Baton Rouge was named after a red stick in the mud that divided land between tribes…but this town is no stick in the mud. Colorful, historic and progressive are adjectives that come to mind.
We found a shaded parking space at the toe-end of the capitol mall and began walking toward the towering, 34-story skyscraper. Louisiana has the tallest capitol building in the country and one of only three that have been built in that towering design (Nebraska and North Dakota are the other two). Governor Huey Long envisioned the new capitol and marshaled its construction in just fourteen months at a cost of $5 million dollars during the depth of the Great Depression.
At that point we hadn’t yet realized that we would be spending much of our morning with the ghost of Huey Long. Long was raised in a poor parish (the name Louisiana uses for their counties) in remote, northern Louisiana and rose to become Governor of Louisiana from 1928-32, and then he was elected U.S. Senator in 1932. His career ended abruptly when he was shot to death in 1935 in a hallway in this very building that we were about to enter.
Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize Winning novel All the King’s Men is a fictional account of Huey Long’s life. In the novel Warren uses Willie Stark as the character who represents Long. The original movie of this same title came out in 1949 with Broderick Crawford winning a best actor Oscar for his role, and there was even a remake of the film in 2006. Long’s colorful personal history and his rise to power still spark controversy today. There is a special room in the Old Capitol Building with displays highlighting the pros and cons of his achievements, leaving judgment to those who study history.
In the 1920s Louisiana had few paved roads, fewer bridges and little infrastructure. Long got highways, bridges, schools and hospitals built that helped improve the lives of impoverished white and black residents across the state. Long also broke the monopoly of political power and gave a voice to voters throughout the state.
Long’s achievements created vast improvements, but they also created a murky cloud due to his personal and political methodology. He built a stranglehold of power that upset the old families of Baton Rouge, conservative political figures, and Standard Oil with its trust of big oil companies. Long’s political enemies attempted to impeach him in 1929. When they failed to oust him from power, Long received death threats and he hired a brigade of bodyguards. He went on to run and win his campaign for U.S. Senate and to plan the building of a new state capitol building…ironically, the place he would be shot to death in 1935 and where he would be buried.
As we walked up the mall toward the capitol we paused to view the impressive bronze sculpture of Long and its marble base carved with images of schools, books, construction projects and a crowd of grateful citizens. Next to the statue, a semicircular garden marks the site of his grave and a landscape crew was planting blue and yellow pansies that day to add color over the winter months.
Each of the forty-eight steps leading to the capitol building is carved with the name of a state and the date it was recognized with Alaska and Hawaii added to the top step later. Flanking the steps are two large statues that honor the courage of the patriots and pioneers who carved this state from raw wilderness. A carving of the state bird, the pelican, greets visitors and is frequently represented in architectural embellishments throughout the building.
The building was meant to impress and it does. From the ten-foot bronze relief map of the state embedded in the marble floor in the lobby to the gold leaf ceiling four stories above, every inch of this vast space is lavishly detailed.
Rather than lingering in the Memorial Hall we were advised to visit the 27th floor Observation Deck before all of the touring school children ascended. The bronze doors of the three elevators feature portraits of the American governors of Louisiana up to Long’s tenure. From 350 feet above the city we enjoyed views of the Capitol Grounds, the city of Baton Rouge and the Mississippi River. Besides giving us magnificent views, we were also able to orient ourselves as to the other sites we would be visiting nearby.
Back in Memorial Hall eleven flags fly from the balcony above the bronze-door elevators, marking the history of the powers that have ruled Louisiana. White marble statues of famous governors stand in sharp contrast against carved black marble backdrops. Massive four-story-tall brown marble columns take the eye up past the wall murals to the ornately painted ceiling with its intricately worked Art Deco light fixtures. The doorways and door surfaces are covered with highly textured bronze images depicting the state’s history.
The House and Senate Chambers, located at the opposite ends of Memorial Hall, are equally ornate and during our visit were being further embellished for Christmas by a friendly crew. “Gilding the Lily” is the phrase that immediately came to mind.
Next, we exited the building through a stain-glass-bound set of doors at ground level and walked the short distance to the Capitol Park Museum.
The first floor of the museum introduced us to the history of the state, starting with the Louisiana Purchase. Excellent displays slowed our steps and explained Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana Territory because he needed funds to fuel his war with Great Britain. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. President, foresaw the need for more land for settlers and was a strong proponent of the $15 million dollar purchase that expanded the United States borders by 828,000 square miles.
However, we had to fight to hold on to this new territory. During the War of 1812, Britain tried to regain control of the U.S. Their troops attacked on the Canadian border, Maryland and Louisiana. They succeeded in making their way into Washington, D.C., and burned down the Capitol Building. By 1814 Louisiana was a critical battleground…but Andrew Jackson and his rag-tag troops rushed down from Tennessee to help fight and win the Battle of New Orleans. They weren’t alone. Jackson rallied the support of local citizens: Creole men and women, bonded slaves, Choctaw Indians, free men of color and even privateers joined in. Under Jackson’s leadership the fight was highly unorthodox in military terms, but the war was won. Winning this war wasn’t the only victory…for now the country saw itself as a whole, unified force that had beaten the British, and the United States was ready to take its place as a nation in the world.
That was not the last war fought on Louisiana soil. During the Mexican American War (1846-48), troops entered Texas through Louisiana, and New Orleans became the major supply port for American’s fighting in Texas and Mexico. The Civil War (1861-65) came next. Louisiana was divided over the decision to join the Confederacy, but it became the sixth state to secede from the Union. Access to the Mississippi was vital so Union troops made a big push and by 1861 they had occupied the city of Baton Rouge.
Military history was only a portion of what we learned about Louisiana’s history. We learned about the economy and culture, Mississippi River shipping and floods, shrimp boats, oil drilling, Louis Armstrong’s jazz, lumber, slave markets, the plantation system, Civil Rights, crops (rice, sugar, cotton, indigo and tobacco), hunting and sport fishing, and the richness and diversity of the land.
Then we went to the second floor where we traveled “Louisiana Routes” a bit like Alice in Wonderland through 3-D postcards, listening to music from the different regions and experiencing snippets of the variety of cultures and opportunities to be explored across the state.
As a reader, I was thrilled to see “Lucky Dog,” the brand of hotdog cart that John Kennedy Toole’s antihero lugged around New Orleans in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Confederacy of Dunces.
We zigzagged across the state from one exuberant region and experience to another hot spot.
We even listened to samples of jazz, rhythm and blues, country, Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop and the blues and were introduced to some of the legendary music artists…then we found ourselves surrounded by the flash and color of Mardi Gras and its elaborate floats, costumes, ubiquitous bead necklaces as well as even a sample of parade lawnmowers hung from the ceiling!
What a marvelous introduction to Louisiana. In the end, we were ready to head out to explore and we still had a lot to see right there in Baton Rouge. The Old State Capitol was next on our list, and after seeing it we understood why Huey Long was in such a lather to get a new building built. The members of the Senate and the House could barely fit or function in this stately old structure…let alone have space for the growing government in a booming state.
As the welcome brochure reads, “The 160-year-old statehouse has withstood war, fire, scandal, bitter debate, abandonment and an occasional fist fight.” The restored ornate Victorian structure is a magnificent piece of history and a wonderful setting for a wedding.
When we were leaving a friendly security guard advised us to go to the top of the Shaw Center for the Arts just across the street. Before we got to the rooftop terrace we stopped and briefly toured the LSU Museum of Art on the fifth floor of that building. The museum houses both “Art In Louisiana” exhibits as well as temporary exhibitions like “Gods and Things,” an exhibit we saw with objects drawn from LSU’s permanent collection.
Once we stepped off the elevator and out into the sunshine on the terrace we understood the guard’s enthusiasm. The power of the Mississippi, the new and the old of the city, and the contrasting architecture was laid out before us. From our lofty perch we waved and whistled our thanks back down to the smiling man.
We had enjoyed a rich and fulfilling visit in the city and now we had another view of Louisiana to explore. For more adventure Part 2 of our Baton Rouge travels will take you into the country for a little rural life.