BRADENTON -- The rededication of the Manatee County Historic Courthouse wasn't just about bricks and landscaping, but a journey through a history deserving of respect, officials say.
After more than two years of the latest round of improvements to the historic building and surrounding grounds, Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller R.B. "Chips" Shore officially declared the courthouse grounds open Thursday.
"This is a dream come true for me," said Shore, whose daughter, Cynthia Shore, volunteered to design the native landscaping in the courtyard.
From the initial meetings with the city and county in 2011, to working with all of the professionals involved, "a dream was born," he said.
There were many improvements to the exterior and interior of the courthouse, which is actually three buildings in one with two additions added over the decades to meet growing county needs.
The focus of the rededication was on the newly landscaped courtyard, which Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston called a "community center."
Poston relayed memories from decades ago when the courthouse served as a hub for downtown activities. While businesses and buildings have changed over the years, the spirit of the courthouse grounds has not.
"This really is the downtown community center," said Poston. "It's been that way in the Friendly City for years. The improvements revive the community center spirit we've always had in Bradenton."
The original courthouse, built in the late 1800s, is now proudly displayed at the Manatee Village Historical Park. As the county grew, officials in 1912 set out with the task of building a new courthouse for $97,000. It would ultimately only handle county growth rate for little more than a decade.
Improvements, renovations and additions continued over the decades. The new landscaping was restricted to drought-resistant Florida vegetation to minimize maintenance and attract butterflies.
More than $60,000 was donated by Mosaic, Manatee County Tree Trust Fund and the Bradenton Tree Trust Fund. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program provided a $6,663 grant, and Keep Manatee County Beautiful provided a Simpson Stopper shrub tree, which also was dedicated Thursday.
A Memorial Plaza also was refurbished and expanded "to show respect to our veterans and fallen law enforcement officers," said Shore.
A Vietnam War Memorial was planned for the plaza, but at the request of veterans, it was placed in Veterans Park.
Courtyard improvement costs included: $509,312 for monument stair rehabilitation, $336,483 for landscaping, $206,225 for other general building costs, $179,674 for monument removal and replacement, $124,351 for the courtyard gazebo and $71,057 for safety and walkway improvements.
Interior courthouse renovations are ongoing on the upper floors.
Cathy Slusser, director of Manatee County historical records and historical author, walked a large crowd attending the ceremony down history lane on Thursday, citing an old photograph of the first courthouse as one of her favorites.
"It's a picture of a man leaning back against the old courthouse appearing to be napping," said Slusser. "Wouldn't we all wish to be back in the day when you could take a nap while at work."
Times have changed, Slusser noted, but the courthouse's purpose to community has not -- with one exception.
"The only difference now is we no longer need a fence around the courthouse to protect the landscaping from cows," she said.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.