Newly-planted royal palms line the front of the historic courthouse Bunnell has decided it doesn’t want.
Commissioners cited many reasons for voting to transfer the old building, which the city wanted for years but now fears is a money pit, back to the county: The roof leaks. The wiring’s bad. It’s moldy.
For most of its history — until the county moved its administration to the new courthouse and Government Services Building down the street on State Road 100 — the old brick building served as the seat of county government and a center of local residents lives.
“That’s kind of the origin of Flagler County,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said. “People got married there. There were court cases there. Before TV or the Internet, the place to be was the courthouse.”
The county hasn’t yet held a vote to accept it back.
Unwanted by both the city and the county, and bearing the creases, cracks and weathering of its 87-year history, the building now has an uncertain future. It’s unclear who will want to invest the money to fix its faults.
Bunnell simply couldn’t manage it, Bunnell City Commissioner Elbert Tucker said.
“The roof and the rain water collector system is bad, the outside needs to be sealed, and that must be done before the mold can be remediated,” he said. “The annex, which has the majority of square footage in it, would have to be retrofitted for a sprinkler system. The air conditioning duct work needs to be redone, and the wiring would have to be brought up to code.”
All of that, he said, could cost up to $5 million, for a building that far exceeds the city’s size requirements.
“Our personal needs for the city of Bunnell for the employees is about 6,000 square feet,” he said. “It’s 48,000 square feet, and we need 6,000. It’s just not the prudent fiscal thing to do to spend $5 million on a place which has 48,000 square feet, which is 42,000 square feet more than we need.”
Only Mayor Catherine Robinson voted to keep the building. The city had long planned to take over part of it, she said, but “the idea of getting the whole courthouse was a plan to revitalize downtown Bunnell.”
To do that, she said, she was seeking out ways to fund repairs on the building while the rest of the commission was getting cold feet.
“I was actively working to get some funds from the state and the federal level to clean up the first and maybe the second floor,” she said. “I feel like we were premature, because I had asked for bids.”
The estimates city commissioners based their decision to return the building on varied greatly, she said. “There were estimates for being able to renovate at $500,000 for one floor at a time, all the way up to $1 million plus per floor,” she said.
At this point, she’d just like to see the building used.
“Anything that’s done with that building will help downtown Bunnell, without a doubt,” she said. “I think it would bring vitality back to the city, to the downtown corridor. I think that economic activity would be increased.”
Politicians gave speeches and Bunnell boy scouts raised the stars and stripes over the courthouse at its dedication ceremony on July 28, 1927, according to Flagler Tribune coverage from the time.
The building, designed by Jacksonville-based architect Wilbur B. Talley, cost about $100,000 to build, and Flagler Tribune stories from the time of the building’s construction boasted of its appearance, saying it was “said to be the most beautiful and best equipped in several surrounding counties” and “has every modern con¬venience and facilities.”
And it didn’t just house county officials.
“On April 21, 1927, the county commission voted permission for the Bunnell city clerks office to be located in the new county courthouse,” Flagler County Historical Society archivist Sisco Deen said. “So we have come full circle.”
But by the 1970s, space in the building was so tight the officials whose offices were housed there complained of tripping over each other in the hallways, and the county began renovating the structure. At one point, as a contractor dug behind the building, something went wrong, and the foundation cracked and split, sending employees running out into the street. The county repaired the building.
But by 2007, the county built new accommodations — the new courthouse and Government Services Building just down the street — and the old courthouse sat empty.
There was talk of moving the Sheriff’s Office there. The Sheriff — at the time, Don Fleming — didn’t want it. Neither did constitutional officers housed in the new government services building.
Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey wanted the old courthouse to become a Bunnell city hall, and isn’t sure what will happen with it now.
It’s listed in guidebooks and websites as a historic courthouse, but that might not be enough to save it if community members — so many of whom are transplants from states with much older buildings, unlikely to be impressed with the value of something built in the past century — decide it’s not useful.
“People come in from other communities, and they say, ‘This is nothing. We preserved stuff up north that’s really historic,’” he said. “In Florida, the mindset is not so much there.”
But old buildings that are renovated and reused can have real character, he said. He’s seen historic government buildings renovated in Kentucky and Iowa, including one that was burned out in a fire but now houses businesses.
“A lot more thinking has to go on with the retrofit of an old building,” he said. “They do have their challenges, because you find surprises, and they don’t always meet today’s standards. And at the end, you usually come out with something much cooler, more unique.”
Former Flagler County Commissioner Alan Peterson, who served until 2012, spoke at public meetings in November, saying the building had value and the county should not just hand it over to Bunnell.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to give it away to 3% when 100% of the county has paid substantial money to maintain the current building,” he said at a Nov. 18 meeting. “It’s very much like giving away your house because you don’t want to pay this year’s taxes.”
Now he hopes the county will take it back and do something useful with it.
“I think the county should take it back and re-explore what options there are for the courthouse,” he said. “If the county takes it back, they’ve got the option to use a part of it. Perhaps they could tear the top story off and make it a two-story building to save on air-conditioning costs.”
He suggested moving the Bunnell library branch there. The historic part of the building wasn’t constructed to take the weight of so many books and would need reinforcement for that, he said, but the annex wouldn’t.
“One of the advantages to putting the library in that building is that then the county could turn around and sell the building the library’s in,” he said, and rent out the rest of the courthouse building.
He said selling the building off for commercial use would “be a shame,” but that some use would be better than none.
“I think there’s a local value, clearly, to the old courthouse,” if not to its annex, he said. “I’d like to see some use of the old courthouse if it all possible.”
County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said the county has explored its options with the courthouse already, and hasn’t found a use for it.
“It just didn’t fit the needs of anything that we were looking at,” he said.
He said he can see why Bunnell considers the courthouse too costly a project.
“We understand it. There’s no bad guy in this,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate thing for them. We were looking forward to their growth and vision for the property, but they feel that it’s something that’s financially too weighty for them.”
McLaughlin said that although he can’t speak for the rest of the board, he can’t imagine that they wouldn’t accept the courthouse back. Meanwhile, he said, he’s asked the county attorney to research options for auctioning off the property.
The Rev. Sims Jones, of God’s Love Ministries in Bunnell, said he wished the city had not returned the building to the county, and would like to see it used again.
“To me, it’s still the heart of Bunnell,” he said. “There’s a rich heritage in Bunnell, and Bunnell was the crossroads of Flagler County. You know, you never want to lose where you came from. That’s your backbone; that’s your basis. I do really believe they will lose something of who they are, what they are, if they lose that building.”