SOM’s Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse design wins GSA approval

Ride The Waves

SOM’s Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse design wins GSA approval

SOM’s design for the 10-story Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse celebrates South Florida’s breezy modernist heritage while incorporating advanced sustainability features. (Courtesy SOM)

The United States General Services Administration (GSA) has given its formal blessing to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)’s design concept for a 252,000-square-foot federal building in Fort Lauderdale that will serve as the new home to the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Rising nine stories above the southern bank of the Tarpon River atop a one-story podium, the breezy-but-elegant and distinctly Floridian mid-rise tower harkens back to civic buildings of the mid-20th century with a simple square form and facade clad in fluted metal and glass panels in a nod to Corinthian columns. It is set to include 12 courtrooms, 17 judges’ chambers, and offices for multiple federal agencies including the U.S. Court of Appeals, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Probation Office, and the U.S. Trustee.

“The Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse embodies the ideals of dignity, transparency, and clarity,” said SOM partner Paul Danna in a press statement. “Our design emerged from deep study of the needs of all participants in justice proceedings, as well as a desire to create a building that symbolizes Fort Lauderdale’s culture and becomes an integral part of the city’s urban fabric.”

front view of a white federal building flanked by palm trees
(Courtesy SOM)

Scheduled for completion in 2026, the new courthouse will replace a blocky, concrete complex at 299 East Broward Boulevard that debuted in 1979. Although that downtown Brutalist building designed by the late, Jacksonville-based modernist architect William Morgan certainly has its share of admirers, it has been plagued for years by space constraints and frequent leaks. The monumental structure, which features a spectacular terraced interior courtyard, is currently undergoing significant repairs to the tune of $865,000 to render it usable until the new courthouse is completed. (Meanwhile, the nearby Broward County Main Library, a “soft” Brutalist landmark designed by Robert Gatje with Marcel Breuer and Associates, reopened in 2014 after a multi-year revamp.)

Last year, the GSA secured the 3.5-acre future courthouse site at Southeast Third Avenue and Southeast 11th Street for $13.6 million, concluding a site selection process that the South Florida Sun Sentinel called “nearly two decades in the making.” The Miami Herald described the area just south of downtown Fort Lauderdale (and relatively near the Broward County Courthouse and other governmental buildings) as “funky” and there are hopes that the new courthouse will usher in a flurry of residential and commercial development around it. To that end, a riverfront park and mangrove-lined public trail will be realized as part of the $190 million project and help to attract Fort Lauderdale residents and visitors alike to the south bank of the Tarpon River.

In addition to the use of natural, ubiquitous-to-South Florida materials like terrazzo, local coral stone, and oak, SOM has incorporated a suite of sustainable features into its design including displacement ventilation in the courtrooms, natural daylighting strategies, and infrastructure to support rooftop solar panels. Once operational, the building, which is targeting both LEEED Gold and SITES Silver certification, is projected to achieve a 30 percent reduction in energy use over baseline levels according to the firm.

While last year’s site land acquisition and now the GSA’s approval of SOM’s design brings to an end years of speculation as to where the new federal courthouse will be built and what it will look like, the next chapter for the current Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse is just beginning.

The fate of the 44-year-old building, as of now, is unclear. As reported by Andres Viglucci for the Miami Herald, preservationists have stressed its potential for adaptive reuse and are pushing to find out what the GSA might intend to do with the aging building once the new one opens. Per the Herald, Fort Lauderdale’s historic preservation board has voted 6–0 to ask the city to formally explore the possibility of designating the courthouse as a historic landmark. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis also relayed to the Herald that the GSA assured him “a couple of years ago” that if the government ultimately sells the property, it would be on the condition that the new owner cannot raze the existing building. It’s unclear if that assurance still stands.

“Demolishing that building would be tragic for Fort Lauderdale,” Steve Glassman, a city commissioner who formerly served as president of the nonprofit Broward Trust for Historic Preservation, told the Herald. “It’s really our public square. It’s a very significant corner. It’s quite stunning, Brutalism at its finest.”

Work on the new Fort Lauderdale Federal Courthouse is slated to kick off next year.