A History of Florida's Capitol Building

Most people driving west on Apalachee Parkway look at the statehouse as the landmark of Tallahassee; at 22 stories and +300 feet tall it’s hard to miss. I have a personal connection to the capitol complex as my father worked on the 21st floor for most of my childhood. I remember how the scale of the buildings, old and new, played in my mind as a child. I loved traveling all the way up on the elevator and being able to look out his office window at our lovely city. I visited the 22nd floor often as well, which is where the observatory is. The panoramic views of Tallahassee are breathtaking, and I highly recommend visiting if you’ve never been before.

courtesy: saintpetersblog.com

Whether you’re familiar with the buildings or not, we’ve all looked around and wondered the same thing: why Tallahassee?

Tallahassee was chosen as the capital in 1824 because of its location as the half-way point between St. Augustine and Pensacola. With statehood quickly approaching, Congress appropriated $20,000 (roughly $500,000 in today's dollars) in 1839 for the construction of a capitol building. The brick capitol was finished in 1845, just before Florida became a state. This structure remains the core of the Historic Capitol today.

The building remained unaltered for the majority of the Civil War when Tallahassee was the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi that eluded capture. Florida’s economy began to boom and population began to surge, leaving the capitol in a state of disrepair by 1891.

Tallahassee was not uncontested in its claim of being the seat of Florida’s government. In the election of 1900, the cities of Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Ocala were proposed as alternate sites, but Tallahassee was reconfirmed by a wide margin. As a result, the state legislature appropriated $75,000 (~2 million dollars) for the renovation and expansion of the Historic Capitol.

The first major alteration came in 1902 when two wings and the now familiar copper dome were added by architect Frank Pierce Milburn. This is the version that sits as you see it today.

In 1969, Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. and the cabinet approved plans for a new capitol building when it was determined the Historic Capitol building was unable to house Florida’s state government and legislative body. Relocation of the capitol also resurfaced during this time but never came to fruition. The Legislature authorized money for a new capitol complex which would include the offices and chambers for the House and the Senate as well as a 22-story executive office building designed jointly by Edward Durell Stone of New York and Reynolds, Smith, and Hills of Jacksonville. The international style of architecture exhibited at the Capitol Complex was to demonstrate a modern Florida.

Both Mr. Stone and RS & H were given the assumption that the Historic Capitol would be removed after the completion of the new capitol building. Therefore, the design of both the building and the site was in no way related to the existing capitol building.

The architect provided several design concepts, but most involved the iconic tower we recognize today. There was, however, a design that was completely different:

The preservation movement of the original capitol building started after the new building had been completed - it was too late to make any changes to the building or the site.

Governor Reubin Askew and House Speaker Donald Tucker wished the Historic Capitol to be demolished, but Secretary of State Bruce Smathers and his wife Nancy McDowell led the effort to save the Historic Capitol building, culminating in the restoration you see today. It now serves as the Florida Historic Capitol Museum.

The Historic Capitol was added to the National Register of Historic Places in1 973 and added to AIA Florida’s list of “Florida Architecture: 100 Years. 100 Places.” in 2012.

HoyStarkHagan is the commissioned architect for the latest changes of the Capitol Grounds; you can find more images and details of the upcoming Memorial Park by clicking here. Images courtesy of Florida Memory.

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