Florida’s Tower of Power
As legislators gather in Tallahassee this month to make laws that impact millions of Floridians, they will do so within the offices, conference rooms and hallways of Florida’s plain, white-walled, 22-story Capitol building. Many are unaware the Capitol they spend so many hours in was almost never built and remains controversial to this day.
Unlike prized Capitol buildings in other states, Florida’s has settled into begrudging acceptance. The skyscraper building, finished in 1977, is often dismissed a snooze — architecturally boring and a bit of a joke for its obvious phallic image.
Tourists ignore it for the more photogenic “old” Historic Capitol Museum that sits just in front of the new. Locals give it tepid reviews, at best. Even the politicians who advocated for its construction in the 1970s now claim they don’t like it.
So how did a $43-million skyscraper that very few admit to liking become Florida’s state Capitol? The answer is a fascinating glimpse into a town determined to keep its powerful status as Florida’s capital, the shrewd political maneuvers of a supportive Florida governor and local legislators, and the unexpected strong influence of an outsider, a world-renowned architect who specialized in modern design.An Old Capitol
The common story is that the new Capitol was built to thwart efforts to move Florida’s capital city to Orlando. Forgotten is that the old Capitol was also falling apart. It was originally built in 1845, with several more recent additions, and by the 1960s, the Florida Capitol was a hodgepodge mess of offices that had been built during different times in Florida’s history.
“It was like a kid’s tree house,” said Bill Cotterell, a political reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat who worked out of the old Capitol as a United Press International reporter. “They kept adding on over the years, as the state grew.” There was no central air conditioning and the elevators were hand-operated. With the advent of electronic typewriters and clunky Xerox machines, the old building bulged with loose wiring. The electricity would occasionally blink off, leaving the Legislature to operate by candlelight.
During a time when criticisms of the old Capitol’s condition were mounting, Sen. Lee Weissenborn from Miami floated a proposal to move the capital to Orlando just as session got underway in April 1967. At the time, urban legislators grumbled about the costly travel to Tallahassee and complained about the poor phone and airline service.
Even worse, Tallahassee was a dry county. “People were concerned,” said former House Speaker and Tallahassee area legislator Don Tucker. “The Legislature was used to having their drinking night.”
Weissenborn gathered a group of legislators from the Orlando and South Florida areas to talk strategy for his move-the-capital campaign, telling them that 80 percent of Floridians lived closer to Orlando than Tallahassee. What to do with all these state office buildings? Give ‘em to booming Florida State University.
Fortunately for Tallahassee, North Florida legislators rallied to the city’s defense. A resolution to keep Tallahassee as the capital was swiftly put together just days after Weissenborn’s strategy session and pushed through the Senate and House over a three-day period. It directed the Capitol Center Planning Commission to build new legislative facilities in the Capitol building, with the $10 million in bonds that were approved by the Legislature in 1965 to build separate legislative facilities.
“(This action) should end speculation about moving the state’s capital away from Tallahassee,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported on April 27.Choosing an Architect
Despite authorizing $10 million for Capitol renovations, plans morphed in the next two years into building an entirely new Capitol. Sen. Weissenborn did little to stop it, and even purchased a house in Tallahassee in 1969, which the Democrat gleefully reported.
At this point, the historical record and the memories of those involved get a little murky.
It seems no one wants to actually take credit — or the blame — for selecting the architect. Former Gov. Claude Kirk, who now lives in West Palm Beach, said it was the previous governor, Hayden Burns, who picked the architect. (Though news articles indicate the timing made this unlikely.) Former Gov. Reubin Askew recalled a planning commission making the initial selection, with the six-member Cabinet and then-Governor Kirk approving that selection. The Democrat and “The Florida Handbook” allude to the Florida Cabinet and Kirk choosing the architect.
Whomever made the decision, by September 1969 New York architect Edward Durell Stone and the Jacksonville firm Reynolds, Smith and Hills presented the Florida Cabinet with a design of a sleek, modern skyscraper building with legislative chambers beneath.
Stone was an internationally known architect who was in the midst of designing the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and had designed the Modern Art Museum in New York. Stone was even on the cover of Time Magazine in 1958.A Modern Capitol
Stone’s design for Florida’s Capitol was received with enthusiasm when the Florida Cabinet officially approved it in September 1969.
“There’s an ingenious blend of the past and future Florida, the nostalgic and the visionary, in the architectural design for a new state Capitol unveiled today,” wrote editor Malcolm Johnson in the Tallahassee Democrat.
Stone’s original design looks a bit different from the Capitol today. There was still a tall office tower, but it was only 18 stories and was set behind a lower-slung office building with two legislative wings attached to it.
There were no domes, only three “bubbles” atop the tall tower and an observation gallery. Stone included the old Capitol in his design, but the smaller 1845 version. “The old Capitol will be trimmed back to its 1845 form and dimensions as a historic centerpiece for the complex,” the Democrat explained in September 1969.
Part of Stone’s vision was not just the Capitol, but also a complex of state buildings and legislative offices, with an elaborate park and pedestrian mall in front of the new and old Capitols, with fountains and gardens.
This would have required re-routing Monroe Street to where Gadsden Street crosses Apalachee Parkway and developing Cascades Park.Click to enlarge.From Approval to Criticism
Because $10 million had already been appropriated for legislative buildings, excavation began on them in 1970, using Stone’s design concept. The new Capitol was underway.
A year later, discord emerged over Stone’s design. Florida had a new governor, Reubin Askew, and a new Cabinet. This new Cabinet was not the same group that had approved earlier designs of the Capitol and some new members were unhappy with the design. “When people come to see the Capitol, they expect to see something that looks like a Capitol,” complained Senate President Jerry Thomas to the Democrat.
Comptroller Fred “Bud” Dickinson led the charge against building the new Capitol, pushing for a more traditional domed Capitol. Stone’s design was criticized for being too contemporary and for overshadowing the Florida Supreme Court building. Stone was flown in to offer a new design. The architect met with the Florida Cabinet and legislative leaders on March 16, 1971 ,at the new, swanky Killearn Country Club and revealed a revised Capitol design that was an effort toward pacifying the critics.
His new design eliminated the tall tower, pushing those offices into the same building with the two legislative chambers. It still had the vertical lines and simple facade of the taller structure and kept the 1845 old Capitol.
This new version did not appease his critics or supporters.
“Completely unappealing,” commented Askew. The governor supported the tower concept but also conceded that a dome might be a nice addition. Suggestions flew around the room. Some wanted a dome, some didn’t. Some wanted it to have the look of a “Southern plantation,” others liked the modern efficiency of a tower.
Meanwhile, Stone sat in the back of the room, “chain-smoking and intermittently calling for something ‘architecturally distinctive,’ ” the Democrat reported. “Stone was told in effect to go back and try again — along more traditional lines.”CHANGE OF PLANS Responding to criticism of the tower, the new Capitol’s architect showed Cabinet members a version without a tower(top). The Florida Cabinet and Governor finally approved a design (below) that closely resembles the Florida Capitol we know today.
Askew to the rescue
Fortunately for Stone, he had Askew on his side.
Askew, a Democrat from Pensacola, is often portrayed as a huge supporter of the Capitol and its design. But Askew said design plans were already in place by the time he became governor in 1971. He felt it would slow down the important effort to build a new Capitol if the design was completely scrapped and the Cabinet had to start anew.
“I personally made the decision that I was going to pursue building a new Capitol,” Askew said. But, he says, “If I had started from the very beginning, I would have preferred, frankly, the traditional design of the Capitol.”
As a compromise, Stone returned with a modified design that included two “domes” on top of each legislative chamber to please the traditionalists.
It’s unclear whether legislative leaders and the Cabinet realized at the time that their compromise domes only contributed to the Capitol’s already phallic image.
Hicks Stone, Edward Durell Stone’s son, said the phallic look is merely “an accident.” He is certain his father did not intend for it to be snickered over for decades.
When the Cabinet voted whether to approve Stone’s design, the vote came down 4-3 in Askew’s favor. “We did vote 4-3 the first time and I didn’t want a 4-3 vote,” Askew said. “We went through a delay for a year or two and then came back with the same 4-3 vote. I said ‘Well, we’re going to go forward and build it.’ The money was there.”Construction
Askew had ensured $25 million was set aside for the new Capitol and was concerned the money wouldn’t be available later. In 1973, construction of the tower and chambers began. Askew said the plan to re-route Monroe Street was scrapped. Gone were the pedestrian malls, parks and fountains.
As construction on the tower began, the House and Senate office buildings opened for business. Many legislative staffers made the transition from the old Capitol to the new.
Phelps, the current Senate Rules Committee staff director, remembers working through the noisy, disruptive construction of the Capitol as a policy analyst for a House committee.
“It was like living in a dentist’s office,” Phelps said. “The pillar, the support columns, were being driven into the ground and all day long it was WHAM, WHAM.”
After four years of construction, in which Tallahasseans watched a rising tower remake their skyline, the Capitol was ready to be occupied by the fall of 1977.Decorating a Capitol
The Capitol needed new furniture. Legislative leaders and Cabinet officials were allowed to decorate their offices and chambers as they saw fit. A skeptical public and press were critical of such purchases and saw the new Capitol as unnecessarily lavish.
Tucker recalls traveling to Chicago and picking out chairs and desks at the Merchandise Mart. “I had to pick out furnishings for the seats of the chamber, the carpet, and picked the color of the carpet and the kind of wood,” Tucker said. “Then I furnished the speaker’s office and the press grabbed hold of (my desk) and made out like … I’d take it home with me. So I sent it back. I said ‘I don’t want the damn thing.’”
The lobby is floor-to-ceiling cream-colored marble quarried in America but sent to Italy for finishing, Florida Trend reported. The giant screen above the House speaker’s podium that tracked bills and digital clocks to time debate were also noted.
A column in the Tampa Tribune from March 27, 1978 said legislators would engage in debates while sitting in chairs worth $434 apiece. “Those desks are $693 worth of teak in the House and $950 of rosewood in the Senate,” the column said.
Others saw the new Capitol as impersonal.
“There was nothing in it to suggest you were in Florida,” legislative staffer Phelps said. “It could have been anywhere — a post-modern boardroom.”
Capitol employees appreciated the modernity of the building. “A monument to late 20th century technology — and a few savvy politicians who figured a way to get it off the ground after arguing about it for more than a decade — it was built to last a thousand years,” The Democrat trumpeted the day it was unveiled to the public.A Building Unveiled
While the new Capitol was being criticized for its design, cost and furnishings, the old one was enjoying a bout of positive publicity like it had never seen before.
On the eve of the new Capitol’s dedication ceremony in March 1978, a huge rally was held at the old Capitol where members of the public were invited to glimpse it, for what could be the last time. The Democrat described the Capitol as an “old lady” who “welcomed them with a warmth that worked its magic on almost everyone who attended.” This party was organized by Secretary of State Bruce Smathers and his wife Nancy, who were huge proponents of keeping the old Capitol.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I know of, that I have seen anywhere,” gushed one partygoer to the Democrat. “Anyone that wants it torn down — why, that’s ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, the new Capitol was getting ready for its debut the very next day. Comparisons were inevitably made to the old Capitol — and most were unfavorable.
“Standing tall and plain in $43 million worth of concrete splendor, Florida’s new First Lady made her official debut Friday,” The Tampa Tribune wrote of the dedication ceremony. The dedication itself was held at the Capitol’s rear entrance because the front entrance was blocked by people rallying to save the old Capitol.
Tucker said at the dedication that people would grow to love the new Capitol. Askew, the Capitol’s biggest cheerleader, took the podium and extolled the virtues of the Capitol.
“We do not own this building,” Askew said. “The building is dedicated to the service of the people of Florida.” He called the Capitol a “monument to the popular will,” and tellingly said afterwards that the most impressive part of it was that it was complete.The Capitol’s Legacy
Over the years, the new Capitol was never quite embraced by the public. Phelps, who used to be the curator for the Historic Capitol Museum, put it bluntly: “Most people I know don’t like it.” Tucker said if he could vote over again, he would have just expanded the old Capitol rather than build a new one. Askew says he would have preferred a traditional design.
The one universally applauded aspect to the new Capitol is its 22nd floor, which is open to the public and offers views of the countryside. On a clear day, visitors can see the treetops of Georgia to the north and almost to the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the south.
While many Floridians may now question the wisdom of the plain white tower that dominates Tallahassee’s skyline, an aging former governor still wistfully imagines what could have been if Monroe Street had been moved and Stone’s full vision of the plaza in front of the old Capitol was realized.
“Edward Durell Stone knew what he was doing and … we missed a chance to have one of the most beautiful Capitol centers in the country,” Askew said.
Alternative Number ThreeThe State’s Historic Capitol Endures as a Tallahassee Icon By Jason Dehart
Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, and the twin problems of geography and sparse population made governing difficult. There were two capitals, located in the two North Florida population centers of Pensacola and St. Augustine.
Early on it was evident a more central location was necessary for state government to work, said Bruce Smathers, former secretary of state and champion of the Historic Capitol.
“The first territorial session was in Pensacola and the next one in St. Augustine, but the Pensacola delegation shipwrecked off the Keys, and made it emphatic that something had to be done,” he said.
Tallahassee became the state capital in 1824. Territorial Gov. William Pope Duval commissioned two men, William H. Simmons of St. Augustine and John Lee Williams of Pensacola, to survey a suitable spot somewhere between the two cities. Finding the “old fields” of Tallahassee to their liking, they established a survey marker near a ravine where cascading water flowed.
The first Capitol was a simple wooden cabin, soon followed by a two-story house. A sturdier brick-and-mortar structure was commenced in 1839 and completed in 1845 — just in time for statehood.
But by the late 19th century, the state’s population started booming. Suddenly, the capital’s presence in North Florida became challenged by a population moving ever southward.
“Two things happened. Plant built his railroad south into Tampa, and Flagler built his railroad south to Miami,” Smathers said. “You had this explosion of population based upon the expansion of the railroads on both coasts. In 1900, basically at the turn of the century, they held a vote of the citizens whether they should move the state capital to a more centralized location. The other locations were Ocala and Jacksonville. But the
people voted for Tallahassee.”
This vote was a catalyst for construction of the “1902 Capitol,” Smathers said. This new Capitol took the center portion of the 1845 structure and added two large wings for legislative chambers and the Supreme Court. A large dome replaced a smaller cupola installed in the 1890s, and around this time the “candy stripe” awnings were installed. But the population continued to grow, and 20 years later the Capitol’s size changed with it. Instead of new wings, the 1923 Capitol featured an east-west expansion. This version of the building would be the last in which all three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — would be housed under one roof. Henry J. Klutho, architect of the 1923 Capitol, doubled the useable space of the building but kept its classic lines. Only two more additions would be made to the Klutho capitol, one in 1936 for the House and one in 1947 for the Senate.
In the 1950s, a government panel said an altogether new Capitol should be built, but it wasn’t until the 1970s — after another attempted relocation effort was confronted — “that Gov. Reubin Askew and the cabinet approved a design for a new building.”
Shortly after the “new” Capitol was built in 1978, legislators debated on what to do with the “old” Capitol, which now was squeezed in tight between the new building’s legislative office wings. Smathers loved the jaunty old building so much he refused to move his office into the new one.
“I vowed to stay in the historical Capitol building to demonstrate the structural soundness of it,” he said. “It was portrayed by proponents of the new one that the old one was a threat to human life and safety.”
When it looked like the Old Capitol was going to be demolished, Floridians flocked to its defense in a “Save The Capitol” movement. Thousands of petitions were signed, and Smathers himself hosted a party for thousands of supporters who toured the old building and decorated it with more petitions of support. During the drive to save it, Smathers started calling it the “Historic Capitol” to emphasize its importance.
The Legislature considered several options for dealing with the old building. Options included total demolition; demolition, and marking the foundation of the 1845 capitol; restoration of either of the 1845, 1902, 1922, 1947 buildings, and making no change at all. Finally, in 1978, it was decided to restore the 1902 version, which was titled “Alternative No. 3” during the concept phase. The building we see today was completed in 1982. This plan was the most attractive because it did away with the wings of the 1947 complex, which made for cramped quarters on the hill.
Smathers said realizing the vision of the 1902 version’s interior appearance was helped along by Tallahassee residents. He said many looked into their attics and old trunks to find photos that could help guide the restoration.
“We had good photo evidence of the 1923 Capitol, but not for the 1902 building. Interior photographs were lacking to tell us what it looked like inside,” he said.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Historic Capitol enjoys its status as an elder statesman, revered and cherished as a landmark of great significance. It’s a museum of not only its own history, but the history of Florida’s changing political landscape. However, it still needs help.
“We have a wonderful building but a lot still needs to be done with it,” said Smathers. “Not only is it the most important historical structure since colonial times but it also is a symbol of Tallahassee.”
In 2009, the Florida Legislature created the Historic Capitol Foundation to provide financial support, advocacy and stewardship to promote its program of civic education.
“Our goal is to help raise funds, and a proposal has been made to turn the historic state Capitol into a wonderful, first-class museum to not only preserve the artifacts of Florida history, but also be a sort of living museum for not just the people of Tallahassee but also the people of Florida,” Smathers said.
Edward Durell StoneArchitect of Florida’s CapitolBy Lilly Rockwell
Edward Durell Stone came into his own as an architect during the heyday of modern design. Born in 1902 in Arkansas, he got his architectural degree from the University of Arkansas. At the urging of an older brother, Stone moved to Boston in the 1920s and apprenticed at an architectural firm there.
After moving to New York City, Stone had amazing success early in his career. During the Great Depression he worked on two buildings still revered for their design: 30 Rockefeller Plaza and Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Stone’s contemporaries were architects like Mies Van der Rohe, a pioneer of the modern design movement known for its clean lines and simplicity. Gone were the fancy adornments of Gothic or Classical architecture.
Its beauty was its austere design.
Like Van der Rohe, Stone gravitated toward modern design. Hicks Stone is the son of Edward Durell Stone, who died in 1978. He has written a book about his father’s career due to be published this fall. Hicks Stone said, at the time, modern architecture was considered cutting-edge and “highly controversial.”
“It was something completely alien in a way we can’t quite comprehend,” he said. “It totally contradicted a millennia of established architecture tradition.”
Stone opened up his own office in the 1930s and, except for a brief stint designing army bases during World War II, he continued to receive residential and commercial commissions. One of his first commissions was New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which cemented his growing reputation as a talented modern architect.
Modern design may have been underappreciated by the public, but was considered the only acceptable form of design by academic and architectural communities by the middle of last century, Hicks Stone said.
“They were trying to expunge the legacy of historicism,” he explained. “They fought it and thought they won in the 1930s.”
But by the 1950s, Stone began to separate himself from his contemporaries, gravitating more toward a hybrid of modern and classical design. When he designed the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, completed in 1954, he stuck to modern design, but included some “historical references,” such as arches or arcades, Hicks Stone said.
This hybrid design became his calling card but angered proponents of modern design. He became disliked within the academic and architectural communities, but more commercially successful. He even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1958.
“My dad was famous for his charm,” Hicks Stone said. “And his accessibility.”
By the late 1960s, Stone was one of the top architects in the nation. Though he hadn’t done any prior Capitol buildings, Stone was selected to design the Florida Capitol.
While many Floridians now say they are disappointed Florida’s Capitol is modern and not a more traditional design, Hicks Stone said the building is merely a product of its time. “If it was the year 1980, you would have gotten a very sensitive re-creation of the existing Capitol building, but at the time (1970) people weren’t working in that kind of fashion. In fact, Dad’s settled use of historical elements was considered heretical.”