By Thomas Garcia PNT Staff Writer
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about New Deal/WPA projects in Roosevelt County, marking the 75th anniversary of the program begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pull the country out of the Great Depression.
Perhaps the most iconic building in Portales, in 1938 the Roosevelt County Courthouse was the second building in the city to be built by Work Projects Administration and New Deal Funds.
The courthouse was designed by R.E. Merrell, of Clovis, who also designed the Curry County Courthouse, according to the National Register of Historic Places, nomination form.
The courthouse is a good example of Art Deco architecture. It has pairs of casement windows located in recessed vertical strips, embellished with metal thunderbirds and Zia motif spandrels.
Above the main south door is a bas relief of three settlers and an Indian guide on horseback.
Inside, the walls are grey marble with terrazzo floors. A Zia symbol and a thunderbird set in the tile greet visitors entering the main entrance and in the main hallway on the first floor a map of the county is inset in the flooring.
On the landing of the marble stairway between the first and second floor is a painting featuring the first courthouse and the current courthouse.
The courthouse was large for the population of Roosevelt county in 1938 which was 13,000. However, the population grew between 1930 and 1940 with the arrival of New Mexico Junior College (Eastern New Mexico University) in 1927, according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form filed in 1987.
The courthouse was surrounded by locust trees, and the lawn went all the way to the street, said Portales historian, Joe Blair.
“On Saturdays farmers would come to town and gather on the lawn and eat lunch with their family,” Blair said. “There was a bandstand where a preacher would give a sermon, a politician would speak or a band would play some music.”
Blair said that the lawn was taken out in the mid 1950’s to make way for a parking lot.
“It would be nice to have the lawn back but I think too many people might complain about no parking,” Blair said.
A plan to restore the lawn at the courthouse is included in the Downtown Master Plan that was approved by Portales City Council earlier in June, said City Manager Debi Lee.
During the original planning for the master plan, committee members recalled days when domino games were a regular feature under the trees on the northeast corner of the courthouse and the square was the focus of activity in the city.
There is a working committee made up of county, city and New Mexico Department of Transportation members. The committee is working on a design for the lawn that will best serve all parties, Lee said.
“Once a design is chosen it will be taken before the county commissioners before going to city council for approval.
The four story courthouse was built on the same spot as the original county courthouse which was built in 1903, according to the nomination form.
The two story courthouse which featured a bell tower, was demolished to make way for the new courthouse. Some of the bricks from the old courthouse were used in the construction of the sheep building at the Roosevelt County Fairgrounds, said Roosevelt County Manager Charlene Hardin.
Though it’s not used for holding prisoners any longer, jail cells are still located on the fourth floor, they were most recently being used as storage, Roosevelt County Human Resource Manager Tammy Lee said.
“The cells will be cleaned out, and the New Deal Art Exhibit which is scheduled to begin on Sept. 19 through Nov. 1 will be on the fourth floor,” Tammy Lee said.
Portales will be the traveling exhibit’s last stop in a statewide tour.