Imagine sailing down the wild and muddy Mississippi River in the 19th century and spying a full-blown medieval castle taken out of a children’s fairy tale. Baton Rouge’s Old State Capitol made quite a statement in its day and continues to stand out in the city just as proudly as when it first appeared in 1847.
The Gothic castle fit for King Arthur was an unusual choice for a government building perhaps, but Baton Rouge has never been afraid to let its individuality shine.
Conference attendees to the 2011 BankTravel Conference Feb. 6-8 will get an opportunity to see the Old State Capitol and explore the friendly and intriguing town with city tours covering many of the same places I recently experienced.
During my visit, I discovered the city full of Southern hospitality, eccentric history, stunning architecture and delicious food.
The turrets and crenellations of the Old State Capitol complete the look of a 15th-century castle. Immediately after I entered the imposing building, my eyes were drawn to the dramatic circular staircase in the main room. Following its winding rise, an even more spectacular sight surprised me with a sudden burst of bright color coming from the stained-glass vaulted ceiling.
To understand why Baton Rouge decided to build and preserve this uncommon architectural marvel, I watched the 2010 video “Ghost of the Castle.” The light-and-sound experience started with a photograph of Sarah Morgan coming to life as a ghostly image while she explained the early history of the castle.
Morgan was an appropriate choice for the narrator, since she lived in the castle and was later rumored to inhabit it as a ghost. Interesting special effects made the video spellbinding, with shadows and sounds all around the walls simulating the castle’s being used for an antebellum ball, Union headquarters and a frat party center during the 1960s.
After watching the film, I was amazed at how Baton Rouge had managed to preserve the building from destruction through countless close calls.
The rest of the Old State Capitol contains exhibits on Louisiana’s political history and some of the wacky characters who have held office in the state. The museum also featured a special section devoted to Huey Long.
“Huey Long, our most infamous governor, had aspirations of being president,” said Whitney Breaux, communications specialist for Visit Baton Rouge. “He was exceptionally intelligent. He built a low bridge across the Mississippi River on purpose so the boats would have to stop and switch to barges in Baton Rouge. He really helped put Baton Rouge on the map.”
One exhibit, called “The Legacy of Huey Long,” presents a room split in two by a crack. On one side of the room, the museum gives information on the positive contributions of Long, such as improving health care, constructing roads and giving out free textbooks. The other side reveals his darker side, with information on how he appointed himself a U.S. senator, how he was almost impeached and how he controlled the governor when he was a senator.
The museum also showcases the gun used to shoot Long when he was assassinated, writings from Morgan’s journal and an interactive podium that allows guests to listen to and read along with a selection of Louisiana’s political speeches.
From its early start as a Native American village called Red Stick, Baton Rouge has become an energetic metropolis with a dynamic downtown. One landmark Long made sure was easy to spot is the 34-story New State Capitol.
When Long constructed it in 1928, he passed legislation demanding that no other building in Baton Rouge could be constructed higher than the 450-foot-high tower.
“Huey said the tower reaches high to show the hopes and dreams of the people reaching for the sky,” said Faye, tour guide for the New State Capitol. “That’s how Huey was. It ranks even today as the tallest state capitol in the country.”
Long spared no expense constructing the art-deco Capitol, with 26 different kinds of stone incorporated into the building, including Italian marble and volcanic rock from Mount Vesuvius. Louisiana’s Capitol stays open for tours, which relate the fascinating stories behind some of the building’s paintings and statues.
Stories from my guide ranged from a politician who rode his horse into the building to the story of an amputee who ran for governor under the slogan “Vote for what’s left of me” and won.
Faye also walked me through the events of the assassination of Long, which occurred in the Capitol.
“On that fateful day, Huey Long walked down the very path we are walking along,” said Faye. “At the time, he wasn’t governor, but acting as governor. He was also putting together a campaign to be president. He was a very busy camper.”
From the top of the Capitol’s observation deck, I enjoyed a p
anoramic view of Baton Rouge, which is nestled alongside the snaking Mississippi River.
BankTravel’s headquarters hotel, the 1927 Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, boasts a downtown location, luxurious accommodations and a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Even with 11 children, the Randolph family still had plenty of space in its 53,000-square-foot antebellum mansion just outside Baton Rouge in White Castle. Perched within sight of the Mississippi River, Nottoway Plantation is the largest antebellum home left in the South, with 64 rooms, 165 doors and six sets of interior stairs.
As if to ensure even giants could fit in the home, the ceilings reach 15 feet. Every detail of the house was meant to impress, including color choice.
“Everything was about showing off your wealth,” said Barbara Dufour, tour guide of Nottoway Plantation. “The white color of the ballroom was to show off the ladies’ colorful dresses. They also purposefully allowed drapes to puddle on the floor to show off extra wealth.”
Not only did the original furniture allude to the family’s affluence, but Nottoway claimed to be one of the most technologically advanced plantations in the South, with gas lighting, indoor running water and an elaborate call-bell system to communicate with servants from anywhere in the mansion.
Even with all these amenities, the ladies and gentlemen of the plantation had many self-imposed societal rules they could not break.
“There were strict social customs in those days,” said Dufour. “It was improper for ladies to show their ankles. They had a special foot stool where they could arrange their skirts before gentlemen entered the house.”
The thought of an accidental ankle sighting caused enough concern that many houses like Nottoway had two entrance stairways so the gentlemen could go up one side and the ladies could go up another.
Behind the antebellum glamour
But life on a plantation was not as glitzy for those living outside the plantation home, as I discovered at the Louisiana State University (LSU) Rural Life Museum and Gardens. The outdoor museum preserves a 25-acre garden and historic buildings from around the state from preindustrialized Louisiana.
A 20,000-square-foot indoor addition to the museum in 2010 keeps some artifacts inside, such as the largest collection of carriages in the United States, an 1850 hearse and an 1885 wheelchair. Outside, an entire block of historic buildings shows the impoverished state of many of those living in antebellum Louisiana.
“This is what you would have found behind those huge plantation homes,” said Elizabeth McInnis, marketing director for the LSU Rural Life Museum and Gardens. “A plantation really was like its own little town. The plantation owner didn’t want to see this. The only thing he wanted to know about was the money.”
One of the museum’s most impressive buildings is a 1780 Acadian home, which is one of the oldest known structures left standing in the state. Another favorite piece is the 1927 Uncle Jack statue dedicated to the accomplishments of the African-American community in Louisiana.
“One of the most beloved pieces in our collection is our Uncle Jack statue,” said McInnis. “There had never before been a statue that represents a person of color in America. There are so many different interpretations of the sculpture. It’s starting a dialogue, and that’s our purpose.”
When I returned to downtown Baton Rouge, I visited the Louisiana State Museum, which summed up my entire trip with artifacts, interactive exhibits and full-scale replicas that reveal the diverse aspects of Louisiana’s history and culture.
“The thing I love about this place is that it is the whole state in one location,” said Breaux. “Different routes in the museum explain the culture of different parts of the state.”
A replica shrimp boat, a plantation and a tailgating party helped show a wide range of Louisianan society. The museum even displayed information on culinary traditions, jazz funeral parades and New Orleans slang terms like “Where y’at?”
Walking through the Dance Hall section, I could not help but step along with the beat as I listened to Cajun, blues, jazz and swamp pop styles of music.
A giant multicolored dragon welcomed me to the Mardi Gras section of the museum, which displays the over-the-top sparkling costumes from past parades. I felt inside an actual parade, with videos and music playing beside the outlandish outfits.
Just as Mardi Gras marches to its own drum, Baton Rouge has kept its sense of history and individuality intact over the years. Fortunately for the upcoming BankTravel Conference, the city also knows how to throw a party.
Baton Rouge Area
Convention and Visitors Bureau
More on Baton Rouge:
Bound for Baton Rouge
Gumbo and zydeco!
Bring something back!
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