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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

It's the people's house

Guest columnist


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My first visit to "Historic Brooksville" was nine years ago and at that time I noticed something very strange. A four-story postmodern-style government building had been attached to a two-story neoclassical-style historic courthouse. As a result, the "Old Town Square" had been destroyed and the streets were void of any pedestrian activity. I walked away from that experience with the thought, "What were those people thinking?"

Traditionally the Old Town Square is an open space with a monument located at its center, thus the Hernando County "Historic Courthouse." Centrally located, the town square is surrounded by small shops, antique stores, bakeries, wine and cheese stores, tailors, home decor shops, art galleries and restaurants. The open space surrounding the monument is a place for people to gather. Architecture is not about buildings; rather it is all about people.

Today, not much has changed. In fact, economic conditions throughout the city have gotten worse. It has become apparent that the historic district of Brooksville is a 9-to-5, five days a week government economy. The existing government complex encourages limited pedestrian activity during the day and abandonment at night and on weekends.

Now that the problem has been identified, the solution is obvious. The four-story government building should be disconnected from the historic courthouse. Re-establish the old town square by creating open green space adjacent to all four sides of the historic courthouse and return it back to the people by establishing that building as a museum. After all, "It's the people's house."

One might ask, "What happens to the brown annex section of the building that is directly attached to the historic courthouse?" Answer: Structure relocation, which could result in that section of building being moved down the street and attached to the east side of the Hernando County records building. It is interesting to note, the east facade of the historic courthouse appears to have been left fully intact. Perhaps the people at that time had the foresight to leave the east facade as a gift for future generations.

As a museum, the historic courthouse would become a "place of destination." People from far and near would come to visit. Brooksville could become a sister city to other nearby cities such as Mount Dora, Inverness and Dade City. Together these cities could partner up and promote their historic districts. These other cities have their old town squares fully intact, why not the city of Brooksville?

Inside the historic courthouse museum, people would find artifacts on display and art exhibits featuring works from well-known artists such as the "Florida Highwaymen." The newly created open green space located to the east side of the historic courthouse could feature a paverstone walkway that resembles an old fashion cobblestone street. This walkway would symbolically reconnect Brooksville Avenue and could be called "Brooksville Avenue Walk." To the east of "Brooksville Avenue Walk," space could be allocated for outdoor vendors and merchants.

Communities around the country are embracing a concept in urban planning called "new urbanism." A concept that places an emphasis on the public square, mixed use development, human scale, the pedestrian and safety. The Hernando County Government Center is four stories, takes up the space of several city blocks and divides the historic district in half, and it's centrally located courtyard may not be safe for pedestrian traffic at night. The government complex does not fit within the criteria of new or traditional urban planning.

The historic district of Dade City, for example, exemplifies all the principles and traditions of successful urban planning. With the restoration of Pasco County's historic courthouse, Dade City has maintained its original town square and is a "place of destination." The economy of Dade City's historic district is thriving. It has been reported that some merchants have waited years to take their place on the streets adjacent to the district's public square. One only needs to visit the historic district of Dade City and compare it with the historic district of Brooksville and then ask the question, "What is the difference and why?"

Critics will argue it can't be done, we don't have the money, one-way traffic along the streets of Jefferson and Broad is the problem and should be changed back to two-way traffic, or turn the courthouse into a museum without re-establishing the public square and than wait to see what happens.

The money will come from both the private and public sector. Those people and organizations that have donated their support could have their names immortally engraved in one of those paverstones that make up "Brooksville Avenue Walk." Changing the traffic pattern will cost money and does not create a place of destination. Turning the historic courthouse into a museum without re-establishing the town square does not solve the problem and leaves the community with a continued embarrassment. The merchants throughout the district may agree that they can no longer wait.

Once the public square has been re-established, the historic district of Brooksville will come back to life. Imagine if you will, the historic hardware store located on Main Street converted into a restaurant serving dinner and featuring live entertainment at night. The Antebellum house that currently sits vacant could become a bed & breakfast. Other vacant structures could be transformed into boutiques, antique stores and art galleries.

Property values will soar and the district will experience an economic renaissance that will have an impact throughout the entire city. Tax revenues for the city of Brooksville, Hernando County and the state of Florida will increase.

A previous board of Hernando County commissioners made a monumental mistake when they authorized the placement of the four-story government building at its current location. The connection of the government building to the historic courthouse made the problem worse. A future board of county commissioners will need the courage to admit the wrong of their predecessors and the foresight to address this problem.

During this year of Brooksville's "Centennial Celebration" it may be time to start a serious dialogue on the restoration of the Hernando County historic courthouse and the re-establishment of the Old Town Square. The attachment of the modern-style government building to the classical-style county courthouse has created ambiguity between the modern times and the historical past of Brooksville. A civilized group of people cannot successfully go into their future without first having a clear understanding of their past.

John Rabideau is a Brooksville resident.

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