The Big Reveal

Taking the wraps off the hidden Palm Beach County Courthouse was 36 years and $18 million in the making

The Palm Beach County Courthouse was built in 1916 in West Palm Beach, Florida

Credit: Hedrick Brothers Construction

When a building is gone, it's gone for good. But last year the Palm Beach County Courthouse, swallowed decades ago by a gargantuan judiciary center, came back—thanks to some unusual deconstruction and the tenacity of a few dedicated Florida preservationists.

Built in 1916 in West Palm Beach, the Neoclassical courthouse was an appropriately magisterial setting for the county's judicial business. Unfortunately, lack of office space in the 40,000-square-foot building proved problematic from the start. Architecturally sympathetic additions in 1927 and 1955 offered temporary solutions, but by 1968 a special committee had decided to expand the courthouse in a dramatic manner.

Despite opposition from judges, county officials, and others who worked in the building, commissioners approved a mammoth "wraparound," an entirely new building constructed on all four sides of the original, rendering the historic courthouse all but invisible. Though unpopular, the wraparound  nearly doubled the building's square-footage at half the cost of a new courthouse. After construction ended in 1972, the original 1916 treasure was entombed in an unremarkable, manufactured-brick behemoth. And there it remained for more than 30 years.

By 1995, the county had once again built a newer, bigger courthouse and the entire 1970s structure (including its Neoclassical core) was slated for demolition. "The thought was that this was an ugly building, and it was not worth saving," says Rick  Gonzalez, president of REG Architects, Inc.

But County Commissioner Karen Marcus knew otherwise. "I grew up in Palm Beach County, so I remember seeing the original building and its classic look," she says. Marcus began working with the county's historic preservation office, Gonzalez, and others to garner grassroots support for preserving the building.

In order to convince the other commissioners that revealing the old building made sense, advocates arranged a field trip to the 12th floor of a nearby county office building. From there, "You could see the parapets of the original courthouse, totally encapsulated by the 1970s building," says Gonzalez. "One commissioner just went, 'Oh my god, I can't believe that's there!'"

The commissioners approved a feasibility study and discovered that 50 percent of the original building was still intact—possibly more. In April 2002, the board allocated $18 million toward restoration.

As demolition of the wraparound began, no one knew what to expect. "We couldn't continue with design plans until the wraparound was gone and we knew exactly what we had to work with," says Gonzalez, whose firm headed the restoration efforts. When they finally got to the building, Gonzalez and his team found that most of it was in good shape: Several original windows had simply been boarded up under drywall, the building's granite base was largely intact, and much of the exterior brick was undamaged. "It had been preserved inside the new building," says Gonzalez.

Materials from the 1927 and 1955 additions—including marble, window parts, and old doors—were salvaged for use in the restoration. Other essential elements came from an unlikely source: the Palm Beach Memorial Park cemetery. Gonzalez discovered that 12 columns from the original 1916 porticos had been sent to the burial ground and placed in the cemetery grass. When Gonzalez dropped by and asked if he could have them back, cemetery officials "were only too happy to get rid of them," he says. Once reassembled, the parts composed 113⁄4 of the 12 columns needed; only one capital had to be reconstructed. "It was really a miracle," Gonzalez says.

Completed in November 2007, the restored courthouse today houses offices for the County Public Affairs Department, the County Attorney's Office, and the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum, part of the county historical society.

"Very few people who live here now also lived here 30 years ago, so the old building was forgotten," says Gonzalez. "Now, for the first time in a very long time, people can see this huge piece of our history, and inside they can learn all about Palm Beach County. It really adds to a strong sense of ­community."           

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