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Old Courthouse’s centennial celebrated

By Staff | Dec 2, 2015

For some, it was a gathering place, for others it was a place to play and keep cool during the summer.

It was also a place to work, and for 100 years the Old Courthouse in downtown Fort Myers has been the place where the county and city has done its business, whether it be the judiciary or the County Commission.

Tuesday morning, at the courtroom steps, many gathered to commemorate the building’s 100th anniversary. They heard the county commissioners give their personal reflections on the building, as well as some of the guests who have remembrances of the courthouse during its younger years.

BOCC Chairman Frank Mann took the occasion personally, having been a resident his entire life and whose mother moved to Lee County in 1920.

“My mother took her first job at the Lee County Courthouse when she was 16 for the superintendent of schools, J. Colin English,” Mann said. “My mother would come out and sit in front under the big oak tree because she was fond of a banker who would walk down the street every day.”

Mann recognized a high school classmate, Lynn Geraldson, whose father was a judge at the courthouse for many years and whose grandparents may have owned the property where the courthouse stands.

Also recognized was Marjorie Gilbert, daughter of Judge George Whitehurst, who served as the first 20th Circuit judge when the building was still in its infancy. She said she remembered the big building where her father was working.

“I remember coming in to get a nickel for an ice cream cone at the Alexandro’s Pharmacy,” Gilbert said. “The building brings back my youth and shows how the judiciary has grown. I’m thrilled it’s been maintained and taken care of. To have a ceremony like this is remarkable.”

Lois Senseman’s grandfather’s company, F.P. Heifner Construction Co. in Atlanta, built the courthouse, which her grandfather supervised.

“It’s always somewhere you go to meet someone. When someone comes to town, they always ask where the courthouse is. It’s always been part of my life,” Senseman said.

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass remembered his parents having a business on First Street as a kid and he would play at the courthouse.

“I would play with Slinkies on the steps or run around the courthouse after hours. It was a different city then,” Pendergrass said. “This building is an icon. If you see the TV or pictures, they use the front of this courthouse as a backdrop to show the community this is Lee County.”

Commissioner John Manning was on the BOCC in 1988 when they approved the $5 million courthouse renovation (it cost $100,000 to build it in 1915) and a year later when it was rededicated and placed on the national registry of historic places.

“To be here today is special. I say to everyone, I come back like a bad penny and I’m glad to be here today,” Manning said.

Larry Kiker remembered speaking to the BOCC as mayor of Fort Myers Beach for the first time, while Brian Hamman remembered his days as a news reporter ,as well as being sworn in as commissioner two years ago.

At the start of the regularly scheduled BOCC meeting, Mann read a proclamation to commemorate the occasion.

The event also featured an indoor reception afterward, where visitors can see the items that will go into a time capsule down in the courtroom vault, presumably to be opened 100 years from now.

Included in the capsule are historic photos and books of the courthouse, as well as a flash drive and an iPhone 4.

Clerk of Courts Linda Doggett, 35-year resident of Lee County, called the building a pivotal landmark in the history of the city and Lee County.

“It’s appropriate we celebrate this day. This used to be our courthouse, a scene of daily life for the judges and attorneys and the clerk’s office,” said Doggett, who played a role in the time capsule. “It means a lot to us. Can you imagine when they open the time capsule 100 years from now and see what we worked with.”