Respect courthouse history, but it’s time for a new one

I love the Dade County Courthouse, the place where Al Capone was tried and would-be presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara was convicted. But the public is in dire need of a new courthouse in downtown Miami.

After serving as a Miami-Dade County and Circuit Court judge for almost 22 years and as the court’s historian, I especially appreciate our rich history, but am also sensitive to the needs of a first-rate justice system in a world-class community to meet growing public demands.

Our storied courthouse’s retirement is long overdue. A single photograph offers a glimpse of the age of the structure at 73 W. Flagler St.: It shows President Herbert Hoover’s motorcade passing in front of the building. Hoover was the 31st president; President Obama is the 44th.

Setting aside the immediate concerns associated with corroding beams, mold and water intrusion, our courts outgrew the courthouse decades ago.

The current Dade County Courthouse is the third building to formally bear that name. Henry Flagler donated the property on which it stands. Its unique silhouette is a fixture of Miami’s ever-changing skyline. It has survived hurricanes and political tumult. For 86 years, it has been a beacon of justice for those seeking the protection of their rights and the redress of wrongs.

When erected in 1928, the courthouse was the tallest building south of Baltimore. In those days, there were just seven judges in the entire county and a population of roughly 100,000. Today, there are 123 judges serving more than 2.5 million people. Times have certainly changed, but the building has not.

When the courthouse opened its doors, it was the home of the courts — and also the city of Miami and Dade County governments. The County Commission conducted business on the 10th floor and later on the second floor. The city left the building for its Dinner Key residence in the 1950s, and the county left the courthouse in the 1980s for its downtown monolith, the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. The courts took over the remaining offices and turned them into makeshift courtrooms and chambers.

Sometime in 2004, I transferred to the Dade County Courthouse from the Family Division. I was thrilled to work in this building that I revered first as a lawyer and then as a judge. My assigned chambers and courtroom were on the eighth floor. I visited the courtroom and quickly realized that it was a sad architectural afterthought. Nothing above the sixth floor of the 24-story building was originally designed for courtrooms. Converting the offices into courtrooms was akin to trying to put a square peg through a round hole. It just didn’t fit.

In most of the courtrooms above the sixth floor, supporting vertical columns block the jury’s view of the parties. If that weren’t bad enough, I often joked that the jury room assigned to me was so small the jury had to go outside just to change its mind. It’s better to joke than to whine. Still, there are aspects of the courthouse that are worth restoring. I helped to spearhead the remodeling of Courtroom 6-1 back to its original state, where Capone and Franklin D. Roosevelt would-be assassin, Zangara, were tried back in the 1930s.

So what should be done with our current courthouse? As one of the few buildings in South Florida to be on the National Register of Historic Buildings, it must be retired with dignity and grace, restored, and repurposed for future generations to enjoy its neo-classical architecture and the countless stories that generated within its walls.

It remains a testament to Miami’s growth from a small and sleepy southern town into an international destination. Whether the courthouse is repurposed as a museum, hotel or even offices, some internal elements must be preserved, including the fabled courtroom 6-1 and the jaw-dropping lobby and its mosaics.

In this new millennium, Miami-Dade County residents need and deserve better than an old, outdated and inadequately retrofitted building to conduct their important legal affairs. A new and modern courthouse is a must.

Scott J. Silverman is a retired Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge and official court historian.