The State’s Historic Capitol Endures as a Tallahassee Icon
Alternative Number Three
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.