As the political epicenter of Florida, downtown Tallahassee is filled with sleek modern buildings, comfortable luxury hotels and hip cool eateries to accommodate the legislators and tourists that frequent this popular capitol city. Despite these modern trappings, downtown Tallahassee is also an excellent place to learn a little about the state’s history; in fact two excellent history museums are located just a few blocks apart. And although the hilly downtown landscape may be problematic for wheelchair-users and slow walkers, it’s still possible to have a perfectly accessible historic visit with a little advance planning.
The Capitol of Yesteryear
The best place to begin your historic Tallahassee visit is at the Florida Historic Capitol Museum (flhistoriccapitol.gov). If you have an accessible parking placard, accessible parking is available behind the museum, off of Jefferson Boulevard. If not, the closest parking garage is located a short walk away at Kleman Plaza, between Pensacola and College.
Although steps grace the front entrance of the former capitol, the accessible ground floor entrance is located in back. There’s a call box by the door to let employees know that you need the door unlocked; and after you enter the building take the elevator to the first floor and proceed to the reception desk. There’s no admission charge, but a volunteer will give you a map and provide a brief orientation of the building.
This historic capitol was built in 1845, and although it was remodeled in 1902, the original rotunda and part of the north and south corridors remain intact. The building, which once housed all three branches of the state’s government, has been restored to what it looked like in 1902. And with a number of historic exhibits in the rooms on both floors, it’s a good place to get a primer on Florida political history.
The executive wing, which is located on the first floor, is home to the Florida Before 1885 exhibit as well as a theater which shows Florida in the Balance, a documentary about the state’s political history. The governor’s suite of four offices is furnished with period pieces and this wing also includes a gallery of the governors portraits, and an exhibit about political campaigns and inaugurations.
At the opposite end of the first floor, the judicial wing has exhibits about great events in Florida history, the 2000 state election, civil rights and important Supreme Court cases. The Supreme Court Chamber has also been restored to its 1902 look.
Florida History 101
The equally interesting Museum of Florida History (museumoffloridahistory.com) is also worth a visit while you’re in the area. Although it’s just a two-block walk, it’s best to drive to the museum as it’s a sustained uphill walk. Accessible parking is located next to the museum near the corner of Bronough and St. Augustine. From the parking lot, there’s ramp access down to the plaza and level access to the museum. There’s a wheelchair available for loan at the front desk, and elevator access down to the basement, which also houses exhibits.
The museum focuses on artifacts and eras that are unique to Florida’s development, and the roles that Floridians have played in global and national events. And although there are several rotating exhibits, three excellent permanent installations are the backbone of this facility. At the top of the list is the comprehensive Forever Changed; La Florida 1513-1821.
This chronological exhibit paints a timeline of Florida history from Ponce De Leon’s arrival in 1531 to when Florida became a US territory in 1821. It chronicles Spain’s efforts to establish a colony in La Florida from 1565 to 1763, British Control in the 1700s, and the second turbulent Spanish controlled period into the early 1800s.
The timeline continues with the second permanent exhibit — Florida in the Civil War. This exhibit sheds some light on what it was like in this predominantly rural agricultural State that had a large population of African American slaves. And unlike some of the more populous southern states, the majority of the white population in Florida was relatively poor.
The third and final permanent installation — Florida Remembers WWII — documents the state’s response to the battle fought by the Greatest Generation. Exhibits focus on military training in Florida, which had a large number of airfields and a naval air station. Lots of old photos and artifacts such as ration books, sweetheart pins and sugar stamps are also included. The exhibit includes the men and women in all branches of the service, and chronicles the support on the Florida home front. And it’s the perfect way to end your historic journey in downtown Tallahassee.