War-era building and build a new one on the same spot. Construction drawings and specifications for the $32 million project are nearing completion, and if all goes according to plan, the new courthouse will open sometime in 2025.

The four-story courthouse will be home to the commissioner’s court, in addition to the county’s tax, clerk, auditor and treasurer departments. The property’s signature bell tower, which houses a bell that dates back to the late 1800s, and a military veterans memorial facing Austin Street will remain untouched. 

The new building will serve the fast-growing population of Waller County, a largely rural area on the Houston region’s northwest side. 

The county’s population has nearly doubled since 2000, reaching an estimated 62,000 residents in 2022. The Texas Demographic Center projects that the county will be home to about 115,800 people by 2060. Waller County Judge Trey Duhon added that about 30,000 residential buildings are in development in the county.

“We’ve really tried to encapsulate all the growth components, so we can continue to do what we do and provide the services that people expect and have a building that’s gonna last much longer than this one has,” Duhon said.

The design of the new courthouse incorporates elements of the previous courthouse. Turrets, elongated windows and a pitched roof all borrow from the Victorian-style courthouse that was built in 1894 and demolished in 1954 to make way for the current one.

Foundation is failing, officials say

County officials at first planned to gut and renovate the building, which Duhon likens to a bomb shelter. But that changed after a 2021 inspection revealed concrete beams underneath the structure are slowly turning to dust.

The Assembly Room in the Waller County Courthouse constantly leaks, rendering the space unusable. (Douglas Sweet Jr. for Houston Landing)

“The foundation is going to fail,” Duhon said. “There’s already some movement going on in the building. Not significant, but to (the point) where you can see cracks in the brick and so forth.”

Duhon said building a new facility would be more cost-efficient than reinforcing the foundation. Plus, there’s no guarantee the foundation would hold after repairs.

“I can’t spend that money on a hope and a prayer that the foundation holds,” he added.

In addition, the building’s pipes are prone to leaking, with temporary patches holding them together. Most pipes are too rusted to cut into and replace. 

The current courthouse also is “an ADA nightmare,” Duhon said. 

Wheelchair users who have business with the auditor’s office, for example, currently enter the split-level courthouse through a converted window and a platform lift lowers them to the first floor. An elevator then takes them to the second floor, where another lift lowers them to the entrance of the auditor’s office.

“Some of these wheelchairs are so big, they won’t fit in the lift anymore,” Rothe said.

Cost overruns

Waller County commissioners voted in late 2022 to finance the $32 million project. 

But the rising cost of construction materials and contractor services could add millions to the final price of demolishing the courthouse, housing county employees in a temporary space and building a new facility.

Duhon said the county has money in reserve to help bridge the gap, and county commissioners could vote to approve more funds. 

Rothe said construction specifications are due to be completed by mid-July, and he hopes the project can be put out for bid in September. However, Waller County Commissioner Kendric Jones earlier this month expressed concern over the uncertainty surrounding the final cost of the project. 

“Right now, it’s like we’re driving with no hands on the wheel,” he said.

The new courthouse will be made mostly of stone, with a zinc roof that Rothe said will last for decades. The plans call for saving decorative stone that lines hallways from the existing building, along with antique lighting fixtures and water fountains.

During construction, which would take 18 to 24 months, county employees will work out of the now-shuttered Julio’s Mexican Restaurant two miles east of the courthouse. The county is spending at least $325,000 to retrofit the space.

Duhon looks forward to a courthouse that is functional, accessible and built to last for at least the next 80 years. 

“I think it’s going to be a great addition,” he said. “It’s not every day in Texas that you build a county courthouse.”

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Monroe Trombly is a public safety reporter at the Houston Landing. Monroe comes to Texas from Ohio. He most recently worked at the Columbus Dispatch, where he covered breaking and trending news. Before...