In 1836, when brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen founded the city of Houston, TX, in Harris County, then known as Harrisburg County, they set aside a large plot of land to house the city’s courthouse. Over the years, a cluster of six courthouses were built on the land, one of which is well-known for its recent multi-million-dollar renovation — the 1910 Harris County Courthouse — originally designed by architect Charles Erwin Barglebaugh of the Dallas-based architectural firm Lang and Witchell. A variety of marble and granite, as well as ceramic and porcelain tile, was employed to create a more sophisticated upscale look.

The 162,360-square-foot former civil courthouse — the fifth courthouse built on the site — is now home to the 1st and 14th Texas State Court of Appeals. When it was built, the building was designed in a Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival style with a requisite dome and Corinthian columns, which was dramatically altered when the courthouse underwent its first renovation in the early 1950s.

“In 1953, ‘updates’ to modernize the style of the building and to increase its useable interior space resulted in massive architectural degradations,” said Kevin Camarata, president of the general partner of Camarata Masonry Systems, Ltd., the company that completed the renovation. “The most profound and unfortunate alterations occurred in the building’s interior. The second floor entry galleries were repurposed as office space. The five-story atrium was sacrificed by constructing new floors that bisected it on levels two through six. The glass skylight was removed. The marble clad double stairways were enclosed and some of the marble was moved to the hallways. The original
¾- x ¾-inch mosaic ceramic tile floors were ‘trenched’ to accommodate electrical conduit and much of the tile was covered with concrete topping slabs.”

In 2009, a combined effort to restore the courthouse from its mediocre condition began, involving the Texas Historical Commission, which donated more than $5 million to help bring this project to fruition; the Houston-based builder, Camarata Masonry System, Ltd.; and the Houston-based general contractor, Vaughn Construction. By utilizing a variety of marble, granite, ceramic and porcelain tile, Camarata and his team, along with individuals from Vaughn Construction, were able to bring the courthouse back to life.

“The scope of work included the removal, cataloging and storage of much of the existing stone under a prior contract with the County; the cleaning, restoration and reinstallation of the salvaged stone; the supply and installation of the new stone material to match the old stone — inclusive of book-matching and diamond matching; the cleaning and restoration of the existing stone that remained in place; the supply and installation of the new historically matched ceramic tile and mosaics — inclusive of the tedious process of filling in the trenched areas; the restoration of the existing ceramic tile that remained in place; and the supply and installation of the new ceramic tile in the judge’s chambers and restrooms,” said Camarata.

Extensive installation

1910 Harris County Courthouse

Houston, TX

Owner: Harris County, TX

General Contractor: Vaughn Construction, Houston, TX

Architect: PGAL, Houston, TX

Builder/Stone Installer/Fabricator: Camarata Masonry Systems, Ltd., Houston, TX

Stone/Tile Suppliers: Tennessee Marble Co., Friendsville, TN (Georgia Pearl Gray and Georgia Cherokee White marble); Daltile, Dallas, TX (ceramic tile, porcelain tile, glass mosaic tile, Hulian Green marble, Persian granite); Camarata Masonry Systems, Ltd.
(Absolute Black and Black Galaxy granite, Rojo Alicante marble), Houston, TX

To complete all of the required work, more than 80,000 square feet of stone and tile was employed throughout the six-story courthouse. According to Camarata, the ceramic tile scope included the supply and installation of new 2- x 2-inch unglazed mosaic floors and 2- x 2-inch glazed mosaic walls in the public restrooms and entrances, totaling 12,800 square feet; 12- x 24-inch porcelain tile floors and polished 12- x 12-inch Hulian Green marble tile walls with 4-inch-tall, multicolor 1- x 1-inch glass mosaic accent borders in the private restrooms, totaling 3,300 square feet; 12- x 24-inch Persian granite paving borders in the judges reception areas, totaling 700 square feet; polished Black Absolute granite with a thickness of 2 cm for thresholds at all non-historical doors; historical unglazed ceramic mosaic ¾- x ¾-inch tile with butt joints in eight color shades, totaling 6,700 square feet; elevator cab floor murals consisting of polished Black Galaxy granite, polished Rosso Alicante marble and porcelain tile; the labor to remove all lightweight concrete trench and tile fill; and the cleaning and restoration of all remaining existing tile floors, totaling 16,850 square feet.

The stonework was equally as intensive as the tiling. It included the crating and shipping of approximately 1,500 cataloged and stored salvaged stone pieces, totaling 4,642 square feet, which was completed under a previous contract with the County, to Camarata’s facility; refinishing the stone — inclusive of the removal of dirt, adhesives, staining and atmospheric soiling; crating and shipping the stone back to the project site; re-installing the stone, in place of restoration; refinishing the remaining stone material, totaling 21,000 square feet; the supply and installation of new Cherokee White marble, totaling 1,259 square feet, and Georgia Pearl Gray marble, totaling 16,286 square feet —inclusive book-matching and diamond matching to match the existing stone; field dimensioning of all stone substrates prior to shop drawing preparation; shop drawings of all stone; and the installation of 15 precast concrete and glass block ‘light paver’ panels.

“The finishing touch was the installation of the light paver panels,” said Camarata. “Originally, the building utilized glass light shafts to supplement illumination. The architectural team decided to obtain the same feel of that light by using glass blocks set into concrete floor panels. The panels were carefully rolled in and set like large pavers on top of a steel beam grid system in the rotunda. This allowed light to pass from the skylight above to the first floor. Once installed, the recesses in the edges of the panels were filled in with new historical mosaic tile and the perimeter was matched into the existing tile corridors.”

Tennessee Marble Co. of Friendsville, TN, fabricated the Georgia Pearl Gray and Georgia Cherokee White marble from the original Georgia Marble quarries; Daltile of Dallas, TX, supplied the unglazed and glazed ceramic tile that was used for the public bathroom walls and floors, porcelain tile and multicolor glass mosaic borders that was used for the floors and walls in the private restrooms, and Hulian Green marble and Persian granite; Camarata Masonry Systems, Ltd. refabricated the existing stone that was removed and relocated, and supplied the Absolute Black granite thresholds, Black Galaxy granite and Rojo Alicante marble in the floor mural from their inventory; and the remaining tile was made by a domestic small batch historical tile manufacturer.

Various challenges along the way

The Courthouse’s first renovation in 1953 destroyed a lot of the building’s historical elements, which is one aspect architects and builders hoped to fix with the recent restoration. Camarata worked closely with architects and contractors to ensure the building was restored to its former splendor, mainly in regard to the historic mosaic tiling and refinished salvaged stone.

To begin the widespread tile restoration, Camarata coordinated with architects from PGAL and a historical consultant, who identified the areas throughout the second, third, fourth and fifth floors that required tile patching and whole fields of tile. One of the challenges that arose with the original tile throughout the courthouse, a ¾- x ¾-inch ceramic mosaic with butt joints, was the inconsistency in color and uneven setting.

“The tile fields were surrounded by elaborate border designs, which varied on each floor; the borders contained as many as five different colored tiles,” said Camarata. “Also, the fields of white tile were not consistent from floor to floor or even within a single floor. It was discovered that the white tile contained three separate shades. Throughout the project, the ¾- x ¾-inch mosaic tile had [also] been ‘trenched’ in a very random fashion for electrical conduit and patched with lightweight concrete. The concrete patch was performed in a haphazard way, routinely spilling over onto adjacent tile surfaces and occasionally filling in low spots in the tile floor. The tile itself had changed considerably over the 100 years it had been in service with its original patina long gone. The tile was worn and sullied by foot traffic and was covered by carpet after the 1953 ‘renovation.’

“In addition, the original setting methods created a challenge,” Camarata went on to say. “The small tiles were traditionally shipped individually in casks filled with sawdust. They were either set one by one, or, as was the practice of the day, mounted on newspaper by the tile setter’s family at night so that good production could be obtained the next day. The glue used to mount the tiles was water soluble and, after the tile was set, the paper was wetted (thus releasing the glue) and peeled off. Both of these installation techniques allowed the tile to shift slightly and created sight lines that are not perfectly straight and are, in fact, randomly imperfect. The concrete floors underwent significant trauma during the removal of the slab covering the former central atrium, bringing the adhesion of the original tile mud bed into question and making any slab cracks problematic.”

Another challenge Camarata encountered was finding a tile supplier experienced in making a historical type of tile that was willing to produce small quantities and match eight colors, including the three different shades of white on the mismatched floors. Camarata located the only two known small batch historical restoration tile manufacturers in the world — one in England and one in the U.S. — and ultimately chose the domestic manufacturer.

“Samples of every color and shade were taken, grouped by floor and forwarded to the manufacturer for matching,” said Camarata. “Several sample batches were made until we were satisfied that we had achieved suitable shading in each color. The tiles were mounted on a perforated cardboard backing, which, unlike the newspaper that remained on top and was peeled off, stayed under the tile. The perforations allowed for good mud bed adhesion to the tile and the flexibility of the cardboard simulated the newspaper technique. Considerable effort was spent mounting the tiles to the cardboard backing in randomly imperfect fashion, matching the original look. Once construction began, our craftsmen began the tedious process of removing the lightweight concrete fill in the trenches and on top of the tile, making sure to exercise extreme care in preserving the maximum amount of existing tile possible (an edict from the historical consultant and the Texas Historical Commission). Due to our efforts, the amount of new historical tile was reduced from the originally anticipated 9,600 square feet to 6,700 square feet.”

Since the new historical tile had to be fit with the existing tile, each edge of the exposed ¾- x ¾-inch butt joint units in the trenches and at the end of defined areas had to be hand-cut and chiseled out. To do so, Camarata’s craftsmen used special industrial diamond wheels that were made to fit small rotary tools in order to provide controlled precise cuts and produce crisp edges.

“Crack suppression membrane was extensively utilized where necessary, and the depressions and trenches were filled in and floated,” said Camarata. “The new tile was carefully dry fit, and once trimmed, installed 1/32-inch higher than the existing adjacent tile. Then, after matching the grout color and grouting, all new tile was ground down by hand to the level of the existing adjacent tile with an abrasive wheel containing a specific grit. Camarata experimented with several methods of matching the existing tile’s patina and found that this practice produced the best result.

“Once all of the tiles had been laid and ground down, we utilized a floor polishing machine with a special pad and a custom designed slurry to clean them all,” he went on to say. “This process evened out any remaining color inconsistencies in the tile and grout, and produced seamless transitions between old and new. The end result is a mosaic tile floor that looks like it was just installed in 1910.”

When it came to the stonework, Camarata’s team was first tasked with refinishing the previously salvaged marble, which was shipped to their facility. All of the stones were organized by numbering systems that identified the floor and area of their original location. “Over the years, the stone had become soiled and stained due to normal wear, atmospheric conditions and improper maintenance,” said Camarata. “In addition, the stone had been damaged from careless actions; inclusive of holes drilled into the stone, chips on the edges and body of the stone, and adhesives applied to the surfaces. Various techniques were tested until the most effective combination of cleaning applications was discovered. Once the stones were cleaned and patched, they were refinished.

While the salvaged stone was being cleaned and refinished, other individuals from Camarata meticulously incorporated them into the stone shop drawings, which were used to fabricate and install new and salvaged stone pieces. A lot of the stones had to be field fabricated and cut to accommodate the design, since they were larger than expected, and most of the salvaged stone was grouped together on specific floors (second, third and fifth) to create a more consistent look.

The cleaning and refinishing of the salvaged stone presented a large challenge, since Camarata strived to use as little new stone as possible. “In many instances, Camarata utilized focused portable light sources to allow for accurate and expedient refinishing and fabrication,” he said. “All of the learned processes from the shop were utilized to address the in place stone. However, some stone proved exceptionally troublesome. The Cherokee White marble treads on the grand staircase had endured significant foot traffic and were marred by rubber nosing installed with adhesive. The steps had lost their original white appearance and were gray. Along with the in place cleaning and refinishing came a significant amount of in place repairs; this included patching the two white marbles, which, due to their large crystalline nature and subtle shade changes, is almost impossible to do.”

Matching the old stone with the new stone was also a challenge. “The predominant original stone is Georgia Pearl Gray, which is a highly veined and decorative white marble,” said Camarata. “It included some diamond matched stone on columns on the second level of the rotunda. Much of the column material from the second level up was moved to hallways, removed from the project or destroyed during the 1953 renovation that closed in the rotunda. Camarata located the quarry that produced the original material, contracted with a domestic fabricator with significant Georgia marble experience, and forwarded representative samples of the existing materials for matching. An excellent match was obtained for both marbles, and it is difficult to tell where the old stone stops and the new begins.

“All of the diamond-matched columns from the second level to the sixth level are new, as are the spandrel panels and copings between them,” Camarata went on to say. “All book-matched stone in the courtrooms are new. Extreme care was taken in handling and installing these stones, as any breakage in the book-matched or diamond-matched pieces would have resulted in the remaking of the entire column or horizontal run. The wall material on the fourth floor is new, as are many pieces on selected areas of the other floors. Many of the treads on the various stairwells are new, and the only visible indication is the lack of a worn leading edge.”

Completed ahead of schedule

The 1910 Harris County Courthouse was completed in 2011 in only 19 months — two months ahead of schedule. “The final product is visually stunning and seamless,” said Camarata. “The overriding feeling when standing in the second floor rotunda is that you have been transported back in time. No greater compliment could be given.”

Since its completion, the Courthouse has received more than a handful of awards, including the commercial grand prize at the Coverings Installation & Design (CID) Awards. It has also been featured in a PBS special documentary and book.

“Our folks — as owners, officers and/or employees of Camarata Masonry Systems, Ltd; Lucia, Inc.; and Intrepid Enterprises, Inc. — have participated in building some significant projects all over the U.S., many of which you would recognize. But, this project holds a special place in our hearts due to the difficulty in construction, expertise in management, procurement and installation, and its importance to the city of Houston,” said Camarata. “Houston has not had a good history of maintaining its old structures, and this building sat vacant and boarded up for some time. There was considerable talk about demolishing it. No doubt, some glass tower would have taken its place. However, the preservationists prevailed and the building is absolutely stunning. We were privileged to have been a part of its renovation.”