Seventeen-year-old Steven Cloud sat awestruck inside the second-floor courtroom at the Ellis County Courthouse on Thursday.
That fact would not usually be newsworthy, as the only action inside the ornately decorated 124-year-old chamber involved barbecue sandwiches and softly played background music.
But there he sat in the front row on the second story of a building that he had never previously entered. It was the ceremonial actions of a handful of elected officials just a half hour prior that led him there, too.
While Cloud, his parents, Mike and Safaa Cloud, and about 70 others were gathered on the north lawn of the historic landmark, Ellis County Judge Todd Little and Sylvia Smith, a longtime member of the Ellis County Historical Commission, used an oversized pair of scissors to cut a red, white and blue ribbon. As the blades sliced, the two officially reopened the four doors of the Ellis County Courthouse.
The action was met with a rousing round of applause and the shutter of a half-dozen cameras.
The ceremonial ribbon cutting also marked the end of a five-plus month process to reverse a decision to lock the doors and relocate the entrance to the courthouse to the basement in 2015.
"This is very exciting. I know there were some really good background conversations between the county judge and the sheriff," said Ellis County Pct. 3 commissioner Paul Perry, who had the discussion of reopening the doors put back on the commissioners' agenda in May. He had previously taken the item to the court during the tenure of then-county judge Carol Bush. He noted it failed to receive any traction at that time because of Bush's "heightened concern with security but my understanding was that that would be temporary."
Perry explained his second attempt to reopen the doors included background information and new appeals court decisions that further defined House Bill 910, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2016. The bill eliminated the differences between concealed or open carry restrictions.
"We took notice of the law and where we stood, which I thought was really important. when we understood that the law had been further defined by a City of Austin case and a few other cases in regards to a license to carry," Perry said. "But the real issue is that this is a taxpayer's building and now the taxpayers have access to it."
One of those taxpayers onhand was Smith, who was present while representing the Ellis County Historical Commission. She was quick to point out that the courthouse will better serve visitors to the county and Waxahachie now that the doors are open during regular business hours.
"I think it is wonderful that the commissioners voted to open the doors because it has been so unsatisfactory for us when we think about our visitors," Smith said. "I work in the visitor center so I know how many people come here from all over the United States and all over the world and for them to be able to walk into the building through these doorways and be exposed to the grandeur of the indoors of this courthouse is wonderful."
According to a report given during the Thursday morning Waxahachie Downtown Merchants Association meeting, the Ellis County Museum and Visitors Center recorded visitors from over 25 states and six countries over the past month alone.
Smith also explained the courthouse was designed to be far less ornate and spectacular on the basement and third floors, as the county leaders at the time felt skimping a little on those two floors would save the county money without sacrificing too much of the building's beauty. Because of that, Smith agreed that entering through the basement did not allow visitors the full experience.
She also noted that, when the courthouse was restored and reopened in 2002, it was done as closely to the original plans, colors and details as to when the building was completed in 1895. The attention to detail went so far as to "purchase red sandstone for repairs from the same quarry that produced the stone used for construction in 1895," notes a historical document provided by the Ellis County Museum. The cost of the restoration was around $11 million.
Smith also noted that her preferred door of entry is the set in the south corner. She always ensures to remind visitors that the doorways were constructed to compass-point or Cardinal direction, meaning they face north, south, east and west.
"This courthouse just has so much history my ancestors and were here for the very first log cabin courthouse and actually got to participate in that grand opening," Smith added. "So to be here all these years later and see this, it's pretty special."
Little echoed the same sentiment during his address to those in attendance Thursday.
The county judge first thanked the four county commissioners, specifically Lane Grayson and Paul Perry, who voted in favor — 3-2 with Little serving as the deciding vote — of reopening the doors on July 3. He also thanked the Waxahachie Downtown Merchants Association for its partnership with the county and his staff for stepping up to host Thursday's event.
"As a candidate for county judge, I stood on these steps and pledged that I was going to do my best to get this courthouse back open to you, the people," Little said from the north entrance. He also reassured those in attendance that the reopening of the doors was not solely a campaign promise, noting that a security committee comprised of Little, Perry and Ellis County Sheriff Chuck Edge ultimately agreed to a plan to present to the commissioners at-large.
"Dad always told me that anything worth having is worth working for," Little said. "We started this process in about late February. And by May 21, we began allowing citizens that are properly licensed with a license to carry in the state of Texas, to begin entering this building again in accordance with state law."
He added, "My goal and my directive as your county judge will always be to eliminate a gun-free zone and allow you, as citizens, the right that is bestowed upon you by the Constitution of the United States — and that is the right to defend yourself and the right to carry. And we are in the state of Texas, for God's sakes."
And, because of all of that, there sat Cloud in the front row of the second-floor courtroom. And, despite his mother working inside the Ellis County Law Library at the Ellis County Courts Building, he sat inside the building for the first time.
"I am really impressed, and I didn't expect it to look like this," the Global High School student said. "I've never been inside here, and I've always only ever seen the outside, but it is a really cool building and it really does look like a piece of history from the inside.
"[...] It is really cool because this place kind of looks like an old theater and it's kind of cool to sit in a place where over 100 years ago business was being conducted here."