The civic center that isn't
In April, a special committee appointed by the city and mayor met for the first time to begin talks about building a performing-arts center somewhere in Tallahassee.
The call for the hall - a venue not as cavernous and acoustically challenged as the Civic Center, which opened in April 1981 - was an integral piece of the city's Cultural Plan published last year.
This isn't the first time the Capital City has mulled over such a project.
In 1956, Tallahassee commissioned plans for a downtown cultural center created by the world-famous German architect Walter Gropius. The 73-year-old leader of the Bauhaus architecture movement came back with a design for a daring multipurpose cultural complex that - had it been built - would have put Tallahassee on the map, architecturally speaking.
Instead, the Gropius plan lit a fuse of public and private disputes over modern architecture, taxation and race relations. Tallahassee eventually passed on the chance to become home to a building that would be drooled over by architecture critics in 2004.
"If they'd built it, people from all over the world would be coming to Tallahassee just to see the Gropius civic center," Florida State University-trained classical pianist Daniell Revenaugh, 69, said. "The design was so sensible. They really blew it."
Fear of architecture
In a perfect world - and in the original vision of the architect - the Gropius center would have been built on an oak tree-lined site between Park Avenue and Duval Street where the Leon County Public Library is today. Gropius allegedly fell in love with moss-draped Park Avenue when he visited for the first time in early '56.
The centerpiece of the complex was going to be a flexible-use auditorium - topped by an impossible-to-miss arch and a scallop shell-style "accordion of concrete" parabola. Inside, it would have had shifting partitions and changeable seating that could accommodate as many as 4,500 or as few as 1,200, depending upon the event. A parking garage was included, as was a library and a youth center.
All of it was going to be built over time under one grand design.
For the public, it was a lot to grasp. Keep in mind, Tallahassee's population was 38,000 in 1956. FSU's spring 2004 enrollment alone was 35,346.
Apathy was another problem.
When Gropius arrived to present his ambitious project during a meeting sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, only 26 people showed up.
"Gropius was not able to break the provincial attitudes that marked life and administration in Tallahassee in the 1950s," the late Florida State University art professor Gunther Stamm wrote in an article about the project in 1977.
"It was avant garde for the times," Tallahassee artist Joan Matey, 52, said. "It probably flipped a lot of people out."
"People objected to it - it was out of sight for this little Southern town," Tallahasseean Mart Hill, 83, said. "It was 50 years ahead of its time, and the times have caught up with Mr. Gropius. But it was still ugly."
"With that big arch, it sort of looks like the world center for McDonald's," Revenaugh said. "But that was really before McDonald's took over the planet."
"(It) was too much for them (Tallahasseeans) to swallow," the late Tallahassee Democrat editor Malcolm Johnson wrote in his "I Declare" column on July 7, 1969, a few days after Gropius died.
In the sweltering August of 1956, the month Gropius made his last-pitch trip South from his home in Boston, Mass., Tallahassee was a racial tinderbox.
The week he arrived, the Tallahassee Bus Boycott was pulling headlines away from the pending presidential conventions. The City Commission briefly considered outlawing car pools in the black community but dropped the unconstitutional idea in early August.
This was a time when most public theaters in the South maintained separate entrances and seating sections based on race.
Gropius - who was run out of Germany by the Nazis in 1934 - never considered including race-based entrances or seating in his vision of a "Total Theater," an idea he put into practice when he designed auditoriums in the Soviet Union. All that scared the hard-core white segregationists.
Discrimination was not condoned when it came to seeking federal grants.
"If you wanted to apply for federal funding in those days for a project like that - having two separate entrances just didn't cut it - South or no South," Revenaugh said. "I think that had a lot to do with its failure."
Meanwhile, Tallahassee's black community was busy fighting in the front lines of the civil-rights movement. A Bauhaus architect's "pet project" (editor Johnson's term) was not exactly a high priority when blacks couldn't ride to work in peace.
Money was, of course, another issue.
The down payment - and it's hard to find the exact sum Gropius and the engineers wanted - was going to be raised through a utility-tax hike. The tax was presented as a referendum at the polls in November 1956.
The referendum was shot down by voters and the turnout, like the one for Gropius' talk, was small. (A similar tax referendum was snuffed out in the early 1990s when another move to build a small-sized performing center was presented to voters.)
"I'm not sure Jesus could have been elected to anything in Tallahassee in 1956," Johnson said in a 1985 interview about the referendum.
So who was the guy in the bow tie?
Although many Tallahasseeans in the mid-'50s found his architecture disconcerting when placed side by side with downtown churches, antebellum houses and state buildings, Gropius was one of the undeniable giants of 20th-century architecture.
In 1911, he designed his first important work, the glass-walled, steel-framed Fagus factory in Alfeld, Germany. Although the style is common today, it was revolutionary at the time.
After serving as a German officer in World War I, Gropius married Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler, in 1915. The marriage fell apart in 1920, and their only child died of polio in the early '30s.
In 1919, Gropius founded the legendary Bauhaus school in Weimar. The forward-looking school sought to "synthesize" all the arts and taught classes in everything from ballet to painting to sculpture. Teachers included such famed artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The school also became a breeding ground for modern architecture.
"The name Bauhaus became famous because of the era," German-born Tallahassee architect Klaus Bindhart, 78, said. "He was more of an architecture thinker and teacher than a performer (or builder)."
Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 as the German government grew more nationalistic and suspicious of the school's free-thinking, democratic ideology. Under political pressure, Gropius was forced to resign in 1928, and the Nazis closed the school for good in 1932.
By 1934 Gropius was working in England. Three years later, he headed across the Atlantic to Boston. He was appointed the chairman of the department of architecture at Harvard University in 1938.
In the World War II years, Boston was home to a thriving German expatriate arts community that included expressionist painters such as Karl Zerbe, who moved from New England to teach at Florida State in 1945.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Zerbe had something to do with getting him (Gropius) down here," former FSU film professor and artist Tyler Turkle said. "(FSU art department founder) Gulnar Bosch was also here. That probably had a lot to do with it."
During his trips to Tallahassee in '56, Gropius stayed in Betton Hills on Randolph Circle at the home of a former student, G. Fred Holschuh. When Bauhaus was in its full glory, Holschuh, who taught art history at FSU until the early '80s, studied architecture with the master in Germany.
From Tallahassee to Baghdad and beyond?
When Tallahassee shrugged, Gropius tightened his bow tie and took his design elsewhere. He sold a modified version of the auditorium that was eventually built at the University of Baghdad in Iraq during the early '60s.
"Not only is the Baghdad Auditorium a close copy of the Tallahassee structure, but all essential ingredients for the Iraquian scheme are already pronounced in the Florida formula," Stamm wrote in his 1977 piece. "The Tallahassee Civic Center represents the final stage of Gropius' architectural career at a time when new and radically different ideas had started to appear on the horizon."
Gropius' plan called "A Civic Center for Tallahassee, Florida" is now a part of the Florida Collection at FSU's Strozier Library.
"(The plans are) still there, and they could build it today, if they wanted to," Revenaugh said. "I had a sit-down with FSU's president (Sandy D'Alemberte) a few years ago, and I said if he wanted to get FSU on the cover of Architectural Digest tomorrow all he had to do was to pull the plans out (of the library ), and build the Gropius civic center as is. It would be instant international coverage."
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