Behind the Curtains of The "Real" Old Capitol

Memories of Serving in the ‘Real’ Old Capitol



A tour today of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee reflects its condition in 1902, as restoration has left the three-story building in near-pristine condition. The chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate appear ready to host a rousing debate, and the Supreme Court reflects the somberness currently expected among barristers.

But for those of us who came well after 1902 and before its closure in 1978, the Capitol we remember was quite different. As one would expect, alterations were made over the years to accommodate offices, committee rooms and other very necessary functions of governing. But many elements remained from 1902, most notably the linoleum flooring and traditional office lettering. The Senate chamber remained on the south end of the Capitol and the House chamber on the north end.

The House of Representatives chamber on the first day of session in 1976.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Here’s what I recall from the 1970s in the “real” Old Capitol:

Both chambers had the windows covered, creating a very closed feeling. The Senate walls were painted white and appeared more open and expansive. One of the first impressions was the close proximity of the gallery just above the heads of the senators, totally open to visitors who wanted to witness the debates. The senators were paired by adjoining desks. The flow of the debate was very quiet and cordial. Unlike today, seldom were all members on the floor at the same time.

The House chamber also had the windows covered by the floor-to-ceiling electronic voting board. The gallery area was quieted by see-through plastic that ended at the spouse’s gallery. The sound system was manually administered and, by far, the busiest area for the members was the enclosed but see-through plastic “bubble” at the back of the chamber. The Speaker’s office was located immediately off the side of the House floor for a quick exit, and at times liquid refreshments.

Perhaps the major difference between the 1902 Old Capitol and the Old Capitol in which I served in the ’70s were the offices built between the Senate and House chambers. Some of the most creative office construction took place within the leaky Capitol dome. As with most legislative bodies, the more senior a member, the larger, more convenient and private the office. The more senior members would find their larger and better-accommodated offices in adjacent office buildings, most notably the Holland Building across Monroe Street from the Capitol.

Most of the offices located in the Old Capitol were small, poorly planned and generally inappropriate for important deliberations — primarily occupied by the few Republican legislators. The offices were crammed into available space on each floor, including the basement. To make matters worse, some of the legislators’ offices were intermingled with those of the executive-branch employees.

There were no parking garages then, so during the legislative session, Tallahassee’s finest roped off and marked parking for exactly 120 vehicles, usually within a couple blocks of the Capitol. It was said those parking spaces were more valuable than some freshman members of the House.

So when I take a tour of the well-maintained Old Capitol, it does bring back fond memories. But in many ways, today’s restoration doesn’t include some of the minor nips and tucks in the old building I remember and, of course, the festive feeling of the Legislature in session in the “real” Old Capitol.


Robert W. McKnight served in the Old and New Capitols as a member of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives during the 1970s and ’80s. He wrote two books on Florida politics and provides weekly political commentary in the Tallahassee Democrat called “The Golden Age Quorum Call.” He also presents “Quorum Call” on “Facing Florida” television each week on ABC, CBS and Fox stations.

 

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