The decision-making process 40 years ago that led to the modern Capitol building

A Plain-Jane Joke, An Incomplete Dream or A Design for its Time? A Look Back on How the ‘New’ Capitol Arose to Dominate Tallahassee’s Skyline



Scott Holstein

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.

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.”

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

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