Bill Farkas, coming to Fort Lauderdale to help usher in a new downtown (see story on page 56) always looked on in bafflement at the mammoth complex on prime riverfront real estate.
“That’s just where a big hotel should be,” said the then-Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority director of the structure on the south side of the New River, just east of the Andrews Avenue Bridge.
Well, it was and is a hotel of sorts. It’s even known euphemistically as The New River Hilton.
But in fact, it’s the residence for the guests of the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
The question many have asked is: Why a jail on prime waterfront property? And the answer is: it’s always been there, sort of.
It’s always been located next to the County Courthouse, so that felons could be ferried straight from court to prison.
Except in the beginning it was a whole lot smaller. For a long while, the jail was in a wing that came straight off the courthouse. It took more and more space over the years, as did the courthouse, as the population grew. It was 4,500 when Broward County was incorporated (and the BSO formed) in 1915. It was nearly a million when the latest jail building went up in 1985.
As each institution grew, its facilities and properties took on new iterations, the current jail kind of like a McMansion compared to its predecessor.
There are some stories, but none we could find on the record, that a few city leaders balked at the latest, slit-windowed resort, so well-landscaped and lit at night. It cost $41.5 million to build.
We can almost imagine the debate between civic and law enforcement leaders. “Why can’t we move this elsewhere? Think of the property value here!” “Do you want to guarantee that one of my deputies won’t get killed transporting a prisoner from the court off to a jailhouse somewhere?”
Never mind that other counties seem to manage moving prisoners.
As for those who would run the jail, A.W. Turner, a local county businessman, was the first elected sheriff in 1915, and served in the post for its first 10 years. The Fort Lauderdale Sentinel proclaimed Turner to be “one of the best men for the place. He does not drink [and] is a man of the very best habits.” Paul C. Bryan replaced Sheriff Turner in 1925, but served only two years, as Turner was re-elected into office. He won four times.
Among other early sheriff timeline highlights: In 1939, Eddie Lee, a former catcher for the semi-pro baseball team The Fort Lauderdale Tarpons, was elected; Walter R. Clark, who was the county’s longest-running sheriff, perhaps could have extended his record. But Clark “was indicted on charges of working with a disreputable figure who ran syndicate-controlled gambling casinos in South Florida and was removed from office,” according to the BSO’s own history.
Sheriff Amos Hall came along in 1950 and “was a trailblazer who made decisions that were unpopular at the time.” One was hiring BSO’s first black deputy. In 1958, that deputy was removed by a new conservative sheriff; but he got his job back in 1962 at the next changing of the guard.
As for the jail’s incarnations, one of the major renovations over the years came in 1959, earning a picture page in the Fort Lauderdale News. One photo shows a bare-bones room with a conference table and the caption: “Police offices will confer in style here.” Hate to imagine what it used to be.
Fifty-year-old photographs reveal a once-stately courthouse with a tall tower and long steps leading up to an entrance not in the middle of the street, as it is now, but on the corner of Third Avenue. Now gone, it invokes a time still preserved in a city such as Charleston.
But you need go back to the time of city pioneer Frank Stranahan, circa 1910, for our very first jail. A photo held by the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society shows a tin-roofed structure little more than a shack, with a dirt floor and two cells. It certainly doesn’t appear very escape-proof. Maybe in those days, they’d be happy a crook got out and fled on to another town.
This jail, on SW Second Street between Andrews and Brickell avenues, was described as having a “lean-to at the rear of the building to take care of the ‘sanitary mule cart.’”
We’re guessing that was the city’s first sanitation service. Was it manned by early jailbirds – a la the later road gangs?