For two hours Friday, the old Flagler County courthouse — sitting empty and rejected by Bunnell, the town that for years had wanted it — opened up, impressing visitors who streamed though to see the old building during a county-hosted open house.
“It reminds me of the courthouse in To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Palm Coast resident Grant Atkinson, a self-described history buff who chairs the Palm Coast Civil War Round Table. “You kind of expect Atticus to come walking out.”
The county held the open house in part to attract a buyer.
But many attendees, like Atkinson, were history buffs who remarked on the old building’s ornate, still-gleaming woodwork and its classical brick-and-columns façade.
The courthouse, completed in 1927, is cavernous — about 49,700 square feet, including its 1982 annex — and guides from the blue-ribbon committee headed by Flagler County Commissioner Barbara Revels and tasked with finding a use for the building carefully herded groups through to ensure that no one got lost.
Local pastor the Rev. Sims Jones, of God’s Love Ministries, bounded up to the podium of the largest of the historic courtrooms and began a mock service, joking that tour attendees should reach into their pockets to save the building.
“We’ve got to raise money to save this building,” he said. Chuckling, County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin pretended to pass a donation basket. The courthouse is within his district.
The building, at 200 State Road 100, served as the seat of county government for the eight decades between its 1927 completion and the construction of the new Kim C. Hammond Justice Center and Government Services Building just down the street in 2007.
There was talk of putting the Sheriff’s Operations Center there, but those plans were rejected because the Sheriff’s Office wanted a one-story building and space for secure parking.
The old courthouse is two stories in the historic section, and three in the 36,399-square-foot 1982 annex. It has just 30 parking spaces, but could potentially have up to about 150, Assistant County Administrator Sally Sherman said during the tour.
Briefly, it looked like the building would once more be a government seat — for the city of Bunnell, which accepted the building from the county last year before deciding, in April, to give it back, citing concerns about renovation and maintenance costs.
When the county commission accepted it back in a 3-2 vote, and County Administrator Craig Coffey told the commission it had the following options: tear down the entire building, tear down part of it and use the other part, sell it, or lease it.
Some Bunnell city commissioners potentially undermined the last two options by saying in statements quoted in the local press that the building has a mold problem, an issue Palm Coast resident Carol Gunthorpe asked about during the tour.
County Engineer Faith AlKhatib, who helped lead the tour, said mold issues had been minor and dealt with.
Gunthorpe, who volunteers with the local cold-weather shelter, could imagine the building used to help the vulnerable.
“You could divide this up into a couple of things,” she said. “A shelter would be ideal.”
Jones, the pastor, remarked on potential nonprofit uses of almost every room he entered, exclaiming on the sturdiness of the structure and the fact that it is wheelchair-accessible.
Ormond Beach resident Randy McDonald said he was touring the building on behalf of a friend. “He’s an attorney, and he’s in Chicago and looking to move down here,” McDonald said. McDonald said the building was in better condition than he thought it might be. “Structurally, this is still in good shape,” he said.
Hosting attorneys’ offices might be a use the building would lend itself to, said County Administrator Craig Coffey, because of its proximity to the new courthouse and Government Services Building.
Mary Ann Clark, president of the Flagler County Historical Society and a member of the courthouse blue-ribbon committee, said plenty can be done with the building, including the addition, but “you just need to find the right people.”
“It’s important for a community to have something like this,” she said. “I’m an optimist. I’m very hopeful. With the resources, something great could happen.”