By Alice L. Luckhardt.
With the creation of the new county of Martin in May 1925, formed from the northern portion of Palm Beach County, one of the first needs was that of a location to house county and court records, deeds, and for courtroom hearings to be held.
For the early immediate needs, the former 1909 two-story school building was selected to serve as the county’s court house until a new one was constructed. A new school had already been built and opened in 1923, several blocks east of the former school building.
In December 1925, many were thinking of the construction of a new building to serve as the county court house. Even the right location was necessary. Many considering placing the new court house in Salerno, to be about 20 blocks north of the heart of Salerno. It had by December even been selected by the Martin County Commissioners. This idea was soon put on hold.
Not until January 1929 was a contract awarded by the Commissioners for $112,500 for the county’s first new court house. There had also been plans to build a large court house with a jail on the top floor and be located just east of the Stuart School, near Stypmann Blvd. However, that was not acted on due to the poor economic times Florida was entering into at the time.
The former school building was still being used as the court house into the 1930s. By 1931, there were disputes as to who really owned the court house, the city of Stuart or the county. The matter was eventually settled in talks between city and county commissioners. The county would pay the city $75 per month rental of the building, including $900 in back rent. By the summer of 1936, the county purchased the building and land for $700 plus $18,000 in Stuart bonds, so that an addition could be placed with the original court house.
At the beginning of 1937, it was decided by the county to build a large addition in front of the former 1909 school building which had served as the original court house. The construction of a new building addition to house the county’s court house would cost $24,650 with the county paying 55% of the cost. Additional money came from the PWA (Public Works Association) of the Federal government with their payment equal to 45%. The architect was L. Phillips Clarke and the construction contractors were Chalker & Lund of WPB. By April 1, 1937, concrete was being poured for the foundation of the new court house. For the workers building the court house their wages would not be the standard 67 cents an hour but rather, between $1.12 to $1.37 per hour, depending on their skill work.
By mid-May 1937, two eastern rooms in the new addition were completed and the tax collector’s office would move into the space and the tax assessor would move in the second- story east rooms. The new space for the tax collector included a fireproof vault. The contractors were also doing renovations on the back portion which was the original court house (former school building). This included removal of the back outside staircase, enlarging the courtroom by 50 square feet in the older building and the outside being painted to match the new addition.
Most county officers had moved into their new offices by June 12. All work on the grand Art Deco court house addition was completed, including landscaping, at the end of June 1937 but the dedication ceremonies held on June 16th, which was also the 4th anniversary of the PWA.
Downstairs was the Tax Collector, the County Clerk’s office, and Sheriff’s Office. Upstairs held offices for the tax assessor, county judge, county commission, justice of the peace and a courtroom. Leading to the court house addition facing 4th Street (aka East Ocean Blvd) was a wide new concrete sidewalk leading to the front door.
The new addition court house was considered modern and served the county for decades. During those following years, additions as wings were added to the east and west sides of the 1937 court house building. These were necessary for the expanding county offices needed.
A new and larger Martin County Court House was needed by the late 1980s. Work began in March 1988 with the demolition of the wings of the court house. The new court house cost $10 million for the county and was completed and opened on January 10, 1989. At first, the rear portion being the 1909 school building was to be saved with the 1937 court house. But with inspection, it was deemed an unsafe structure and the 1909 school building / courthouse was torn down. The 1937 Art-Deco court house was also scheduled to be demolished in 1989, but it was saved by concerned citizens, who lobbied for grant money from the Florida State Department of Historic Preservation (some $200,000) and matched by funds from the City of Stuart. By 1990 the 1937 addition of the court house had been renovated and converted into the Court House Cultural Center. The new 1980s courthouse is at 100 SE Ocean Blvd. The Court House Cultural Center is at 80 SE Ocean Blvd.