Tal­la­has­see: Not the Florida You Know

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Diane Roberts

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.

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