Tallahassee: Not the Florida You Know
It’s so still you can hear a camellia petal drop. Tallahassee may be the capital of the nation’s fourth most populous state, but the town can have a dreamlike quality — especially here in Lewis Park, surrounded by big- windowed houses built 20 years before the Civil War; especially in spring, when the azaleas look like an explosion of pink confetti and the trees bud out hot green.
When I say trees, I’m talking miles of trees, whole armies of trees, more trees than people: oaks, laurels, camphors, elders, pines, palms, pecans, magnolias. “ I fell in love with the trees when I first came here,” says Ion Sancho, Leon County’s supervisor of elections and scourge of Florida’s lousy vote- counting technology. “ It’s like living in a lush forest.”
Tallahassee can seem like a sleepy and secret garden, but we live for politics. During the constitutional crisis of 2000, the whole world was watching, and we loved it. The sidewalks were latticed with fat electrical cables and every inch taken up with reporters scribbling, cameramen aiming and TV blondes doing stand- ups. Locals would walk their dogs around the state Supreme Court in the evenings as lawyers for George W. Bush and Al Gore swarmed, filing lastminute briefs. It was the biggest thing to hit this town since the Secession Convention of 1861.
Tallahassee is not the Florida you know: not the
Florida of glittering sands, golf courses, Little Havana, Cinderella’s Castle. Some people say Tallahassee isn’t Florida at all, but a southern appendage of Georgia perversely appointed to rule over the transplanted northerners of Miami and Orlando. “ Most of Florida looks like it got built yesterday,” says Lucy Morgan, longtime capital bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times and now the newspaper’s senior correspondent. “ There’s a strong sense of place here.” Tallahassee has no theme park and no talking cartoon animals. It gets cold in the winter, and the nearest beach is 30 miles away.
Yet the city has the ironic and slightly haunted atmosphere of a place where every patch of ground holds a story. The Apalachee built ceremonial mounds here almost 1,000 years ago; in the 17th century, the Spanish founded a string of missions across the red clay hills to help administer their most troublesome colony. When Florida became part of the United States in 1821, Tallahassee attracted Eurotrash like butter attracts cats — French comtes and German Freiherrs looking for a New World Eden ( and a New World fortune) in the swamps and forests. The superfluous sons of Virginia gentry flocked to create their own plantation kingdom. The mounds and the missions and the big white houses are still here.
Much of Florida has lost its memory under asphalt and concrete, but, to steal from William Faulkner, in Tallahassee “ the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Mounds of History
Like Washington, Tallahassee was born for government. In 1824, Tallahassee — the name means “ Old Town” in Apalachee — was chosen as the territorial capital, a site on the Camino Real, the old Spanish road, about halfway between St. Augustine on the Atlantic and Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico.
There are actually two capitol buildings: one dating from the mid- 19th century ( the current facade was put on in 1902), with its silver dome, white columns and redstriped awnings curiously reminiscent of a KFC; and one intended to show that Florida was modern and innovative. Designed in the early 1970s by Edward Durrell Stone, architect of the Kennedy Center, it’s a 22- story concrete shaft with domed chambers for the House and Senate on either side. In 1978, when the state government moved to the skyscraper, our progressive governor Reubin Askew wanted the Old Capitol torn down. It was a relic of the Old South; slaves had been sold from its wide steps. But the Garden Club, the Historical Society and the Daughters of the Confederacy, among others, threatened to throw themselves in front of the bulldozers. The Old Capitol, now a museum, was spared.
From the observation deck on the 22nd floor, I can see unspoiled reaches of the Gulf Coast to the south ( visit now; condofication is coming) and six miles north to Lake Jackson. I can almost see the place I was born. My family house, the house my mother still lives in, is about a mile as the crow flies from the temple mounds built in the 11th or 12th century on the lake’s shore. I figure our place, sitting on raised ground with a spring nearby, was a kind of camp for people on their way to lobby the chief. Digging up flowerbeds, we’ve found pottery shards, ax heads and spear points from Florida’s aboriginal past, maybe 4,000 years ago.
You can visit six mounds at the lake: There once were more, but erosion and plowing have wrecked a number of them. The biggest, called the “ Mound of Dreams” by romantic white men in the 1850s, rises about 40 feet high, a green scoop of Florida earth at the edge of dark blue water. It is the most monstrous of ironies that the lake, sacred to the Apalachee, the Creek and the Seminole, is named for Andrew Jackson, the man who tried to ethnically cleanse them from Florida.
Looking east from the top of the New Capitol, the red hill plantation country spreads out like a meadow, stretching east and north into Georgia. Goodwood, one of the loveliest plantation houses in the Cotton Belt, lies hidden in the trees about 11⁄
2 miles from the capitol. The Italianate mansion is incongruously jammed up next to the antiseptic back of Tallahassee Memorial hospital, yet retains an out- of- time feeling with its golden chandeliers, 10- foot mirrors and curly rosewood furniture. The parlors always smell of beeswax.
Goodwood’s cotton fields were once part of the Lafayette Township, granted to the Marquis de Lafayette by Congress in 1825 to thank him for helping out in the Revolutionary War. Those fields are now Tallahassee neighborhoods full of ranch houses. To the west, though, on top of a high hill, lay another plantation, this one owned by a First Family of Virginia. But before a Randolph ever had his slaves chop cotton there, this was the site of the most important mission outside St. Augustine.
I go to San Luis de Talimali in the mornings when the gates first open and the mockingbirds raise a fullthroated ruckus just because the sun is shining. In the 17th century, San Luis represented the temporal and spiritual power of Spain to the tribes of western Florida ( and the British and the French), with its fort patrolled by armor- clad soldiers and its brown- robed Franciscans chanting Mass. The old mission buildings are gone, burned in 1704. But they’ve been carefully reconstructed, a startling incursion of the world of 350 years ago into 2007. The Apalachee council house is covered in thatched palm with a round opening to the sky above. It’s the place where the people would have danced, sang, argued, advocated and drunk the sacred yaupon tea.
On an April day, I stand inside the friary church, listening to the birds. The floor is clay the color of carnelians; the light is dim; there are no windows. Still, enough light comes in the doors to see the pictures of saints and archangels hanging on the high walls. An image of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by beating wings adorns the altar.
Back out in the brightness, if you squint a little, you can imagine this place in 1650, Apalachee women tending corn, the mission bell ringing out the Angelus.
A Company Town
On my way back to the capitols, I stroll under pennants of Spanish moss waving in the live oak trees. The old houses on Park Avenue, and Calhoun and Gadsden streets are all within a few blocks of one another and the state government complex, and now, with wisteria scenting the air, walking is the way to see Tallahassee’s relics.
The plain frame Lewis House, dating from 1845, was owned by Lewises until 1993. The Knott House, with its fine Doric columns and cedar- green shutters, was built in the 1840s by George Proctor, a free black man, for some local grandees. In 1865, Union Gen. E. M. McCook, exasperated with the way the local white folks kept on acting as if Appomattox hadn’t happened, read the Emancipation Proclamation from its front steps. Loudly.
The seven blocks of grass, trees and flowers downtown are called the Chain of Parks. If you follow the parks west to the end, you’ll come upon a crowd of Florida’s movers and shakers. Here among the wild violets and palmettos, I see governors, judges, Democrats, Whigs, even an exiled prince who fancied himself a power broker. They’re the quietest politicians I’ve ever encountered. Admittedly, they’re dead.
The old St. John’s Cemetery guest list boasts Gov. William Bloxham, memorialized by a tall pillar pointing like an accus- ing finger toward heaven. He fell afoul of Florida’s eccentric vote- counting methods the first time he ran for office in 1870 and the state canvassing board threw out his ballots — even though he had won the most votes. My favorite Florida celebs, Catherine and Achille Murat, molder away under two slim obelisks now crumbling in the habitual damp. She was a greatgrandniece of George Washington; he was a nephew of Emperor Napoleon. Achille was also Crown Prince of Naples — at least until 1815 when Italian anti- Bonapartists shot his father. In 1825, he settled just east of Tallahassee and built a plantation he called Lipona ( an anagram of “ Napoli”), dueling and politicking until he drank himself to death in 1847. Catherine bought her own plantation and spent the rest of her life throwing parties for young Confederate officers.
“ Weird things happen in Tallahassee,” says Morgan, the journalist. “ Where else would a governor bring a glamorous blonde to his inaugural ball and introduce her only as ‘ Madame X’ — you know, like Claude Kirk did in 1967? Where else would the locals bring plates of cookies to the guys in the satellite trucks during the recount?”
“ Where else can you find a French restaurant that serves grits?” asks John Newton, one of Al Gore’s lawyers in the 2000 election imbroglio. “ And I don’t mean polenta, I mean grits.”
The local cash crop is no longer cotton, it’s politics. Even our cathedral is named after a politician, St. Thomas More, whose policy dispute with Henry VIII still resonates today. Presidential candidates are already underfoot: John McCain recently showed up at Paradigm, a cocktail place on College Avenue, and the crowd spilled out into the road; Barack Obama brought his panting acolytes to the plaza in front of the city art gallery, and the hollering and cheering was so loud you’d have thought there was a football game on.
Tallahassee has football, too, courtesy of Florida A& M, home of legendary coach Jake Gaither and the even more legendary Marching 100, a band lately seen at the 2007 Super Bowl outdancing Prince. Florida State plays games in a castle, a huge fortified gothic pile with battlements, towers and a stadium in the middle.
The universities provide a built- in audience for music, from Alan Jackson wailing at the Civic Center to Look Mexico pumping out its self- proclaimed “ yacht- rock” at Beta Bar in the funky All Saints neighborhood. Around the corner there’s the Railroad Square Art Park, and nearby, you can hear Pulitzer Prize- winning poets and National Book Award- winning novelists reading their work in the back of the Warehouse, a Gaines Street pool hall.
Still, this is a company town. Moreover, it’s deep blue, a Democratic town in a state run by Republicans. So when the legislature returns each spring for its annual session, Tallahassee becomes an occupied city. With the first dogwood bloom, the Hummers roll in. It’s like Prague in 1968, only with iced tea and people saying “ y’all.”
The action’s now in the New Capitol, where, if you can see around the lobbyists, you’ll be immediately hit in the eye by “ Images of the Sunshine State,” a mural by James Rosenquist with state symbols — oranges, a huge and somewhat threatening mockingbird, a stern- looking bull, an alligator — against a background of diaphanous blue water. On the fifth floor, you can sit in on legislative debates.
Sometimes it’s great political theater. More often, the best stuff happens outside, between the old and new statehouses. Today, a guy in a parks service uniform holds a young alligator while a couple of pirates from Tampa’s Gasparilla Festival pet it. The gator’s jaws have been duct- taped shut. A mermaid sits in a lawn chair, talking to some senators. It’s Tourism Day at the legislature. Tomorrow, Key West throws a Conch Republic party. They used to make a Key lime pie the size of a baseball diamond, browning the meringue with blowtorches. With new ethics regulations, though, nobody’s sure whether there will be free pie.
The mermaid, from Weeki Wachee Springs, wears a brassiere covered in green spangles and a green lamé tail that zips up the side. A senator asks her if she wants to hit one of the bars on the Adams Street Commons, a shady complex of 19thcentury brick buildings with frilly iron balconies and sidewalk cafes below. “ Yeah,” she says. “ I need a drink.”
Capitol or KFC? Pictured above is Tallahassee’s Old Capitol building; there’s a new one, too, designed by Edward Durrell Stone in the 1970s.
Among Tallahassee’s stately homes is the Knott House, built in the 1840s by a free black man.