By Mary Ann Clark
Less than ten years after the 1917 formation of Flagler County officials and residents felt the need of a new, larger county courthouse.
The Flagler Tribune reported in its August 27, 1925, issue that the “Board of County Commissioners was calling an election to vote on the issuing of courthouse bonds.” The September 24 issue confirmed that “Next Tuesday Voters Accept or Reject $75,000 Bond Issue for Erection of Court House.”
The October 1 issue stated that “County Votes 97 Per Cent Favoring Court House Bond Issue at Tuesday Election.” Only three votes were cast against the issue! The report continued that the “Site for the new building was purchased by the county commissioners over a year ago and at a price that is far below the present list price of other lots in that vicinity.”
“Commissioners Meet Monday Pick Talley of Lakeland to Draw Plans for Courthouse” was reported in the October 15 issue of the Flagler Tribune. W.B. Talley, who was the planner for the high school, arrived in Bunnell to confer with the board. A bond issue resolution for financing the courthouse was presented by C. G. Varn and approved by the board. The headline of the November 26 issue proclaimed the “Flagler County Court House A Certainty” since the bonds have been validated by an extra session of the Legislature.
The January 14, 1926, issue confirmed that the courthouse construction fund was augmented by a transfer of $5,000 from the jail fund. The July 15 issue reported that “Court House Bonds Sold, the entire issue sold today at slightly below par.”
July 29 issue stated that “Court House Contract Let: Work Will be Started as soon as Materials can be Assembled.” August 19: “Material for Court House Being Placed.” August 26: “Contract Made for Vault Work at Court House.” (These vaults are still usable.) November 18: “Court House Taking Form as Work Proceeds.”
The courthouse was officially turned over to the board of county commissioners at their meeting on Monday, April 4, 1927, by the O.P. Woodcock Company of Jacksonville who had charge of the erection, and county officers moved in on Monday, April 18. The April 7 issue of the Flagler Tribune stated that “The building is a handsome one, being built along classic Grecian design of vari-colored brick with ornamental stone for the trim on the outside while the interior is finished with sand-colored plaster and a silver-grey woodwork except the floors, which have the usual floor finish.”
The courthouse was dedicated “in a fitting manner” on Thursday, July 28; a holiday was declared for that day and all citizens of the county requested to observe it by coming to Bunnell, bringing a picnic basket and making a day of the dedication. State Senator A.M. Taylor of St. Augustine, Daytona Beach Mayor B.F. Brass and Judge George W. Jackson of the 25th judicial circuit were the speakers at this happy event. Following the morning dedication ceremony, the picnic dinner was held “just across Moody boulevard from the courthouse in the pine grove on the Holden property.”
A community Christmas tree and program were staged on the courthouse lawn by the Civitan Club during the evening of Friday, December 23, 1927, with about 500 people gathered to take part and view the 20-feet-high beautifully decorated tree.
The next years were uneventful until the afternoon of Saturday, July 16, 1938, when the northwest corner of the courthouse was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm “causing a slight amount of damage to the parapet but injuring nothing else. Pieces of brick and concrete were thrown more than 100 feet across the street.”
In February 1941 the county bought the courthouse bonds ($75,000 at 1.02) borrowing road and bridge funds, a saving to taxpayers in interest charges of $60,000 to $70,000, the amount that would have been paid provided the bonds had run to maturity in other hands. Also in October 1941, the Flagler Tribune noted that the heaviest rainfall in this area since the 1924 floods resulted in water reaching up to the top of the first step at the courthouse and “the civic center building looked as if it might be in Venice instead of Bunnell, it being entirely surround-setting in the middle of a large lake.”
In 1948 the courthouse streets (one block of Church and Pine) were paved and sidewalks were built and curb and gutter placed on the Church Street block. In 1949 the building received a “face-lifting” consisting of cleaning, repairing and refinishing the large amount of concrete construction of the building and “it now presents a glowing white, contrasting with the red face brick gives the courthouse the ‘new, new look.’”
The courthouse received another renovation in 1958-1959 when the building was rewired, the circuit court and judge’s chambers on the second floor were remodeled as was the commissioners’ room on the ground floor and other much-needed repairs were made at a cost of $25,000. June 1962 saw the installation of air conditioning for the first floor; the second floor to be done in the next budget year. 1968 saw the building of a parking lot to the rear of the courthouse “which would serve the courthouse, civic center and football stadium.”
Early on Saturday, February 2, 1974, the courthouse was firebombed by three Bunnell teenagers in what was described as “retaliation against the earlier arrest of a Bunnell black youth on a minor traffic charge.” Flames gutted the county commission meeting room and destroyed Southern Reporter files of benchmark court decisions dating back to 1847. Had the fires set off by the “Molotov cocktails made of beer bottles containing gasoline” not been discovered within minutes, the courthouse would have gone up in flames.
In November 1973 the commissioners were told that the courthouse is “aged, overcrowded and cries out for a major addition.” It was not until June 1979 that William Faust, Daytona Beach architect, reviewed for the commissioners his tentative plans for improvements and additions to the courthouse that he estimated would cost $2 million. He projected that the county would have 30,000 residents by 1990, an increase of 100 percent over the present estimated population of 10,000. In August 1980 the commissioners voted to enter into a contract with Faust to design a new courthouse addition. He will do the work for 8 percent of the project’s overall cost and will charge the county by the hour for design work his firm does on renovations to the existing courthouse.
The plan was to build a new three-story building adjacent and south of the current building which would be renovated with an elevator between them expanding the floor space from 13,000 square feet to some 39,000 square feet. How to pay for the new building? A 30-year bond issue to be repaid using gambling receipts from the state or a 2- mill levy (not popular with the citizenry)? Since firm costs were not known, this was a moot question.
Judge Hammond validated the sale of $2.5 million in bonds in April 1981. In March the commission had approved two resolutions giving permission to issue the bonds and restrict use of the proceeds, but sale will be dependent on the bids, etc. The $2.185 million bond sale was approved by the commission on December 7, 1981.
Advertising for bids, to be opened on April 15, was approved by the commission on March 1, 1982. Some revenue sharing allocations would be used for the courthouse addition and for the renovations of the older building (furniture and an interior sprinkler system). There were even suggestions that the courthouse should look for energy savings in their new building!
The bids were opened, and Graham Construction Inc. of Orlando with a bid of $1,639,000 was awarded the job subject to Architect Faust’s review of subcontractors planned for the project. The City of Bunnell waived charging for a building permit but refused to budge on collection of impact fees for water and sewer usage.
Construction began on the addition on Monday, May 17, and was to be completed in 365 days. Work progressed well until Friday, June 18, when a large crack—about 1 ½ inches wide—was discovered on the western end of the red brick building– probably caused by the auger pile driver. The courthouse was closed on Tuesday afternoon June 22 and reopened the next day. There was much cause for concern after a crack in the courtroom floor widened as did those in the south and west walls. The widest fissure was at the top of the building on the west wall close to the south wall near the roofline; the crack was visible from blocks away.
County Engineer Don Chinnery advised that county offices be moved and the Daytona Beach Morning Journal reported that the building was closed on Monday, June 28, and county offices were moved to other available space in four locations. The tax collector and property appraiser’s offices were moved to the Annex (located across Route 100 from the Bunnell water tower and now the location of the GSB). Offices for the Circuit and County Courts and the Court Recorder were in the board room on the second floor of Ellis First National Bank (now Bank of America). The county court had some of its sessions in the eastern end of the Bunnell Elementary School cafeteria. The county finance department and traffic bureau were in the Holden House and Veteran’s Affairs Office (now the Holden House Annex).
Then the fun began! The architect said the contractor should repair the courthouse. Work resumed on the annex after chemical grouting costing $17,000 was injected to help stabilize the soil so that pile driving could continue for the addition. Contractor Graham stopped construction on the addition in late November. The commission filed suit against the contractor and architect for damages and began a search for someone to repair the courthouse.
In early 1983 the solution found, engineered by Post Tensioned Systems of Miami, was to thread hundreds of half-inch steel cables through the 52-year-old landmark and literally sew it back together at a cost of $63,000 plus $15,788 for additional injections of a cement-like substance under the old building. The building was “pulled together” the first week in March, and work resumed slowly on the addition.
In January 1984 construction slowly continued as did litigation. In early March, Orlando contractor Bob Graham was given 5 days to complete construction of the $1.6 million addition. He, in turn, demanded payment of what he was owed or he would quit. In the meantime, theft by a contractor led to the unfounded charge that critical steel reinforcement rods were missing in the construction rendering the building unsafe. A deal was finally worked out to complete the addition in 120 days and pay the contractor two back payments amounting to $120,000. All parties agreed to get the building built and then argue in court later over what damages should be paid. At that time the block walls were completed, the roof on and windows installed, but the majority of the interior remained to be done.
In July 1984 the Flagler County Historical Society asked the commission to try to keep the original wooden windows as part of the renovation and delay installing specially ordered aluminum windows. This request was refused because a delay would have an impact on the lawsuit against the contractor.
Construction on the new building was nearly complete in October 1984 when commissioners learned that if the furniture is to be delivered in time for the opening of the buildings, it must be ordered immediately. In addition, 7th Judicial Circuit Court judges were pushing hard for completion.
Circuit Court Judge Kim Hammond finally issued an administrative order setting aside space for court-related functions in the two buildings and in a second-order said he would begin court proceedings in the building November 19, 1984. The commission, however, decided county government would not move into the building until the final inspection. Court was held on the 19th; the first case was a suit against contractor Graham for non-payment of a subcontractor which was settled quickly when Graham’s attorney offered the plaintiff an $8,000 settlement of a $13,000 claim.
The parceling out of the remaining office space became interesting. The county clerk, tax collector, and supervisor of elections vied for space on the first floor. Problems with the air conditioner units in February 1985 delayed occupancy, but finally late in the month county officials began to move in despite the refusal of the contractor to sign over the building.
In January 1985 arbitration with the contractor had begun while the commission was trying to get Graham to complete the new building so the county could move in. The three-person arbitration panel found that the design and not the actual placement of the pilings caused the cracking and awarded in favor of Graham. Once the arbitration was settled the county would seek its damages from the design engineer, the architect, and their insurance companies.
The Murphy’s Law influence continued in the episode of payment for the changing of the locks for the building. Hubert Pellicer, the administrative aide to the commission, had the locks changed during the unofficial move by officers into the building. The Clerk of Courts, Shelton Barber, was not consulted and refused to pay the “unauthorized” $450 bill for the new locks until ordered to do so by the commission.
Parking at the courthouse became a problem when the court was in session. The solution in May 1985 was a land swap with the City of Bunnell to use part of the old city football field east of City Hall for additional parking and to improve paving on the south side of the building.
The arbitration panel awarded Graham $673,598 as a settlement for delays in construction and additional items to the county’s courthouse addition. A lot of money for a county of 15,000 people! The county naturally appealed the award by the panel which according to the county’s attorneys “its comments went beyond the normal function of an arbitrating panel.”
In July after the heating and air conditioning was installed correctly and several small problems were remedied, the subcontractors were awarded back pay of approximately $169,000.
The legal battle continued with the contractor suing subcontractors, and the commission appealing the arbitration award. Finally, in July 1986, an out-of-court settlement was reached. The county commission voted to pay $327,800 toward a nearly $700,000 settlement to Graham Construction. The remainder of the settlement was paid by the architects, engineers, and others associated with the project, including architect Bill Faust of Daytona Beach. The four-year “saga” was over!
In the spring of 2000, a beautiful renovation of the courtroom was completed and unveiled to the public. This room is waiting to be seen again with the completion of the latest courthouse renovation.
With the completion of the Government Services Building in January 2006 and the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in September 2007, the old courthouse was vacated and left in deplorable condition needing a new roof and, once again, air conditioning and heating improvements. The latest update is now in process, and when economic conditions improve the old courthouse will once again be the most beautiful in the state of Florida.
Since their fathers worked for many years in the courthouse, Ray Mercer and the Wadsworth girls (Susan Roberts, Gail and Prunie Rodgers) have many happy memories of visiting and playing in the building and are willing to share their experiences. Pictures of the courthouse and other historic locations in Bunnell are displayed in the Annex of the Flagler County Historical Society which is open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The courthouse over the years has been the scene of political debates, 4-H club meetings, Committee of 100 Directors meetings, legislative hearings, Sunday School meetings and much more. It has been a very well used, historic, loved and valued structure and will one day soon return to greater usefulness in Flagler County.
Mary Ann Clark, President of the Flagler County Historical Society