The Glory of McKinney, Texas
What to do with an old county courthouse
became a question of more than holding on to a city's memories.
This is how I do it: I rent a car at Dallas/Fort Worth
Airport, make my way anxiously north on the crowded Metroplex highway,
and scowl at the countryside defaced by urban sprawl. After I pass
through Lewisville, the half-ugly view of the dilapidated farms
and random strip malls never fails to evoke melancholy. Soon, though,
these vistas turn into gentle rises of rich black farmland, and
with a radio station playing old rhythm and blues and my hand cradling
a Dr. Pepper, my spirits begin to lift. I bore into the north Texas
prairie where I grew up, as did my mother before me.
The heat comforts, the flat land soothes, and the
Texas sunlight at its brightest pleases. Those of us native to this
scenically challenged region -beset recently by droughts, floods,
and clouds of grasshoppers -learn to be grateful for small variations
of landscape and to call them beautiful.
Spying the water tower, I begin gathering up my past,
collecting scraps of memories, chasing shades of old emotions. McKinney
is 30 miles north of Dallas, and despite its 20-year spurt in population
from 16,000 to 54,000, old McKinney remains intact. I am home again.
My destination is Courthouse Square, respository of
so many memories of growing up, and its center, the old Collin County
Courthouse, within which once lay our recorded hopes and failures
-births, deaths, marriages, divorces, crimes, bankruptcies. A courthouse
represents community pride and a pioneer boast: We came; we prevailed;
we built. Settlers and their followers built and rebuilt this structure
with, I suppose, grandeur in mind. As a child, anyway, I considered
By 1979, however, a new courthouse, built several
blocks southeast of the square, had usurped the old one. Collin
County wanted to be free of having to maintain and insure the building
and offered to sell it to the town for next to nothing. The building
languished, nobody seeming to care much. Even the spit-and-whittle
club stopped convening on its lawn.
Recognizing that unless refurbished the centerpiece,
the downtown square would lose its energy. McKinney passed a sales
tax to restore the courthouse. Architexas, a firm that had successfully
restored a more imposing courthouse in the Texas Hill Country, drew
up renovations plans.
All seemed well until the relatives began fighting
over the inheritance. A controversy brewed between history purists
who wished the structure to remain unchanged, possibly to be used
as a museum, and those who wanted a center for the arts, which would
require alteration. Although best intentions informed the argument,
a stalemate resulted. Only half in jest a banker proposed tearing
the old courthouse down and replacing it with a parking lot.
Perhaps the quarrel is not surprising, for the building
has always reflected change in the culture of the square and the
community. After a fire destroyed the first modest, c.-1850s wooden
courthouse, its successor, completed in 1876, flaunted a gaudy French
Second Empire configuration. For a time it stood as the tallest
Texas edifice north of San Antonio. With the coming of the railroad
and prosperity, an extensive rebuilding program began in 1927. The
old towers and mansard roof came down to make way for a much-changed
centerpiece with a flat roof in the era's fashionable neoclassical
style. Ugly yellow-tan brick covered in the building's old limestone
exterior. When I was in high school, we called the architecture
post-office modern, but it remained McKinney's prime glory, hence
the struggle now over how to best reuse it.
Why all the fuss? Sure, the imperative to renew and
restore matters to me, and to those like me, who want tangible reassurance
of their memories. But a hundred years from now, what will that
courthouse tell anyone? And do our individual memories count for
anything much at all? Who will again experience the thrill of stepping
into its dim interior? Lulled by the cool darkness and churchlike
solemnity, a child could be a princess in her palace or simply a
little girl in an imposing space that represented for her the thrill
of going to town. A child's imagination can inhabit public places
and the worlds they represent.
Having lost much from those worlds, I try, on occasion,
to recover some small part. On a languorous Texas summer afternoon,
heat rebounding from the streets and sidewalks, my cousins and I
wait, impatient for the end of naptime instituted by our mothers
in an attempt to prevent polio. Our sandals freshly polished, my
pinafore starched, we walk six blocks to town with one or another
of our mothers, the scent of honeysuckle somehow mitigating the
In the courthouse, we weigh ourselves on the tall
metal scale in the lobby and claim our fortune card, the fortune
more of interest than our weight. If my mother and I are alone,
we will stop two doors east of the square proper at Julia's Hat
Shop. Julia lets me try on any hat I can reach while she and my
mother, charter members of McKinney's Business and Professional
Women's Club, catch up on news or recall their days as star high
school basketball teammates. As I listen not so much to their words
as to the cadence of their voices and the pleasure in their laughter,
my contentment is complete.
Farther down the street is the building that once
housed the Ford auto dealership where my mother, just out of high
school, kept the books. Although my grandfather apparently had no
intention of letting his six daughters either work or marry, he
found himself no match for my mother's will or the dealer's respect
for her. Never one for domestic life, she went back into the workplace
with enthusiasm a year after my father's death at the end of World
That suited me fine, my aunts being much more indulgent.
Soon my treks to town included more movies at the Ritz, spiffy then
and now in its art deco facade. A restaurant and shop complex today,
in its earlier life it was the town's only theater with first-run
movies. As we feasted on musical extravaganzas, melodramas, westerns,
we thought Dallas had nothing on us. Nestled beside the movie house
and as much of a treat was a pencil-thin bookstore. Along with the
books, it carried a children's magazine -I forget the name, but
it printed short stories, the inspiration for my first creative
In a few more years, I would work after school across
the square at Martin's Music Store. On slow Saturday nights, Mr.
Martin would take out saxophone when Sy, a salesman in a men's clothing
store, strolled over on his dinner hour to take a turn on the drums.
Listening to them playing jazz and telling me stories about traveling
with swing bands, I could not imagine a more glamorous life, despite
their protests to the contrary. Even now on a walk down that street,
I hear them and sometimes believe I detect a whiff of the nutty
cotton-gin smell heralding fall new hope, a new school year.
The downtown area includes blocks of stores enclosing
the courthouse. Craig Melde, chief architect of the courthouse project
says that it is one of the finest, most intact commercial squares
in the state. With styles ranging from late-Victorian to art deco
to modern commercial tacky, the scale of the one- and two-story
buildings, most with brick fronts and many with their original cast-iron
thresholds, makes them work together and yet reflect the changing
nature and dreams of McKinney's inhabitants.
Although most of the usual down-town businesses have
shifted westward to the strip malls, now restaurants and antiques
dealers thrive in their place. McKinneyites and day trekkers can
enjoy the old Opera House, transformed into a restaurant and antiques
store (in my youth it was a Woolworth's) but once a real opera house
in the tradition of small railroad towns. Across the square, there's
the old Central National Bank building, where my mother deposited
her first paycheck, as I did mine. Now filled with antiques stalls,
the building, a paean to the notion of temples of commerce, still
retains its impressive columns and tiled floors, yet even it can't
dwarf the 1927 courthouse or the history that took place on its
Of course, the courthouse also held darker currents.
Helen Hall, McKinney's premier historian, told me about the public
hanging there of a man accused of murdering his brother-in-law but
protesting his innocence to the end. During the Civil War, nearly
30 saloons dotted the square, which made the town a congenial place
for a bunch of murderous thugs called Quantrill's Raiders, sent
there by the Confederate government to suppress pro-Federal sentiments.
After the Civil War, some of Quantrill's men settled
in the vicinity, according to Jay Crum, a friend steeped in McKinney
lore, and became a reason for Frank and Jesse James to make frequent
visits. In the same pattern, Belle Starr got her marriage license
at the courthouse and soon began her life as an outlaw. Later, in
the early 1930's, Bonnie and Clyde made occasional appearances.
A young soda jerk who later became my uncle once served then root
beer floats at Smith's drugstore.
Decades after the outlaw era, my friend Gail's grandmother
warned us 12 year olds of treachery and danger if we ventured into
town. By the '50s, crime seemed as remote as forests and mountains,
and we found her predictions hilarious; but undercurrents of a more
insidious kind continued to prevail.
In the luxury of my innocence, I never noticed that
a water fountain was marked "Negroes only" and there were
no restroom facilities for African-Americans at all. I was not aware
that they didn't shop on the square, either. Nor, for that matter,
did many Hispanics (we called them Mexicans) except on Saturday
nights during the fall harvest, when migrant workers came from the
Rio Grande Valley or Mexico. I am told these patterns of limited
trade still prevail. Roughly, minorities and the less affluent live
on the far east side of town while more affluent, better educated
newcomers, a number of whom have little to do with downtown, have
built on the far west of the city center.
Newcomers who moved into McKinney's older houses have
often chosen to ally themselves with those who wish to create a
sense of shared history. It is a tribute to these relatively recent
arrivals that many have made as significant an emotional investment
in the town's past a we few thousand who have made memories of other
eras. They have infused new energy and new money. More streets are
paved, neglected Victorian houses have been restored, and a big
community college finally exists. The square teems as it hadn't
in years. (For as long as I can remember, its merchants have sought
to enliven the area, since McKinney residents have customarily taken
their shopping dollars to Dallas and more recently the suburbs.)
It is not yet on par with earlier times when it served on Saturday
nights as a stage for townspeople to see and gossip about each other.
As I grew up in the square offered delights in the
form of high school football pep rallies, bonfires, snake dances,
banana splits, and sighting of Audie Murphy, the most decorated
hero of World War II and local Collin County boy. Now it was Gail's
father who told us to stay away from Smith's Drugs to avoid the
boys standing on the corner. Misbehavior was not a problem, however,
since the merchants knew everyone's parents.
We did not know then that we had Collin McKinney,
for whom both the city and the county where named (because of his
role in bringing settlers from Tennessee and Arkansas to north Texas),
to thank for first making the square such an important part of our
sense of community. He sponsored a bill in the early days of Texas
statehood to place a courthouse in the center of each 30-mile square
county so citizens could travel there and back in one day. He, in
turn, could thank the Spanish for this grid system, adopted by them
in the 1500's to foster successful communities. The state's county
form of government -judge, mayor, sheriff - comes from Mexico's
rule of territory. Six flags over Texas stands for a lot more than
the nearby theme park, though Texans do sometimes think the state
came straight from the head of Zeus.
During my writing of this piece, the factions have
resolved the courthouse issue. Public use is the new theme -county
and nonprofit groups will occupy the offices except for the main
courtroom. That amphitheater-style room will function primarily
as a justice-of-the peace court, but will also be used for weddings,
performances, and conferences. The balcony overlooking the court
is to be restored, and except when the room is used for other events,
the original bench and jury box will be placed in the earlier configuration.
(Defendants must have found this unusual arrangement daunting since
they faced the jury directly.) A skylight will be reinstated and
the walls and ceilings returned to their original dimensions.
What will probably go missing is that sense of familiarity
the old courthouse instilled in its occupants, the way employees
on a warm day yelled "Hi, there" out their open windows
to friends passing by. Or laughed about the latest spit-and -whittle
member to go for a ride with the one female who joined their ranks.
That close-knit culture thrives best with open windows and open
doors, helping bring the outside and inside together, where both
circulate more freely.
Maybe those working to restore the courthouse were
looking for this: clues to those past generations of Texans and
their effect on the culture to this day, not the oversimplified
larger-than-life one, but the one that generated fierce, at times
intemperate, independence along with a belief in hard work, generous
hospitality, and an innate, if not always acted upon, sense of fairness.
Whether our roots are old or new, many of us desire to build on
the history of a place for ourselves and our children - a potent
way to touch another time, another people, a part of ourselves.