By DIANE ROBERTS
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001
This place has become a destination for political tourists who just could not get enough of last year's surreally elongated election.
The other day I was sitting in the nut-brown bar at Chez Pierre, Tallahassee's venerable French restaurant. It perches at the edge of an old in-town neighborhood of perfumed Japanese magnolias and eccentric houses and acts as a sort of unofficial club for various Tallahassee writers, litigators, lobbyists, painters and professors.
It has also become a stop on the Election Debacle Pilgrimage.
Actually, Chez Pierre probably ought to put up a historic-site plaque, given the large legal matters that were undoubtedly discussed around its tables:
Last Thanksgiving saw a bunch of Al Gore's lawyers having their dinner in the bar, while a bunch of George W. Bush's lawyers were tucking into turkey on the porch. Everybody eyed everybody, but John Newton, one of Gore's principal Florida attorneys, had a bottle of Champagne sent over to the Republicans. Such is Tallahassee: good manners uber alles.
On the scent of history
It used to be that the majority of tourists Tallahassee got were busloads of children press-ganged into the social studies field trip to see Your Government in Action during the legislative session.
Then there were the camellia aficionados, come to feast their eyes on the pink explosion that is Maclay Gardens in early spring. There were even a few adventuresome souls on the way to New Orleans or the beach who had heard Tallahassee was "quaint" and figured they'd spend a couple of off-Interstate hours looking at antebellum houses and genuine Spanish moss.
Now, all is changed, changed utterly.
"Oh yeah, we've had a lot of interest," says Jennifer Hawkins, senior manager for public relations at the Tallahassee Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"I've directed people to the Supreme Court, the back parking garage of the Leon County Courthouse where they brought the ballots in -- and I've even had people wanting to see Nic's."
Nic's Toggery is a mildly tweedy downtown menswear shop. It did very well for itself when Tallahassee filled up with reporters, lawyers and spinmeisters who didn't realize that:
1. It gets cold in North Florida in November and,
2. They might be in for a long, long stay.
Some enterprising travel agent could put together an Indecision 2000 Trail. Joanne West of Tours with a Southern Accent suggests calling it the "Chad Tour" and adds that she already takes visitors around official Tallahassee.
Or you could build your own tour, starting on the ground floor of the dour concrete tower Tallahasseeans still call the "New Capitol," though it was completed in 1977. There you can see the office where Katherine Harris holed up with a funeral's worth of flowers and an apparently heretofore uncracked volume of election statutes.
Don't miss the rotunda with its giant state seal, site of the post-election sit-in by Florida A&M students protesting the treatment of African-American voters.
Once outside, pause to admire the magnolia and Civil War monument-filled lawn in front of the domed Old Capitol (built in 1845 and redone in 1902). It was here that CNN reporters stood to give the latest on the vote tallies while the whole world was watching.
Circle back behind the Capitol to Duval Street (named for Florida's first territorial governor) and walk to the white columns and silver doors of the Supreme Court. You can stand on the very spot where the famous portable lectern was parked every time court spokesman Craig Waters emerged to voice the court's pronouncements, alternately raising and dashing the hopes of Al Gore or George Bush. Feel the vibes.
The old, old days
Leaping forward several centuries, even before the Civil War Tallahassee was the heart of the richest plantation land in the state. It was home to exiled European aristocrats on the wrong side of one revolution or another, Virginians expanding cotton and tobacco empires and, then as now, on-the-make lawyers.
By the 20th century, however, it was as if the place had fallen into an enchanted sleep. Other parts of Florida rushed to ruin: dredging, draining, bulldozing, clear-cutting and levelling.
Tallahassee got bigger slowly -- gently. While there are the usual poisonous strip malls and subdivisions, there's still a lot of what historian Gloria Jahoda called "the other Florida" here -- wild lands, old houses, the vestiges of a past every bit as odd and intriguing as the heady events of November 2000.
The mounds at Lake Jackson, north of Tallahassee, are smaller than they used to be, what with erosion, plowing and generations of treasure hunters digging for gold. And of the seven mounds, only two are on public land. But when you stand on top of the biggest one, 100 feet across, you can almost imagine this place 800 years ago, with its temples, corn fields and lakeside villages.
The mounds are now surrounded by noisy suburbia: You have to pass a Winn-Dixie, an Eckerd and a McDonald's to get here. Yet the mounds still hold a spiritual silence like the inside of a great cathedral. Indeed, researchers believe that the mounds were built at about the same time as the cathedral at Chartres -- in the 13th century -- and took the same sort of mass labor and mass commitment to raise a great structure skyward.
Walk the trail through the woods, and the place seems even older, an Ur-Florida landscape. There are sweet gums and live oaks, oak-leaf hydrangeas and beeches, maiden hair and Venus hair ferns tangled along the banks of a vigorous spring-fed stream, cold as a January midnight. The wind in the magnolias rustles like silk skirts.
The path, partly built on the top of an irrigation ditch used to water fields in the 1840s, leads to the site of the grist mill on Robert Butler's plantation.
In the 1850s, Butler was a Democratic politico and big-time planter, famous for his "Feasts of Roses." He would fill his grand house on the hill above the lake with flowers; there would be waltzing and a nine-course dinner at midnight.
The house is gone, and there is almost nothing left of the grist mill, but the imprint of Butler and his fellow planters (80 in Leon County alone) is still on the land.
For 40 years before the Civil War, North Florida was Florida, the most populous and wealthiest part of the state, with an economy built on slave labor. Governors, judges and legislators were drawn from the white, slaveholding men who made up the Red Hills (so called from the region's bright garnet clay) elite.
They remained powerful up until the 1880s and 1890s, when many places were sold to northern plutocrats longing for a taste of the "Old South" and looking to shoot quail. One of these hunting plantations, New York millionaire Alfred Maclay's Killearn, is now Maclay State Gardens, a year-round Crayola box of floral color.
Drive north or east out of the city on any of the "canopy roads," and you can glimpse North Florida as it was 150 years ago. These roads (Old St. Augustine, Old Bainbridge, Miccosukee, Meridian and Centerville) were old Spanish or Apalachee tracks fanning out from Tallahassee like the spokes of a wheel. Oaks that were young when Andrew Jackson came south to kill Seminoles now clasp branches and wear shawls of Spanish moss.
On the old roads you pass plantations with mellifluous names -- Chemonie, Ayavalla, Luna, Welaunee, Waukeenah (now owned by Ted Turner and renamed Avalon, though the old posted signs remain) -- and far enough out, you might see hawks and eagles, gray pine cabins and tobacco barns.
Most of the original plantation houses that dominated the area like castles in feudal Europe are gone. What is left of Verdura, the fanciest of all, stands in a jungly field east of Tallahassee: five columns jutting up into the air like a ruined Greek temple, with undergrowth about to hide them.
The estates of Francis Eppes, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson who came down from Virginia in the 1820s, and Prince Achille Murat, a nephew of Napoleon who exiled himself to America, have disappeared back into the rich soil.
A great-niece of George Washington and declared a princess of France by Napoleon III, she held political salons in the 1850s, sitting in her unplastered parlor dressed in purple velvet and ermine, waited on by a slave dressed in Bonaparte livery.
Outside the house, which has been moved to the Tallahassee Museum of History and Science, there is an actual slave cabin, a tiny hut with dirt floor and gaps in its split-wood walls that must have let in a terrible chill during Tallahassee's cold, damp winters.
Most slave cabins were so poorly built that they have rotted away, and most restorers had no interest in saving them, preferring to forget where the money for the big houses and their fine furnishings came from in the first place.
But seeing this one reminds you that some of Tallahassee's "charm" (in the word most overused by the world press when they found themselves marooned here last year) was built on chattel slavery.
Closer into town you can see more vestiges of Tallahassee's cotton-growing past. Goodwood, built in the 1840s, was palatial even by rich-planter standards, with silver door fittings ordered from England, 16 sets of French doors and scenes from Aesop's Fables frescoed on the south parlor ceiling.
Soon after it was finished, however, the mansion and the lands surrounding it became the subject of a Florida Supreme Court case hinging on which member of the extended family that owned it drowned last in a terrible steamship accident.
There are also some fine houses in downtown Tallahassee, their front yards shaded with sidewalk-cracking oaks and ancient azaleas bursting forth every spring in lipstick colors.
Some of these old homes become law offices, some bed and breakfast inns, and one, the Towle House, is headquarters for the state Democratic Party.
The Knott House, at the corner of Calhoun Street and Park Avenue, was built by George Proctor, a free black man, in 1843, though it did not acquire its big white columns until 1928. U.S. Brig. Gen. Edward McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation from its porch on May 20, 1865 -- more than a month after the Civil War had ended.
The Governor's Mansion, a red-brick copy of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's Tennessee home, is not old or architecturally interesting; it was built in 1957 on the site of a 1907 mansion.
However, the official rooms are furnished with pretty 18th century furniture, a chandelier from a French chateau and the vast and complex silver service from the battleship Florida.
And it has seen its share of power events: President Bill Clinton famously slept there (alone, evidently), and Gov. Jeb Bush famously stayed out of sight there, waiting out the Florida election crisis.
Next door amid Cherokee roses, magnolias and dogwood (you have to peek through the greenery screen -- it's private) sits the Grove, formerly the home of Gov. LeRoy Collins. The ascetically elegant house was built in the 1830s by Richard Keith Call, ancestor of Collins' wife Mary Call Darby.
Back in the 1840s, Achille Murat used to throw the kind of dinner parties at his plantation that can best be described as culinarily edgy: He served crow, owl, alligator, rattlesnake, even turkey buzzard.
These days, visitors to Tallahassee are excused from eating the more dubious wildlife; instead there is Gulf shrimp, mullet, sea bass and sometimes oysters from Apalachicola Bay, served in little places with wine lists fatter than the Tallahassee phone book.
Tallahassee's political, legal and historical lives seem to merge most seamlessly in its food and drink. Every upmarket place in town now has a story: waiters at Cypress, which is part-owned by a cousin of Katherine Harris' and a Democratic member of an old Tallahassee family, can show you the very table where James Baker sat eating grouper.
The maitre d' at Albert's Provence (which makes a very nice lobster bisque) likes to tell about the night Warren Christopher came in and the maitre d', who is a big Democrat, rather warmly and enthusiastically thanked the the former secretary of State for his service to the nation over these many years.
And Warren Christopher thanked the maitre d' back, though somewhat austerely, and intoned, "Now let's eat."
At Kool Beanz, an ex-Minute-Market-turned-trendy bistro, last November I witnessed a gaggle of Agence France Presse and BBC correspondents exclaiming over the crab cakes. I tagged along with them to the nearby Waterworks, Tallahassee's best bar, to drink martinis that were as dry as Central Florida and to listen to them exclaim over how friendly and kind everyone in town was.
John Newton, a local lawyer who wrote briefs for Gore's courtroom advocate, David Boies, concurs. He says that the various high-flying lawyers who parachuted in to work on various election cases "just couldn't get over how everyone is so nice and so generous: They thought it was magic."
And if people here are that nice to lawyers, just think how pleasant they might be to regular people.
There's no doubt the Indecision 2000 Tour appeals mostly to legal scholars, C-Span junkies and dedicated followers of the rococo vagaries of government. But, as we saw last fall, that's a lot of people.
And if current politics seem a little too, well, current, there's always the politics of 150 years ago -- at least those folks are all dead and can no longer trouble us.
As for me, I'm just glad I don't have to spell "Tallahassee" for people any more. Even Miamians can handle it now.
Diane Roberts' ancestors arrived in North Florida in 1814. The former Times editorial writer is in Britain, working for BBC Radio and for the Times of London.
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If you go
STAYING THERE: The Governor's Inn (where James Baker and Warren Christopher stayed), 209 S Adams St., (850) 681-6855.
The Doubletree Hotel (where the press corps stayed), 101 S Adams St., (850) 224-5000.
The Calhoun Street Inn (where people who like B&Bs stay), 525 S Calhoun, (850) 425-5095.
EATING THERE: Chez Pierre, 1215 Thomasville Road, (850) 222-0936.
Cypress, 320 E Tennessee St., (850) 513-1100.
Kool Beanz, 921 Thomasville Road, (850) 224-2466.
Andrew's Capital Grill and Bar, 228 S Adams St., (850) 222-3444.
Waterworks, 1133 Thomasville Road, (850) 224-1887.
Albert's Provence, 1415 Timberlane Road, (850) 894-9003.
MUSEUMS, PARKS AND GARDENS: Lake Jackson Indian Mounds, Crowder Road. Open 8 a.m. to sunset daily, $2 per car, $1 for walkers or bikers.
Maclay Gardens State Park, 3540 Thomasville Road, (850) 487-4115. Open 8 a.m. to sunset daily, $3.
The Knott House Museum, 301 E Park, (850) 922-2459. Open Wed-Fri, 1-4 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Goodwood Plantation, 1600 Miccosukee Road, (850) 877-4202. Tours Mon.-Fri., $5.
Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science, 3945 Museum Drive, (850) 576-1636.
The Governor's Mansion, Adams Street, (850) 488-4661. Tours Mon., Wed., Fri, 10 a.m.-noon. Free.
Tours With a Southern Accent, 209 E Brevard, (850) 513-1000.
HAIRCUTS: Stylish Shears (where David Boies and Dexter Douglass got their courtroom do's), next to the Catfish Pad on Magnolia; call (850) 877-0155.
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