Among Tallahassee's stately homes is the Knott House, built in the 1840s by a free black man.
Among Tallahassee's stately homes is the Knott House, built in the 1840s by a free black man.
Eric Hytnen

Tallahassee: Not the Florida You Know

Among Tallahassee's stately homes is the Knott House, built in the 1840s by a free black man.
Among Tallahassee's stately homes is the Knott House, built in the 1840s by a free black man. (By Eric Hytnen)

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By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 8, 2007

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 last-minute 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 red-striped 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; condo-fication 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 1 1/2 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.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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