07/09/14-- Miami-- The historic Dade County Courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. currently is attempting to secure and restore the facade, which has been dropping in chunks.
07/09/14– Miami– The historic Dade County Courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. currently is attempting to secure and restore the facade, which has been dropping in chunks. (J. Albert Diaz)

The basement of the 86-year-old Dade County Courthouse is swathed in opaque plastic cordoning off large sections inundated with water. Parts of ceilings swell with water damage or have collapsed, exposing wiring and plumbing. Open case files sit precariously on rusting shelves.

Yet the eeriest part of the basement is the makeshift plywood frames built this year around the exposed bottoms of support pillars holding up the 27 floors above.

Here the skeleton of the courthouse is under attack by the elements, corroding as the water table ebbs and rises with downpours. Small pumps move the water out through a network of hoses, beating like exposed hearts.

These days the vultures that famously circle the courthouse pinnacle are more than apropos. This building is on a death watch.

“The basis of a functioning democracy is a working and efficient executive, legislative and judicial branch,” said Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bertila Soto.

“If we are unable to function at capacity, we are not delivering the constitutionally guaranteed services our citizens expect,” she said. “Citizens deserve a courthouse that is structurally sound and efficient.”

From Great Heights

The courthouse opened to fanfare in 1928. It was the tallest building south of Baltimore. Mobster Al Capone was acquitted in 1930 of perjury in what has become the ceremonial courtroom.

Today, the courthouse is home to 450 employees, 23 operating courtrooms and 41 judges. It also is home to many jury trials before 18 judges stationed in satellite courthouses.

The courthouse handles civil cases, and more than 192,300 are pending. Family matters are handled at the nearby Lawson E. Thomas Courthouse, and criminal matters are heard across the Miami River at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.

The venerable courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Soto said it needs to be retired. She and many other legal community leaders insist a state-of-the-art civil courthouse should be built for the state’s most populous county of 2.6 million residents.

The county has been pouring money into the doddering building.

In the mid-1990s, the lobby was restored replete with its ornate elevator doors. In 2007, the ceremonial Courtroom 6-1 got a $750,000 makeover with private funding.

A 2013 project to give the building a $33 million facelift is almost finished, but it has done nothing to alleviate that cancer gnawing at the bones of the building. The structure has been surrounded by a chain-link fence for years decade to keep the crumbling facade from striking the pedestrians below.

“It’s like an old car,” Soto said. “You fix one thing, then the next day two other things break.”

Lawyer Lobbying

The Miami-Dade County Commission is being lobbied by private attorneys to put a $550 million bond measure on the November ballot to fund a new courthouse. The law firm of Stearns, Weaver, Miller, Weissler, Alhadeff & Sitterson in Miami has put some of its muscle behind the effort with partner and former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mary Barzee Flores helping lead the effort.

The commission has asked the county’s building operator, the Internal Services Department, for an assessment.

Barzee, whose chambers were on the eighth floor, said the commission just wants to know how much space is needed and how much a new building will end up costing.

“I don’t sense any loss of steam,” she said. “The commission appropriately wants information before they commit to a vote that will result in the question going on the ballot.”

Besides the perennial flooding, Soto said the building also has termites and mold, which is addressed as discovered.

Employees of the Clerk of Court’s office wear masks and boots when they head down to the basement to pull files, which are no longer stored on the bottom shelves due to the flooding.

The probate division temporarily moved in May to the Overtown Transit Village after its air conditioning broke. The 14 and 15th floors are closed.

And the walls on the top floors are now down to exposed brick, providing a haunted house feel.

When the county jail was on the 24th floor, prisoners nicknamed it cielito lindo, Spanish for beautiful sky. From their jails cell, they were offered a spectacular view of downtown and the Miami River.

Get Moving

The final straw in the cavalcade of problems for Soto was when she learned the iron building supports were deteriorating.

“When I first heard I was very concerned,” she said. “However, we have been assured by the county it’s safe to work inside the building.”

Miriam Singer, assistant director of the Internal Services Department, said the building is indeed safe. “The columns that are load-bearing are in very good shape,” she said.

The problems with the water table and the supports stem from courthouse construction. Engineers had to add supports. That’s why courtrooms above the sixth floor have intrusive columns, forcing judges, attorneys and jurors into an unwitting game of hide-and-seeks.

The county will reinforce the worst supports, but Soto and Barzee say it’s time to get moving on a replacement. They said the county has plenty of options. Other than a bond measure, a half-cent sales tax could be assessed, and a private-public partnership could be forged.

All Aboard Florida, which is building a Miami-Orlando passenger rail line, has expressed interest in earmarking a planned skyscraper as a courthouse at its downtown Miami station.

Barzee Flores said it’s a political reality that counties outgrow their old and tired courthouses, and new buildings don’t come cheap.

“There are new state courthouses all over the state of Florida that have been built in the last 12 years,” she said. “It’s not just Palm Beach County and now Broward County getting one. It’s Sanford, Florida, it’s Duval County, and it’s Orlando, it’s Clay County. It’s remarkable.”

Restrooms And Outlets

How dated is the courthouse?

It has few working restrooms. Jurors quickly learn not to use the snail-slow elevators, filling up the stairwells to get back and forth during breaks.

It is hardly equipped to meet the needs of today’s high-tech trials, which employ computers to present evidence to jurors. “You are lucky to find an outlet,” the chief judge said.

The constant state of disrepair is an embarrassment in what is supposed to be a sophisticated gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We are an international city and business center,” Soto said. “We pride ourselves on attracting international commerce. At the same time, every case, from the smallest to the most complex business issues of the county, deserves to be heard and resolved in a timely manner. With a shortage of space for courtrooms and jurors, and the delays that causes, we are hampered from doing that.”

The future of the Dade County Courthouse remains cloudy, but Singer said there’s no way the building will be razed.

She notes Miami Dade College beautifully restored the Freedom Tower and is eyeing the abandoned David W. Dyer Federal Courthouse across from its campus.

Singer said a privately funded renovation project of the courthouse would be in order.

“It’s a magnificent historic building, a treasure for the community,” she said.