By Lynn McLarty
The early 1950’s was bringing a transformation to the City of Tallahassee. Just a few years before, World War II had ended. The long-established Florida State College for Women had become co-educational. Tallahassee Memorial Hospital opened its doors in December 1949. Florida A & M University’s newly constructed brick hospital opened in 1950. Tallahassee’s prosperity was manifest in the increase in population, 77% between 1950 and 1960.
Fresh visions to benefit the city came from all strata of the population. Much needed public facilities rose to the forefront of the agendas of city and county officials. The Tallahassee Democrat article on August 1, 1954, gave credit to the Tallahassee Junior Chamber of Commerce for their vision of a civic center with the possibility of a library and other city/county governmental buildings. In December of that year the county-wide vote in favor of a free public library showed a definite trend for much needed public facilities. The library opened on March 21, 1956, in the basement of the Columns, at the corner of Park and Adams. The Columns, built as a private home in 1830 and later used a banking center, was moved to its present location at the NW corner of Park and Duval in the summer of 1971. Included in the Chamber of Commerce’s “wish list” for 1955 was a truck route on the east and north sides of Tallahassee.
With the culmination of the preliminary “talk” regarding a civic center (in conjunction with other governmental buildings) came the new idea, expressed in an editorial in the Tallahassee Democrat on Friday, December 17, 1954, to build a “Civic Block.” The proposal’s focal point was the convenience for citizens in having a single stop where they could transact their public business. The editorial presented many attractive features for a “block” of government buildings, both city and county (included also would be a library), as well as a civic auditorium. In the Democrat, Dec 28, 1954, the Jaycees accepted the challenge from the city commission to locate a space for a Tallahassee Civic Center. What ensued were educational meetings of various community clubs to ask questions and bring to the attention of the commission the public’s concerns. Our city’s favorite son Leroy Collins was inaugurated January 4, 1955, to begin a six-year stint as Governor of Florida. This, too, enhanced our City’s progress in taking measures to outgrow the “small town” label.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, April 22, 1955, the two sites for consideration for a “Civic Center Block” were the Lively Vocational School (formerly Leon High School until 1937) area at the corner of Duval Street and Park Avenue, and the Smokey Hollow-Country Club area, just east of the capitol. At the commission meeting in July of 1955, the Smith Field property (bounded by Magnolia Drive, Belmont Road, and Hays Street) was brought to the table as the primary location for the new Civic Center.
The August 3, 1955 Democrat announced the city commission’s appointment of the Civic Center Committee of Five. Local car dealership owner, Fred Drake, Jr., was chosen as chairman. Local architect C. Earnest Daffin, Jr. was asked to be the secretary. This was the first organized unit with any clout to make decisions for formulating plans for a civic center, and their proposals would be the basis for a plebiscite on November 27, 1956. The referendum was to be a straw-ballot to give the city commission guidance to weigh the next move toward a much-publicized civic center.
In mid-August the Committee of Five sent letters to all local engineering and architectural firms in an effort to help select a consultant for the civic center. The committee was asking the firms’ assistance in assessing the available nationally recognized architects and consultants who had the experience and ability for such a project. According to the Tallahassee Democrat of September 18, 1955, the famed architect Richard Neutra made a visit to Tallahassee to discuss the civic center project. After the search process and the interview process, the November 9th edition of the Democrat stated that the choice to oversee the process for the civic center project was the Chairman of the School of Architecture at Harvard, Dr. Walter Adolph Gropius. In the Democrat article of January 5, 1956, the staff writer Don Meiklejohn posed his writing around the headline of “Just Who Is This Walter Gropius.” The article was setting the stage for the community to better understand the individual who was in Tallahassee for his initial meeting with the city commission. The three items of paramount interest to the commission for this initial discussion was selection of a site for the center, the buildings to be included in the center, and Dr. Gropius’ fee for service.
In February a contract was signed between Dr. Gropius and his associates and the city commissioners. For the planning phase, Dr. Gropius’ architecture group, Architects Collaborative, would receive $15,000, plus travel expenses up to $3,000. For the next nine months Dr. Gropius made many trips to Tallahassee to formulate his comprehensive presentation for the commission and the community, knowing the ultimate acceptance would come from the voters in late November. Dr. Gropius’ selected sight for the Civic Center Block was to be the Lively Vocational area, the four-block section of the city, bounded by Duval, Park, Tennessee and Boulevard Streets. Professor Gropius’ arguments for this location were the accessibility to the downtown area, the beauty of the location itself (he loved the many majestic trees in Tallahassee), the opportunity to enhance the charm of Park Avenue, and the chance to clear out a badly blighted back street. In this mentioned area at the corner of Bronough and Park was Trinity Methodist Church’s pride: the quaint brick St. James Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. Was its long history of being at this location to end with the need for property on which to build the Civic Center?
On the eve of having Dr. Walter Gropius visit our city in 1956 to unveil his plans for the “Civic Center Block,” Malcolm B. Johnson, long-time editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, dedicated his August 12 editorial to a very cerebral reasoning why Dr. Gropius’ plan for the Tallahassee Civic Center should be accepted. As quoted by Mr. Johnson’s article, “A few months ago he (Gropius) told a group of internationally known architects gathered in London to see him receive the Queen’s gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects that he personally was concentrating on the Tallahassee Civic Center as a ‘pet idea.’” An indication of Dr. Gropius’ status was that he also was working on a plan for rebuilding part of bombed out Berlin and a design for the U.S. Embassy in Athens. Tallahassee had at it door-step the making of a renowned project which would be discussed the world over.
During the next few months, the Chamber of Commerce made available to any group or organization Dr. Gropius’ intricate plans and his futuristic models for the complex. Displays were mounted at prominent locations throughout the City for perusal of the citizens. Dr. Gropius made personal visits to some of the civic clubs to promote the vision and the reality of his project. From the many articles written in the Tallahassee Democrat during the time leading up to the November 1956 vote, there was a diligent effort by the media and the city’s civic-minded parties to properly inform the public of the implications in building the civic center and accompanying public buildings.
Contrary to the civic groups’ way of thinking regarding this very sizeable undertaking by the City of Tallahassee, doubts were expressed by other individuals in the city. The four million dollar outlay for the project, to be paid by a 10% utility tax, stared property owners in the face. The topic of integration divided the city. The beginning of the national civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama and the resulting bus boycott locally filled the pages in the 1956 Tallahassee Democrat. One city commissioner opposed the civic center project, declaring “it would better to not build a project than to have it integrated.” Maybe the public could not fully understand the broad concepts of a cultural complex for urban development that Gropius brought to Tallahassee. Maybe there was too much doubt on the minds of the congregations at Trinity Methodist and First Presbyterian Churches that the modern architecture of the proposed auditorium was in such stark contrast to the Greek Revival architecture of their respective building. An emotional angle of the opponents was the razing of the Lively Technical School, to them their reminder of attending Leon High School at that location. For whatever the reason for a negative vote, the populace did not find the time ripe for a Civic Center.
Voting down the civic center referendum did not dampen Dr. Gropius’ popular design of the auditorium. It was reported on the front page of Section Two of the Tallahassee Democrat, April 26, 1959, that Dr. Gropius had relinquished his modified architectural drawings of the Tallahassee auditorium to the Iraqi government for the structure to be built on the University of Baghdad campus. Subsequent editorials in the Democrat in the ensuing years contended that Tallahassee “let this one get away”.
So Tallahassee’s proposed civic center found its home three years later along the Tigris River in the midst of Baghdad, Iraq!