Florida

The $6 million facelift: Florida Senate chamber gets new look

Architect's rendering of the new Florida Senate chamber.
Architect's rendering of the new Florida Senate chamber.

Since 1978, the circular arena on the fourth floor of the state Capitol has been the setting of countless battles over taxes, education, immigration, race and abortion — the right to live and Terri Schiavo’s right to die.

Now the Senate chamber is being upgraded at a cost of $6 million, but it took a while for it to happen.

Back in 2003, former Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville approved plans for a new chamber, but it was put on hold in favor of better technology and bigger committee rooms.

King died in 2009 and the project languished until this year when Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, dusted off the plans and approved the project.

“We are guests in this building,” Gardiner told senators in a memo, “and we have an important responsibility to adequately preserve and maintain areas of the Capitol complex.”

Work crews arrived the morning after the 2016 session ended in March, ripping out wiring and carpet, wheeling away the boxy dark brown desks.

“It looked faintly how you would have imagined the East German Parliament to look,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

It looked faintly how you would have imagined the East German Parliament to look.

Sen. Don Gaetz

In Tallahassee’s version of a yard sale, senators can buy those desks for $160. But most, including Gaetz, have said no thanks.

Starting in July, former senators can also buy one, but don’t expect a stampede from them either.

“Nothing special,” said former Sen. Curt Kiser, who represented Pinellas County from 1984 to 1994.

What’s special, Kiser said, are the memories, like the day in 1986 when Ray Charles, who grew up in nearby Greenville, sat at a piano and sang for senators before receiving a resolution in Braille.

The Senate chamber where Kiser served first went into use in the legislative session of 1978.

Reubin Askew was in his last year as governor, Dallas made its debut on TV and a gallon of gas in a new Gremlin cost 64 cents a gallon.

The chamber was part of a new 22-story Capitol that towered over Tallahassee, a $43 million monument to progress but a target of ridicule for its sterile and soulless profile, in contrast to the quaint and photogenic Historic Capitol in its shadow.

Sen. Mary Grizzle of Belleair Shore, a pioneering Pinellas lawmaker, offered a one-word verdict that has stood the test of time.

“Cold,” she said.

The tallest building between Jacksonville and New Orleans, it had features considered opulent at the time, such as private showers and an electric ice-maker in the House members’ lounge.

I’ve never finished a job late. We’ll make it happen.

Project manager Walter Vidak

Former Gov. Claude Kirk called it a “princely palace for potentates.”

That cast of characters included Dempsey Barron, the rancher from Panama City who ran the Senate like a personal fiefdom; Charlie Crist and Bob Graham, who became governors; and Carrie Meek, one of three black members elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, who laughed off Republican rhetoric as so much “heifer dust.”

Deals were cut and scores settled, careers flourished and flopped. Sports heroes were honored. Battling partisans once had to be physically separated.

“You remember the fistfight, right?” said former Sen. Bob McKnight of Miami, recalling the day in 1981 when Barron and Sen. W.D. Childers of Pensacola nearly came to blows after trading insults on the Senate floor.

Barron and Childers are long gone, and so is their stage.

The new Senate chamber makes its public and TV debut Nov. 22 at a one-day organizational session when all 160 legislators will take the oath of office.

The words “In God We Trust” will be emblazoned on the wall behind the rostrum.

An architect’s rendering shows a brighter and more traditional look, patterned after how the Senate looked before it was torn down in the Historic Capitol in 1947, and modern accents like wooden Ionic columns, egg and dart molding, and deep blue carpet.

The domed ceiling will be white with a stained glass pendant in the center, just like the restored stained glass in the Historic Capitol.

After years of delays, project manager Walter Vidak of Allstate Construction vows that the new chamber will be ready on time.

“I’ve never finished a job late,” Vidak said. “We’ll make it happen.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263 and follow him @stevebousquet.

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