by Jason Garcia
Updated 5 yearss ago
In 1978, when the Florida Senate met for the first time in its new chamber within the just-built state Capitol, the Tandy TRS 80 was a top-selling computer and eight-track players cost $169. Lew Brantley, a sheet-metal contractor and Democratic senator from Jacksonville, presided as Senate president.
Thirty-six years later, the Senate chamber is getting its first facelift. Workers began gutting the space in March, just hours after the Senate sent out the final bill of the 2016 session. The $6-million renovation is supposed to be finished by early November, In time for the first meeting of the 2017 Senate.
The project was conceived in 2003 by the late Senate President Jim King (R-Jacksonville) but had to be postponed in favor of more urgent work, including the addition of committee hearing rooms in the adjacent Senate Office Build-ing. Outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) restarted it in January.
The reconstruction will include removing asbestos and bringing the chamber into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But it will also add a number of modern and aesthetic touches.
The lead architect for the project is Tallahassee-based HicksNation, the architect of record when the Florida House of Representatives renovated its chamber in the late 1990s. Among those HicksNation consulted with for this project: The Florida Channel, the station that broadcasts all legislative committee meetings and floor sessions. The station suggested the color of the Corian atop senators’ desks in order to reduce glare for its television cameras, among other ideas.
The senators’ desks will be sold for $160 each — offered first to the senators themselves, then to former senators and then to the public. The new desks will also have egg and dart molding, similar to the desks used in 1947. The Senate sold its desks for $90 and chairs for $65 in 1977.
The rostrum will be flanked by a pair of Ionic columns and the base of the dome will be encircled with egg-and-dart molding, both touches modeled after the former Senate chamber in the old Capitol, which was designed in 1947 but demolished in the late ’70s.
The current Senate chamber was designed so there is a spot on the floor where someone speaking can be heard throughout the space. That spot is likely to disappear in the renovation; audio systems have made it superfluous.
Atop the new Senate chamber will be a dome with a stained-glass centerpiece pendant modeled after the larger, 136-foot-tall dome in the old Capitol. The Senate’s back-lit, stained-glass installation will use the same geometric pattern as the old Capitol’s, which was installed as part of a 1902 remodeling designed by Southern architect Frank Milburn, whose other credits include the South Carolina s tatehouse and the Columbia County courthouse in Lake City. The names of each of Florida’s 67 counties will be inscribed in wooden millwork surrounding the stained glass.
Rostrum’s Florida Seal
In another tie to the old Capitol, the rostrum at the front of the Senate chamber will be topped with a triangular, wood-carved relief of the seal of Florida depicting a Seminole Indian woman standing ashore next to a sabal palm tree watching a steamship just off the coast. A larger relief, made of sheet metal and painted white, hangs outdoors above the old Capitol’s east porch.
The dome will be built in segments at a factory in Chadds Ford, Pa.. The manufacturer is Spitz, which has produced more than 2,000 planetarium projectors for clients including Disney and Universal. Spitz will trim and abut each panel along its seams rather than overlap them, giving the ceiling a seamless appearance. The dome will be painted white as a link to the former Senate chamber in the old Capitol.
Press Gallery Upgrades
There was a time when reporters covering the Florida Senate were allowed to sit on the floor at a table set off the side while the chamber was in session. In 1978, the press corps was moved to a gallery overlooking the floor — walled-in by sound-proof windows to silence the noise from their typewriters. The press gallery, which the Senate has since renamed after former Tampa Bay Times reporter Lucy Morgan, will remain enclosed after the renovation, though it will get a new door leading to a camera bay, a kitchenette and, in a feature suggested by veteran Capitol reporter Dara Kam, a set of mini-lockers.