Florida: thinking about the state might first bring to mind beaches, spring break, palm trees, football teams. You can find all those things in Florida, it’s true. The state has a deep history, too, going back to ancient peoples and continuing on right into contemporary politics and issues of social justice. One place that will get you intrigued with the last two hundred years or so of what’s been going on in the sunshine state is Florida’s Historic Capitol Museum in Tallahassee.
Tallahassee is in the northern part of the state, in the Big Bend area about at the halfway point between Saint Augustine in the east and Pensacola in the west. That’s why it became the state capitol on the first place: when the territory of Florida became part of the United States in the 1820s, it had two centers of population and administration, in Saint Augustine and in Pensacola. In those days it took about twenty days to travel between the two.
Florida was frontier territory at that time, so the journey wasn’t that easy to begin with. Tallahassee, long a crossroads of travel and commerce for Spaniards and First Peoples alike, seemed like an excellent choice for the capitol of this new frontier. By the time Florida became a state in 1845, the new capitol building was just ready to be dedicated, and so it was, with cannons firing off and speeches firing away too.
The core of that building would be in active use in the governing of Florida for well more than one hundred years, up until the 1970s. There were changes along the way, of course. Running water came in in the early 1890s, and not long after that, many of the windows were covered with red and white awnings to mitigate summer sun.
Wings were added and later removed, offices and official business moved in and out of the building, which is set on one of Tallahassee’s hills at the convergence of routes coming into the area.
The core of this 1845 structure stands on that hill today as the center of Florida’s Historic Capitol Museum. The building is restored to what it was like in 1902, which means that among other things, you get to see reproductions of the graceful light fixtures in use then, which illuminated the building with electricity during the approximately six hours each day it was available, and glowed with gas light when it was not.
This was also a time when all three branches of Florida’s state government were still doing their work under one roof. You can see what it was like for the governor’s small staff and where you might wait to see him. You can see the governor’s own suite too with desks which were really used around the turn of the twentieth century. At the other end of the first floor is the room where the Supreme Court heard cases.
Upstairs, the chambers of the state legislature stand, the house of representatives at one end and the senate at the other.
There was a time in the 1970s when plans were underway to build a new capitol building. These plans called for the demolition of the historic capitol, but the people of Tallahassee and Leon County, and eventually people from across Florida and beyond, rose up to say: Find a better way. Find a way to keep the old capitol.
Florida government officials did. The historic capitol stands where it ever did, framed by the twenty two stories of the 1970s capitol rising behind it. The result is an engaging place filled with the presence of Florida’s past in rooms restored to their historic appearance and in other areas which contain exhibits and objects, some explaining how the governing of the state changed and evolved, others tracing light and dark sides of Florida’s journey to how things are today. There are areas, for example, on the Seminole tribe, the contributions of Cuban Americans, and the at times violent history of segregation and integration in the state. There are also exhibits on the national presidential election of 2000 when Florida took the national spotlight.
There are stories of the restoration, too: Florida’s Historic Capitol is said to be one of the most accurately restored buildings in the United States. That was no easy task. The design and colors of the skylight in the dome, for instance, had to be deduced from shards of glass found in the walls, and the impressive main staircase was shown in full in only one extant photograph, that of a dignitary lying in state. Through thoughtfully placed panels, you may learn a bit about the work of restoration as well.
In Florida’s Historic Capitol you will feel a real sense of presence, of the people who have shaped Florida and the United States both well known and workaday — and perhaps the presence of those who have worked so thoughtfully to bring the building and its contents to life, as well.
Speaking of bringing Florida’s history to life, if you’d like music to go along with your explorations Del Suggs and Jeanie Fitchen are two Florida musicians whose songs look at and celebrate landscape, past, and present of the sunshine state from perspectives you may not have heard.
Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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