An Eighth-Generation Floridian Riffs on Elections, Erections and Southern Charm in the Capital City
It’s a funny place for a capital: not on a great river, like Washington or London; not by the sea, like Helsinki; nor on a mountain like La Paz—Florida has no mountains. We do, however, have hills. Tallahassee, you know, is built on seven hills: just like Rome. And if you’ve ever visited Tallahassee, you will have been struck by its resemblance to the city founded by Romulus and Remus, the mythical twins raised by a wolf. Yet, there’s our domed and Doric-columned Old Capitol, serene and austere as an ancient temple of Jupiter—except for the red and white awnings, which make it look like a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just a mile and a half away from our Capitol is our own version of the Colosseum, Doak S. Campbell Stadium, the largest brick structure in the United States (marble’s scarce around here), the arena in which mighty gridiron gladiatorial contests between the Florida State Seminoles and rival football teams take place.
Tallahassee even has sacred groves, live oaks bearded with Spanish moss, revered by the locals. Seriously. Around here, we worship trees like nouveau druids. The city treasures its 100 miles of canopy roads, narrow, winding thoroughfares overhung with sweet gum, hickory and still more oaks. We treasure them so much that there’s a standing committee to help protect them from hylophobe tree-haters who move here from the more paved-over regions of Florida, demanding that our roads be six-laned. When a developer cut nine acres of old pines to put up (another) designer burger joint, (another) Starbucks and (another) mattress store, we reacted with outrage. One Tallahassean, whose family has been here for seven generations, spray-painted “CRIME SCENE” on the developer’s siding.
We’re so besotted with trees that we have carefully preserved a dead one, bang in the middle of the city park. The huge stump, five-feet across, is all that remains of Tallahassee’s most famous tree, the May Oak. For nearly 150 years, young Tallahasseeans (the well-off white ones, anyway) would welcome spring by dancing around a maypole and crowning a hoop-skirted high school girl May Queen. In 1986, the ancient May Oak split in two and collapsed into the street. The city mourned. Almost 30 years on, Tallahasseeans still make pilgrimages to the stump, and visitors staying across the street at the Park Avenue Inn, built in 1838 and formerly the keeper of the May Queen’s Throne (a fan-back lawn chair), like to take selfies with it. A group of local Wiccans honor the tree by calling themselves the Church of the May Oak. They don’t dance naked around it under the moon—at least as far as anyone knows. They mostly meet at Panera Bread.
You may be wondering why the capital of Florida is located in the least populated part of the state, dangerously close to swamps, marshes, and Georgia, yet annoyingly far (25 miles) from the nearest beach. It’s like this: in 1823, just a few years after Spain ceded Florida to the United States, territorial governor William DuVal decided Florida needed its own capital. One capital. It already had two: Pensacola, on the Gulf Coast and St. Augustine, on the Atlantic. Travel between the two could take up to six weeks by sea. Horseback was quicker: a mere three weeks—if it didn’t rain. Governor DuVal chose two commissioners, east Florida doctor William Simmons and west Florida lawyer John Lee Williams, and ordered them to set out from their respective regions and meet somewhere in the middle. In late October 1823, the two expeditions met up in Tallahassee. Simmons argued that some place on the Suwannee might be better. Williams thought that might be rather damp. He liked the area north of St. Marks. Neither cared that the land belonged to the Miccosukee. Chief Chifixico rather pointedly picked up a handful of north Florida red clay and asked them if it was not, in fact, his land. They shrugged and carried on surveying.
The territorial government went with Williams’ choice, and in 1826 the first capitol, a modest wooden structure, was built on a rise near a meadow with a stream and a waterfall. Governor DuVal established himself in a fine plantation house on a bluff above the waterfall and named it Mount Aventine, after Remus’ favorite Roman hill. DuVal’s mansion is long gone, returned to the rich earth. The waterfall is gone too, but the meadow—which the city had long used as a dump for coal tar and other noxious substances—has been cleaned up. Now the whole place is a storm-water treatment facility disguised as a park with fountains, statues, an amphitheater and a chic restaurant in what was the old city electric works.
As for the capitol, it was rebuilt several times, getting bigger and grander, acquiring classical porticos, architraves, pediments, friezes and a soaring dome: Florida’s own Pantheon. By the time Florida was on the downslope of the 20th century, the old capitol had become shabby and over-crowded. Governor Reubin Askew, elected on a civil rights platform in 1970 and determined to drag Florida out of the Old South, presided over the raising of a new capitol, something modern: no plantation house white columns, no memories of secession (Florida was third to leave the Union) or Jim Crow. Tallahassee’s Capitoline Hill got a tall concrete tower in the Brutalist style, every bit as beautiful as your average Soviet-era office block. Seen from afar, the 22-story shaft, flanked by the domed House of Representatives and Senate, is unmistakably phallic. Tallahasseeans call it “Reubin’s Erection.”
In November 2000, the world got to know Tallahassee as the site of the presidential contest imbroglio, the place where they couldn’t count the votes straight, the state banana republics were calling a banana republic. The brick plaza between the old capitol and the new was carpeted with television cables, lit bright as midsummer even at midnight. It teemed with reporters doing standups, often having to explain that no, Miami isn’t the capital: it’s T-A-L-L-A-H-A-S-S-E-E. Just like it sounds. And yes, it gets cold here.
Fifteen years on, you can take yourself on an Indecision 2000 walking tour, starting inside the new capitol at the secretary of state’s office, where Katherine Harris removed a slew of eligible voters from Florida’s rolls and, when ripped by the courts and constitutionalists, compared herself to Queen Esther in the Bible, intoning: “If I perish, I perish.” Take in the rotunda and the Great Seal, where students from Florida A&M University staged a sleep-in to protest the disenfranchisement of African American voters, which may have thrown the election to George W. Bush. Then see the dreamlike James Rosenquist murals, with their merging of sea and space and the giant mockingbird with his hard, bright eyes.
Walk down the western steps to the state supreme court, which kept its dome and its columns. Court spokesman Craig Waters became world famous standing in front of the court’s silver doors, complete with bullet holes from a 1974 drive-by shooting, delivering count-don’t-count updates from the justices, often late at night. Stroll over to Adams Street, Florida’s real center of power, where around Thanksgiving 2000 you could see former secretaries of state, U.S. senators, news anchors and silk-stocking lawyers drinking cocktails at Clyde’s or eating shrimp at Andrew’s or slithering into a private room to talk strategy at the Governors Club, an elegant brick edifice on the corner of Adams and College that used to be a Masonic Lodge and thus was accustomed to secrets and strange rituals.
Catty-corner across the street sits the DoubleTree Hotel, out of which all the $700-an-hour lawyers, the political operatives and the reporters for CNN, the BBC, the Agence France-Presse and the rest of the world media were kicked because the Gators were playing the Seminoles in Doak Campbell, and the rooms had been booked up a year in advance. The lawyers, the politicos and the journos, used to a certain deference, lamented this cavalier treatment until people started taking them home, letting them sleep in the spare room or on the sofa. Tallahasseeans, you understand, suffer from a condition called hyper-hosting, in which everybody feels compelled to treat visitors with elaborate hospitality. The visitors were fed Thanksgiving dinner, taken to the good oyster shacks (which they’d never find by themselves) and the good bars, driven down to Wakulla Springs or out to Maclay Gardens to see the early camellias. Expressions like “Southern charm” and “old-school courtesy and grace” began appearing in news reports from the city.
Tallahassee hasn’t been the center of the political universe for a decade and a half, though it’s a new presidential election year, and anything could happen. But the camellias still bloom around the May Oak’s stump and in the front yards of the antebellum houses on Park Avenue and all over town. And the sacred groves still give us sanctuary. Surely the old Romans would approve.