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Renovated County Records Complex Offers A Walk Though Some Of Dallas' Most Significant Moments

If the walls of the Dallas County Records Complex could talk, they would have a treasure trove of stories to tell, from the possible jailhouse confessions of Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame to the trial of a notorious assassin.

A recently completed project has brought more of those stories to the forefront.

Gensler renovated the Sarah T. Hughes Courtroom and bench to reflect what the space looked like during the 1960s.

Gensler-led effort to transform the buildings on the site where Dallas County was founded in 1864 spanned seven years and cost $138M at the outset. The county tapped the design firm to renovate and consolidate the namesake records building, its annex and the old criminal courthouse, aiming first and foremost to preserve the rich and storied history contained within.

“Sometimes we’re quick to tear something down and not recognize the value of the history,” Gensler principal Paul Manno said. “The idea of maintaining the historical context and using that as a way to let the public know we value history — we value what we’ve been through — drove the decision to renovate rather than take down.”

Located in the backdrop of Dealey Plaza, the complex was the location of a former jail that held Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd and Jack Ruby as inmates. Sarah Hughes, the federal judge who swore in Lyndon B. Johnson after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had a courtroom in the annex, which is where Ruby was tried and found guilty of murdering Lee Harvey Oswald.

Today, the buildings house county staff and the commissioners court, among other offices. Up until this point, county service offices had been scattered across different locations downtown.

Combining the buildings was done to improve efficiency and create additional space, Manno said. Alleys running between the structures were absorbed into the building, and at completion, the project spanned 320K SF across six original floors and one new floor.

“The simple idea was to look for a way to consolidate the county’s services into one location,” Manno said. “It was all about allocating space in a way that was organized vertically and gets the most efficiency for county residents to be able to access services and not have to weave their way through a maze of office space.” 

The process came with unique challenges Manno hadn’t encountered before. Built over a period of 40 years, with the old criminal courts building dating back to 1915, the floor plates weren’t level, which required building a skeleton around the structures to remove and realign floors.

The Dallas County Records Complex is located downtown in Founders Plaza.

The buildings are also certified historic landmarks, which required the Gensler team to abide by a special set of guidelines. The goal was to restore the complex to its year of significance, which in this case was 1963, the year JFK was assassinated. 

Back in 2003, a "White Only" sign was discovered above a water fountain in the records building after another sign covering it fell off the wall. The Gensler project uncovered more relics, including safes that were buried in the walls, original terrazzo dating back to a renovation done in the 1950s, a star of Texas inlay and more.

Those findings will be part of a forthcoming public exhibit housed on the first floor.

“This was pure archeology,” Manno said. “We documented everything we saw.

The complex has officially reopened and staff has moved back in. It now features original ceilings, flooring, crown molding, paint colors, brick and terracotta from the alleyways and more, which Manno said gives visitors a chance to take a step back in time to experience what Dallas was like during some of its most pivotal moments.

“Every opportunity we had to see some of that history, we cleaned it up, we exposed it, and we let it be what it was,” he said.