New Year, New Building: Tennessee Lawmakers Start 2018 In Cordell Hull | Nashville Public Radio

New Year, New Building: Tennessee Lawmakers Start 2018 In Cordell Hull

Jan 10, 2018

This week hasn't just been the start of the General Assembly's 2018 legislative session. It's also been the unofficial debut of the state legislature's new office building.

Lawmakers moved in this winter to the Cordell Hull Building, after more than four decades in Legislative Plaza. The building has been open for several weeks, but with legislative business at a lull over the holidays, Tuesday marked a return to full swing.

And if the first day of the legislative session is sometimes compared to returning to high school after summer break, the first day in Cordell Hull would be like starting back in a brand-new school:

Navigating unfamiliar corridors. Figuring out room numbers. Finding the right place to hang out between classes.

State Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, admits he's not comfortable yet.

"Little plain," he says, "but what government building isn't at the beginning? It just doesn't have as much of a homey feel."

"Homey" is how some might describe lawmakers' old digs. "Lived in" — or worse — are others.

Legislative Plaza dated back to the early 1970s. It wasn't the legislature's first or only office building. In fact, many lawmakers had their offices in the adjacent War Memorial Building.

But Legislative Plaza did play an important role in the General Assembly's history. It allowed for the addition of professional staffers, who could assist the part-time elected officials. That's expanded state lawmakers' role in Tennessee government, breaking their dependence on the governor and legislative leadership to set the course.

But over time, even Legislative Plaza and War Memorial weren't big enough. For years, some support staffers have been in other buildings. One advantage of the move to Cordell Hull, lawmakers say, is it consolidates everyone under one roof.

Lawmakers, staffers and others await the elevator to the Tennessee State Capitol. A tunnel burrowed into Capitol Hill connects legislative chambers with Cordell Hull.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Cordell Hull is also set up for modern technology and current security procedures. Legislators say this will eliminate some of the long waits that characterized Legislative Plaza on busy days.

But, if nothing else, Cordell Hull will be more inviting, its supporters say. The hearing rooms are more spacious, and there's better lighting. Much of Legislative Plaza — built at the height of the Cold War — was underground.

Nashville Democrat Jeff Yarbro says he doesn't miss the old place at all.

"No," he says with a laugh. "No. Somebody said it was missing the character. And you know it's missing a little bit of the character and also the asbestos and dark molds, so..."

But there is one benefit of Legislative Plaza that could be lost: accessibility. It had a unique layout, with hearing rooms and offices located on a single floor. People familiar with the building could easily buttonhole lawmakers on their way to or from meetings, making it difficult for them to duck out of uncomfortable conversations.

Cordell Hull is vertical, with an elevator designated for legislators' exclusive use. Some corridors are hidden from view.

All of which have made the first day of orientation all the more important for lobbyists, reporters and constituents to learn the new way around.