Travis County takes over ownership of historic federal courthouse

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — After sitting empty for the past several years, the historic federal courthouse in downtown Austin will be transformed into a probate court for Travis County.

On Thursday, the deed for the building located at 200 W. 8th St. was officially transferred from the federal government to Travis County. On hand for the occasion were U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and General Services Administrator Sylvia Hernandez. The players involved say the county being able to take over this property is the result of federal and local agencies working together.

“An historic courtroom, public lobbies, stairs, elevators, restrooms, and exterior stonework and Art Deco features will be maintained and complement the future use of this courthouse for the Travis County Probate Court and the County Clerk’s Probate Division,” said Judge Eckhardt of the building that was built in 1936.

Judge Guy Herman has presided over the County’s probate court for 32 years. In the current Heman Marion Sweatt building he’s watched an office for one, turn into an office for three. Another single office was turned into an office for two.

FILE - Former US Federal Court House in downtown Austin. (KXAN Photo)
FILE – Former US Federal Court House in downtown Austin. (KXAN Photo)

“The next room we have is a jury room but it’s not always a jury room,” said Judge Herman passing into a room turned into makeshift offices for two. “When we get jury time we will move them out of here and the jury will meet in this room.”

It’s the same thing in the actual courtroom. When there’s no trial, two part-time auditors call this an office.

Judge Herman’s one probate court has enough work for four dockets. Moving probate over to the old court house would allow civil courts to expand in the current Heman Marion Sweatt building. Plus, after more than $20 million in upgrades, the probate court workers wouldn’t have to deal with all the other things moving around the current court building.

“There are rats, mice, and centipede at least this long,” said Judge Herman.

In order the get the building remodeled for an anticipated 2020 opening date, Travis County expects to spend close to $30 million for the design and renovations.

However, Travis County leaders say this would be only a temporary fix for their cramped courts.  By 2035, they expect to need four probate courts. This would only add two in 2020.

While this “new” building will alleviate some of the overcrowding issues at the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, the county says  it doesn’t solve all of their capacity issues long term. In 2015, Travis County residents voted against a bond that would have funded a new family courthouse.

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