by Charles S. Miley, Ft. Pierce News Tribune Editor Emeritus
Many of our present residents never saw our first courthouse and have no idea what it looked like. To those who lived here during its existence many fond memories are associated with it, particularly during the long period when its “Big Ben” clock was in operation.
The structure was built in 1909, four years after the county’s formation in 1905. It was located on South Second street (then Pine street) on the site of the present second courthouse. The site was donated by the town of Fort Pierce in compliance with an agreement when the county was formed that if Fort Pierce were made the county seat of the new county the town would furnish a site for the courthouse, The town paid $1,500 for the courthouse and jail site. The jail, two story brick structure, was built first, a few feet south of the courthouse at a cost of $7,600.
Prior to that time, court sessions were held in the old Fort Pierce Improvement Club hall on North Second street, and public offices were located wherever they could find accommodations.
The old courthouse had pretty much the general appearance and design of other Florida courthouses of the time, a somewhat squarish-two story structure with a dome.
A huge four-faced clock in the dome was its outstanding feature insofar as looks was concerned. Its four dials were five feet across and it had a 700-pound bell that could be heard all over town when it tolled the hours. Through all the early years it pretty much regulated the affairs of the town insofar as the time of day was concerned.
The dome was badly damaged by a 1928 hurricane that it and the clock were removed.
The courthouse and furnishings cost “nearly $40,000”. Furnished–can you believe only $40,000?
Here is a story from the old Fort Pierce News of Jan. 15, 1910, descriptive of the layout of the courthouse:
St. Lucie Count’s handsome new courthouse is practically complete and a special session of the Board of County Commissioners will be held next Monday, January 17, for the purpose of accepting the building from the contractor.
Ground was broken for the foundations of this structure on June 10, 1909, and 185 working days have been consumed in it’s erection, while the contract time allowed was 225 days.
The building is practically 60 by 90 feet, two stories, with a dome extending 78 feet in the air.
The structure is of red pressed brick and the black mortar bordering the brick makes a pleasing effect at close range, and, standing on the bank of the river, it can be seen for many miles, an imposing structure and a monument of justice.
The main entrances are from the river and Pine (Second) Street, east and west, while the north and south entrances have doors, porticos and heavy concrete pillars that stand like sentinels at every entrance.
The inside walls are of white waterproof plaster, while the wainscoating is of cement tile and ceramic tile with cement border used on the hall floor. The partition walls are all reinforced and fireproof, metal lathing being used, and the ceiling on the first story is plaster, while the second story ceiling is metal.
The roof is slate and iron, the dome being covered with galvanized iron.
Every window contains a small sliding ventillator, and other conveniences are apparent all over the building.
On the first floor are offices. The southeast corner room is the clerk’s office, 18 by 18 feet, with a private office. Adjoining the public office is a spacious vault, 20 by 22 feet, for records, etc. The vault is lined with 3/16th-inch sheet steel, has wire-glass windows with metal mesh. as well as inside steel shutters, and is furnished with steel filing cabinets, etc.
In the southwest corner is the county judge’s room, with a private office and vault. This vault is 14 by 18 feet, fitted the same as that of the clerk.
On the west side of the building, facing the main hall, are offices for the sheriff and school superintendent and school board, while on the east side are the offices of the tax assessor and at the corner, the tax collector. A wide hallway also extends east-west through the center of the ground floor.
The main stairway is also in the north end and is of marble steps with steel guardrails. At the head of the stairs is the grand jury room and opposite this the ladies’ room, each of which is 18 by 18 feet.
The courtroom is 51 by 54 feet, of which the bar occupies about one-third. Two hundred opera chairs are on the main floor and the gallery will seat 100. The bar rail, jury boxes, judge’s bench and other furnishings are of oak. The petit jury room and private room for the judge and solicitor occupy the space behind the bar. A spiral staircase also enters the bar from the first floor.
The opening to the dome is above the gallery, and steps lead from there to the immense clock. The clock has four five-foot dials facing north, east, south and west, and the 700 pound bell will produce a sound on each stroke that can be heard for miles. The clock and bell are being installed today.
The building is fireproof throughout, a minimum amount of wood being used in the construction. The contract price of the building is a little over $31,000 and with the furniture, clock and extras, the cost will be nearly $40,000.
The contractor is the Mutual Construction Co. of Louisville, Ky. Mr. I. F. Jones has been the superintendent of the work from start to finish and the job is testimonial of his ability as well as that of the construction company. Mr. H. I. Klopp was the superintending architect and has represented the county in a most able manner throughout the entire time of construction. His knowledge of construction has undoubtedly saved the county much expense and trouble. The average force of workmen during the 185 days of construction has been about 35.
(Editor’s Note; Mr. Klopp lost his life in a tragic accident that occurred a few days after this story was published. He was crushed to death while superintending transfer of a five-ton safe from the old clerk’s office into the vault in the new courthouse. The accident occurred as the safe was being moved through a high window, when it suddenly slid down the supporting timber incline and crushed Mr. Klopp against the steel wall of the vault).
The new courthouse is a credit to St. Lucie County and is undoubtedly the best and most convenient in the Seventh Circuit, in which there are seven counties, presided over by His Honor Minor S. Jones. The next terms of the county and circuit court, both of which will be held in February, will convene in the new court room.
The new furniture is now being set up for the various offices and during the next two weeks several of the county offices will move into their new and much-appreciated quarters.
The original courthouse never did fully accommodate all the business of the county. There were no offices in it for the county prosecuting attorney–but in those days it didn’t matter, for that was only a part-time job and he had his own private law office.
As the county grew and new offices and services were added, the need for larger quarters increased.
And so in 1959-60 the county built the present Second street structure, along with a new jail. There was quite a hassle, even court action, over locating the new facility further west to get away from congestion and provide more parking and expansion room, as recommended by a study group. But downtown lawyers and business interests prevailed against the idea and the county commissioners were adamant. So it was built on the same site.
Same story as to accommodations: Some county offices and functions soon had to be accommodated in rented quarters.
And so–oo, again in 1976-77–our third and newest multi million dollar complex, this time further west (25th Street and Virginia Avenue) as recommended by the original study group, leaving the Second Street facility as a “hall of justice,” and what you have.
Of course, since the original courthouse was built, governmental agencies, functions, offices and personnel have increased beyond all expectations. Likewise, present jail facilities are overcrowded, bursting at the seams. And we’re still growing in population as well as public services.
And so how long before we’ll be needing bigger and better public facilities?
Not many years, probably. Jailwise, even now!
From “Miley’s Memos.” This article first published 5/6/1979. Reprinted by permission of the Ft. Pierce News Tribune. “Miley’s Memos” is the property of the Ft. Pierce News Tribune and reproduction of this material is expressly forbidden without the prior written permission of the Ft. Pierce News Tribune © 2002.