Most of us have heard the old adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” It’s the basic premise of the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film explores it through an interesting perspective, though. It shows main character George Bailey what his world would look like had he never been born.
George is frustrated by stifled, unfulfilled dreams of an adventurous life. He feels insignificant and trapped by mundane responsibility. After meeting an angel named Clarence, George gets the unique opportunity to see how differently the lives his family, friends and community would have evolved without him. So many outcomes would have been different because this one ordinary person was not there living his ordinary life among them.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at Denton through that same kind of lens. Today’s column is the first in a special holiday series that will run until Christmas Eve.
What would Denton look like if certain things we see every day weren’t here?
The Courthouse on the Square has been in continuous operation since it was built in 1896. Its image is iconic to us and the world beyond, appearing alongside thousands of articles, stories, in films and in countless photo albums of citizens and visitors for 121 years.
I have often referred to the Courthouse’s beautiful lawn as the living room of our community. Day and night, we gather there to enjoy pretty weather, pick a guitar, picnic, study, relax, even create art. We celebrate there with music and festivals. We come together there to promote awareness about important issues, share ideas, search for solutions and compromise.
Like you, I cannot imagine Denton without our historic courthouse. So I was surprised to learn there was a time in our past when a Denton sans the courthouse as we know it was actually a consideration.
Over the years, I’ve heard it told more than once that some time in the mid-1900s, parking was perceived to be such a critical problem for the largely retail area surrounding the courthouse that some city leaders wondered if a parking lot would be a better use of the land on which the courthouse stands. After consulting with Denton County officials and doing a little digging, I’ve discovered that tale is not altogether true. But like most tales, there is a measure of truth exaggerated in the telling and retelling over time.
Today, the County Judge and commissioners offices are in the Courthouse on the Square. Commissioners Court still convenes there. The Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum comprises the entire first floor. Other buildings scattered beyond downtown comprise courts, the jail, tax offices, and myriad other county government functions. But, in the 1960s, County offices were almost entirely located inside the Courthouse on the Square. So the building itself was never actually in jeopardy.
It was our living room, the lovely expanse of tree-canopied green space, which was in peril over parking. An idea to convert a significant portion of the lawn into additional parking got enough tread to warrant a 1966 study.
A family poses on a horse-drawn buggy in front of the Courthouse. Photo taken circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Denton County Office of History and Culture)
Now, close your eyes and try to see the Denton square as it might have looked had the idea come to fruition. A little grass and some flowery landscaping near the building, and then concrete. Cars would park right where we set up lawn chairs and blankets to enjoy Twilight Tunes every spring.
Fortunately, the study concluded that the courthouse lawn was an integral aesthetic to downtown Denton’s ambiance and appeal. The trees stately and beautiful, the space frequented and cherished by Dentonites was too valuable to sacrifice on the altar of progress. A situation much like Denton’s at that time most surely inspired artist Joni Mitchell when she penned the lyrics to her 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi.”
“They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”
But not in Denton. Not on our square. Ours is one of the few courthouses that still boast a living room the likes of what we enjoy.
Henceforth when I drive through other town squares past concrete-bound courthouses, I will have a new and profound appreciation for the debate that must have ensued back then. Our square could very well look quite different today.
Instead, we will gather on a beautiful lawn under twinkling lights this coming Friday night for our traditional Holiday Lighting Festival. One of those stately trees will be decked out, our collective Christmas tree. We’ll sing carols, drink wassail and celebrate the season together, on the lawn, in our living room. And like George Bailey, we’ll revel in what surely is a wonderful life in Denton.