Old county courthouse may get needed repairs
By Catherine Lackner
A downtown landmark has fallen upon hard times, but help is on the way.
The Miami-Dade County Courthouse, 73 W. Flagler St., "looks like a crack house," said Jose Goyanes, a member of the Miami Downtown Development Authority and a downtown business owner. "We moved here in 2000, and it's been a mess since then."
Still in full operation as the seat of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida as well as the home of the county civil and family courts, the building has a long and colorful history.
Miami-Dade's first courthouse, built in 1904 at the site, cost $47,000 and was expected to serve the young city for at least 50 years, according the 11th Judicial Circuit's Web site. But by 1924, Miami's explosive growth necessitated a larger courthouse.
Architect Antony Teneycke Brown designed the 28-story courthouse, a skyscraper at that time, and workers erected the new building around the existing structure, which was then dismantled.
"Unexpectedly, construction was halted when the building reached 10 stories. It was discovered that the high-rise was sinking into the spongy ground," the court's Web site says. "Engineers consulted with an architect from Mexico City who had encountered a similar problem while building the city's opera house. The consultant determined that the foundation pilings were not set deep enough. To correct the problem, cement supports were poured, which take up much of the space in the building's basement file room even to this day. The courthouse was finally completed in 1928 at a cost of $4 million."
It would be Miami's tallest building and reputed to be the tallest building south of Baltimore at one time. The courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
Despite its place as a downtown icon, the courthouse is surrounded by a chain-link fence, wooden boards hold up some of the columns and it is in a general state of disrepair, Mr. Goyanes said.
While the building is owned and managed by Miami-Dade County, "when people look at it, they see Miami, not Dade County," Mr. Goyanes said. "It casts a bad light on Miami. It's just a bad building. I wish we could grab some money and throw it at the courthouse, but we can't."
"We agree that the exterior does not look its best," said Wendi J. Norris, director of the county's General Services Administration. "We are hampered by safety concerns created by the deterioration of the 80-year-old terra-cotta façade of the building, which requires that we encircle the building with fencing and boards to keep pedestrians at a safe distance until the repairs can be made."
Because of the courthouse's status as an historic structure, repairs must conform to the Secretary of the Interior's standards, requiring specialized design, she said.
The terra cotta for the courthouse was manufactured by the defunct Atlantic Terra Cotta Co. of New York, and exhaustive efforts were made to locate copies of the original drawings to assist with repairs but none were found, Ms. Norris said. The missing pieces will have to be handmade and "will require an enormous amount of detailing," she said.
"The architectural and engineering selection process was hampered by the lack of local qualified professionals who met the minimum requirements to perform the work," Ms. Norris said. Only two firms met the minimum qualifications, and the county expects to award a contract in March.
But for now, "we will take a fresh look at the exterior," Ms. Norris said, "and determine if there are any creative solutions that we can come up with to improve the overall appearance of this important community building while the repairs are performed."