History In The Making: Broward’s New Courthouse Symbolizes A Century Of Growth

New Court Tower Seen As A Metaphor For Social And Judicial Changes In South Florida

Broward County Courthouse, c. 1928
The first Broward County Courthouse, as seen in this iconic historical photo from the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society.

84 years after first opening, The Broward County Courthouse has transitioned from being a humble, four-story brick and mortar building, replete with an iconic clock tower, to emerging as a towering symbol of justice that is forever altering the landscape and very skyline of the city of Fort Lauderdale. Since first opening in 1928, the courthouse has been the scene of plenty of history, too, including playing a central role in judicial decisions of the 2000 Presidential election controversy, which focused worldwide attention on Southeast 6th Street. The new courthouse tower complex is slated to make history once more when it opens in 2015,  which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the 100th Anniversary of the creation of Broward County, itself.

Statue of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward at the county courthouse
A statue of Napleon Bonaparte Broward greets visitors to the Broward County Courthouse’s North Wing.

The county was created from a large chunk of north Dade County and south Palm Beach County, and Fort Lauderdale, which had been incorporated only four years earlier, was selected to become the county seat. That meant the city of Fort Lauderdale would serve as the hub for governmental and judical proceedings for the county, but the courthouse, itself, would not actually be completed and open for another 13 years. Broward County was originally slated to be named Everglades County, but it was renamed for the former Florida governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who served from 1905 to 1909. Today, a statue of Governor Broward stands sentry in the corridor to the newer north wing of the existing courthouse. It was donated by the sculptor, Skip Wellever, in 1982.

The existing courthouse, not including its more contemporary additions, opened in the early 1960’s, a time of explosive population growth for the young county. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show the Broward population was only 83,933 people in 1950, but it quickly mushroomed to 333,946 by the 1960 census. By the time the 1970 population count was taken, the number of permanent residents in the county had nearly doubled to 620,100. The 2010 Census showed Broward County had a population of 1,748,066, with a 2012 population estimate of 1,815,137. Such incredible population growth, and the required judicial services to handle that population, have continued to strain the judicial system in Broward County, even with satellite courthouses opened across the metropolitan area, which handle many traffic and criminal misdemeanor cases. However, it was not the need for new capacity that inpsired plans for the court tower now under construction.

Chronic Maintenance Problems Impel Action To Build New Court Tower

A pair of exceptional pipeline ruptures in the courthouse, which had become commonplace in the aging building, practically bookended the 2008 calendar year. The first pipeline rupture, in February, caused its share of of headaches for courthouse judges, attorneys and staff. Chief Judge Victor Tobin had to take over part of the court clerk’s offices on the second floor and convert them to magistrate court. But it was the dramatic failure of a two-inch water main on December 2, 2008 that caused real problems. That pipeline rupture forced a ten-day closure of the courthouse that played havoc on the entire county docket.

Ironically, the burst pipe ruptured on the second floor, where the temporary magistrate’s offices had been located, sending water flooding through the remainder of the court clerk’s offices and cascading to the first floor. The entire court telephone system was destroyed, and some 3,000 pending case files were damaged. The incident finally forced the hand of the county, which had tried and failed to get voter approval in November 2006 for a $450-million bond issue that would have paid for a new court building.

The old Broward County Court House, as seen here in 2010, had become a maintenance nightmare, forcing the county to appoint a task force to determine whether to renovate the old structure or build a new one. Seven months after this picture was taken, the plans for a new court tower were unveiled.
The old Broward County Court House, as seen nearly two years after the infamous water main burst, had become a maintenance nightmare, forcing the county to appoint a task force to determine whether to renovate the old structure or build a new one. Seven months after this picture was taken, the task force recommended a new tower.

With the aging building practically crumbling underfoot, there seemed to be no choice about building a new courthouse. Because of the voter decision in 2006, a county task force was assembled in December 2008, immediately following the catastrophic pipeline rupture, and it was charged with exploring options for either renovating the existing building or constructing a new facility. The task force returned in June 2011 with its recommendation and plans for a new building. Artists’ conceptions of the new judicial complex were unveiled the following December, three years after the infamous pipeline burster.

The Fall Before The Rise

The old courthouse had a small courtyard square, complete with its own "liberty bell", that was the first to be demolished as construction of the new tower began.
The courtyard square, complete with its own “liberty bell”, was the among the first elements of the old courthouse to be demolished as construction crews prepared the site for the new tower, beginning in August 2012.

Construction of the new courthouse began in the summer of 2012, with demolition crews first removing the old courtyard square, just to the west end of the existing court building. That square had been the home to food vendors and the one-time landmark court bell, which hung suspended in a skeletal cube at the courtyard’s center. Though not quite iconic, the bell had become somewhat reminiscent of the Liberty Bell, itself, and a symbol of  justice in Broward County.

But the careful dismantling of the courtyard transitioned to ignominy as demolition crews moved on to one of the old court parking garages, also at the west end of the old court building. That garage collapsed unexpectedly, during the start of the demolition process, on September 5, 2012, resulting in one injury. An eyewitness video of that collapse is still being shown on the website of a local television station, WTVJ Channel 6.

Broward County Courthouse parking garage collapse
This screen capture from a South Florida Sun-Sentinel web video shows the result of an unexpected parking garage collapse during demolition on September 5, 2012.

Despite the early travails confronting the demolition crews, the contractors hired to give rise to the new courthouse were finally able to begin staging the new construction site in the autumn of 2012, and by the start of 2013, the foundation pilings had been driven, and the first levels of the new courthouse could begin to emerge from the freshly groomed construction site.

Fort Lauderdale Skyline Forever Changed By New Courthouse

New Broward County Courthouse in March 2013
The first floors of the new Broward County Courthouse tower, as they appeared in March 2013, a few months after demolition of the old courtyard square and adjacent parking garage.

The early stages of construction featured an unremarkable work site, with the normal array of rebar and concrete being assembled and fitted like a great, three-dimensional stone and steel puzzle. However, as the first, then second, then third floors of the structure began to rise from the ground, it became apparent this project was of a scale that would bring a bold new crenelation to the growing Fort Lauderdale skyline.

By March of 2013, the cranes, themselves, towered above the old courthouse. It would not be long before the new tower would be visible from miles away. Only a year after building began, the new courthouse tower was an imposing sight, a potent feature of Fort Lauderdale’s skyline in transition.

With the start of 2014, the main courthouse tower was rivaling the 110 Tower, directly across Southeast 6th Street, in size and scale. It no longer mattered the vantage point of the viewer. Whether from the Rainbow Interchange of I-595 and I-95 or from Fort Lauderdale’s beaches, the skyline of the city had become transformed into something more mature, representing a city and county announcing their coming of age.

Broward County's new courthouse, under construction, as seen on Valentine's Day 2014
Valentine’s Day 2014: Two cranes are clearly seen atop the new courthouse tower, visible on the left side of this photo, taken from over two miles away atop a condo building on Fort Lauderdale beach. The tower’s presence is already a fixture of a maturing city skyline.
broward county courthouse topping out
The 20th Floor “Topping Out” Ceremony on February 21 was symbolized by a palm tree, about the closest thing to a natural evergreen you will find in South Florida. The 21st floor will house mechanical  and electrical equipment rooms.

At the end of February 2014, 18 months after the ceremonial ground-breaking, a new ceremony was held. This was the construction workers’ rite, known as “topping out”. The ceremony involves hoisting a pine tree or other evergreen to the highest point of a new construction project, when that highest point has been reached or when the last construction beam has been put into place. Since the construction was happening in South Florida, where traditional evergreens are in short supply, a palm tree was used. On February 21, 2014, the tree topper was placed by the construction crews working on the new courthouse, symbolizing the erection of the last regular floor of the new tower.

The new courthouse tower, as seen from the top floor of a grocery store parking garage, about one block from the new justice building.
The new courthouse tower, as seen from the top floor of a grocery store parking garage, about one block from the new justice building.

By now, the skin of the new courthouse was rising to meet the new height of the building, a necessary step before construction of the interior can get underway. As any construction contractor will tell you, a proper seal against the elements must be in place before interior construction can begin in earnest. By the end of February, the exterior windows and walls were complete through the 11th floor, with the next three floors well underway.

While the new courthouse tower has been under construction, the facility’s new, 1,000-space parking garage has been under construction, bordered on the west and east by Andrews Avenue and NE 1st Avenue, respectively. The north and south boundaries of the garage run from just north of SE 6th Court to SE 7th Avenue. The new garage, about a half block from the new court tower is slated to open this May, but it will only be used by courthouse staff and judges.

rendering of the new Broward County Courthouse
A contractor’s rendering of the new courthouse, as it will appear in 2017, after the old court building is demolished and replaced by a 500-space public parking garage, visible just in front of the new tower. In the lowest part of the illustration can be seen the east wing. Both the east wing and the north wings will remain intact, but interior renovations to those sections will continue through 2018.

As for the old courthouse, it will become a new 500-space parking garage for the general public, but it will take a little longer to open and complete. The reason is obvious: the current courthouse must be vacated, then imploded, then the new parking garage constructed in its place. When the new garage is opened in 2017, the full scope of the original construction plans for the new Broward County Judicial Complex will be nearly fully realized, two years into the county’s second century.

All that will remain, then, will be for contractors to renovate the interior sections of the east wing and north wing of the courthouse, which were built decades after the 1950’s structure. Interior renovations will continue through 2018.

The opening of the new courthouse tower in 2015 will herald the start of a new century of justice in Broward County, one that could easily bear witness to unexpected and historic events, with ramifications that are more than legal. Indeed, some of the rulings that emerge from her courtrooms may easily have an impact on the social and political lives of millions of people throughout the 21st Century and into the 22nd, on the way to Broward’s bicentennial.

Much like those construction workers of yesteryear, who built the very first Broward Courthouse on that lot now occupied by the east wing, today’s contractors will have no way of knowing just how they have contributed to the history they are building today.

Next, in Part II: A slideshow of the construction project, with hundreds of photographs of the construction process. Scheduled release on March 17.
Then, in Part III: How the attorneys of Bogenschutz, Dutko & Kroll, P.A. have been witness to and participants in the history of law in Broward County and South Florida. Scheduled release on April 7.

CORRECTIONS: This story originally stated the 10-story version of the old courthouse, which is currently in use, opened in the late 1950’s. It actually opened in 1962.