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Architects are fortifying Key West’s historic courthouse against Cat 5 hurricane winds

A damaged photo showing part of the first Monroe County courthouse with the new 1891 Courthouse in the back.
Photo courtesy of the Monroe County Library Collection.
A damaged photo showing part of the first Monroe County courthouse with the new 1891 Courthouse in the back.

A red-brick Neoclassical revival building, with high arched windows and a clock tower that sits on Whitehead Street in Key West, has gone virtually unchanged in the over 130 years since it was constructed. It also remained a court of law for all that time.

But now, county leaders are preparing to undertake a major project at the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West. They’re hoping to fortify the building, with help from architects specializing in historic preservation, to withstand 200 miles per hour winds.

The courthouse has a storied history, according to Corey Malcom, the lead historian at the Florida Keys History Center.

It was first built around 1828 as a two-story wooden building in the middle of Jackson Square.

“From the outset, [Jackson Square] was designed to be sort of a public space,” Malcom said.

Jackson Square appears on the original map of the town of Key West, created by William A. Whitehead in 1829, according to a historical background document commissioned by the county in 2019. It housed not just the courthouse but eventually a stone jail, fire engine house, and much later county offices and a health department building. The oldest building, however, was the courthouse.

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The courthouse’s original purpose was as a multi-use space. Malcom said it often served as a church with non-denominational services. Built just a couple of years after Key West was first settled, Malcom considers the courthouse, in some ways, the heart of early Key West and its settlers.

Then on June 11, 1890, county commissioners held a ceremony where the head of the commission, Judge Beverly Walton, laid the first brick of the courthouse’s redesign.

With the courthouse as its preeminent building, Jackson Square stood in the center of town as a reminder of Key West’s position as the most populous city in Florida at the time.

A disastrous fire ravaged several blocks around Duval Street in 1886, according to a historical background document. The city responded with a wave of new construction, including a new city hall, firehouses, jail, and courthouses – all constructed from brick, a notoriously fire-resistant material.

But one grim aspect was that in the courtyard in front of the courthouse and adjacent jail, public hangings took place, serving as a somber reminder of the harsh realities of justice in the past.

‘Hardening’ the courthouse

Over time, the brick building was battered by several storms. Pictures from 1919 show how the courthouse was damaged during a hurricane that year. The entirety of the south wall of the second floor collapsed, leaving a gaping hole in the exterior of the building.

Damage to the Monroe County Courthouse after the Hurricane of 1919.
Photo courtesy of the Monroe County Library Collection.
Damage to the Monroe County Courthouse after the Hurricane of 1919.

When the damage was repaired, engineers added brick pilasters to the exterior walls to strengthen the brick. Those pilasters are still there today, according to David Salay, the architect overseeing the hardening project.

“Brick buildings don’t really lend themselves too readily to hurricane resilience,” Salay said.

He and a team at Bender and Associates Architects are tasked with fortifying the historic structure to withstand up to 200 miles per hour winds, just a couple of miles over the threshold for a hurricane to be considered a Category 5.

Bender and Associates has had a hand in maintaining and revitalizing several historic structures across Key West including the Key West Lighthouse; the East Martello, a Civil War-era fort; Key West City Hall; which was originally built as a school in 1923 and the Custom House.

“[These buildings] are iconic here in Key West,” Salay said. “We’re an island in the middle of nowhere and we were only connected to the mainland since 1912 by train and since 1935 by car.”

Salay said the plan, so far, for the courthouse is to harden the windows, roof and clock tower.

The windows are currently covered with dark, hurricane screens.

“We’ve identified that they’re not historic,” he said. “They were replaced at some point, but they are very, very similar to the original windows.”

New, hurricane-resistant windows will be installed behind the current ones. The roof will be equipped with a double-roof system. The outside-facing, historic roof will stay intact while insulation and a secondary roof are installed underneath.

“The building’s going to look like it did in 1891 if everything goes well,” Salay said. “It’s on one of the highest pieces of land in Key West, meaning maybe 12 feet high. But to our knowledge, it’s never flooded and that’s why they built the courthouse there.”

In 1900, a kapok tree was planted at Jackson Square. The giant, beautiful tree still stands today and draws people in for photos daily.

“It’s incredibly popular,” Salay said. Rest assured, Salay said the kapok tree will not be disturbed in the process of construction.

But what might be the biggest feat of the project is the construction work on the clock tower. Rather than put scaffolding around the building, engineers plan to decapitate the building by fully removing the clock tower and working on it on the ground. Then, they hope to put the tower in its original spot after it’s been fortified with wood frames.

Wood is a particularly resilient material in Florida, according to Salay.

“All of our old wood frame buildings do pretty well in hurricanes,” he said. “Because they bend and give like trees.”

Many historic buildings across the state were constructed from Dade County Pine, a termite-resistant hardwood that used to grow in groves across Miami before it was settled.

“That’s what a lot of the old wood houses here were built from and that’s why they’re still here,” he said.

The design phase of the project alone amounts to $1,646,349, according to Cary Vick, a project manager for Monroe County. A grant backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was secured in January 2022 to cover 75% of those costs. County leaders hope to keep having success with the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, administered through the Florida Department of Emergency Management.

“Better to spend the money now, rather than spend the money over and over again to repair damage,” Salay said.

Vick said in an email statement that completed design deliverables will be sent to FEMA and FDEM for review this year, which means construction is likely to start in late 2025.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly misnamed Bender and Associates.

Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
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