Three years ago, the federal government presented Alabama with a check for $1.8 billion. The world was in the early, uncertain throes of the coronavirus pandemic. The federal money should help with government revenue shortfalls and pandemic-related costs.
Lawmakers have come up with a bold proposal: A new Alabama State House.
The proposed price of $ 200 million.
I lodged an objection at the time because I couldn’t foresee where the money would ultimately go.
How other states spent their “Covid money” on public welfare, schools and infrastructure. Alabama has diverted its cut to bigger, badder buildings with bars — two new mega-prisons.
Had I known, I might have kept my mouth shut and taken my fingers off the keyboard.
Because Alabama needs a new state house for many reasons, not just to give Alabama lawmakers better offices (which is probably the worst reason). The current Alabama State House is a sad, horrible, dingy, disgusting dump. There’s another word for it, but it was rude to print it before Donald Trump kind of made it racist. Anyone who has been there will understand. It is disgusting. It’s an embarrassment.
For anyone who doesn’t visit Goat Hill regularly, it can be difficult to understand the need.
First of all, the capital looks good on television. The steps are marble and the rotunda is pretty. The statues and paintings are neat too, as long as you don’t think too much about what they represent.
So why all the whining from lawmakers and lobbyists? Marble and mahogany not good enough for you?
Thing is, this isn’t the State House. This is the old Capitol and it’s pretty much a museum.
The building where the legislature works is across the street.
The Alabama State House, on loan from the Alabama Department of Transportation in the 1980s, was intended to serve as a temporary home during a larger renovation of the old Alabama Capitol. The sacked building provided space for committee meetings, which the old capital lacked, and, more importantly, it had offices for legislators, however small.
The legislature never returned it.
But it also presented problems, the first of which was that it was not built as a House of Representatives.
Hallways are narrow, ceilings are low, and most common areas have no windows.
The front entrance feels like the back entrance and each floor feels like a basement. In fact, the floor that feels the least like a basement might be the actual basement that lawmakers sneak into for a smoke on the loading dock.
Accessibility is a cruel joke.
To get to the Senate Gallery, you need to take an elevator, exit that elevator, and then take another elevator the rest of the way.
Hospitals have better architecture.
There are also technical problems for which there are no simple solutions. The elevators and air conditioning are so dated
The problem here, however, isn’t that the Alabama State House isn’t good for officials. The problem is that it’s not good for the public.
Everything inside is screaming, “You shouldn’t be here.” Outside, it’s possible to walk right past the thing and not know what it is.
“First we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill of Britain rebuilding the House of Commons after the London Blitz.
The Alabama State House isn’t to blame for the people we send there to work, but damn it if they don’t send them a message. When every room is a back room, there are back room deals.
We can and should do better.
No one has solved this problem because it can be political self-destruction, perhaps worse than lawmakers giving themselves raises.
But it is possible to delay a need until it becomes absurd.
It’s time to give the legislature a pass (with conditions).
The old capital of Alabama is basically a Confederate museum. You can take down the signage and scrape the artwork off the Rotunda’s walls, but you won’t erase the fact that this is where the Confederacy was born.
But Alabama has much more to offer than the Civil War, and our major public buildings should reflect that. Alabama needs a building with purpose outside of the few months of each year that the Legislature is in session.
Alabama needs a space that is part government building and part history hall where school kids can go and learn something about Alabama that they can be proud of. Adults too.
Alabama needs a place that commemorates its true heroes, people like John Lewis and Rosa Parks, and not Confederate villains.
Alabama needs statues and exhibits that, if lawmakers had to pass by these reminders of struggle and sacrifice, might think twice about the work they are there for.
It needs a space that connects Alabama’s past with its future.
Three years ago the time was not right.
But it’s right now.
It’s time to put the Alabama State House in order.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for Alabama Media Group, winner of the 2020 Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ Award for Opinion Writing, and winner of the 2021 Molly Ivins Award for Political Commentary.