Above: Louisiana’s Old State Capitol is a repository of history.
Below: Huey P. Long’s bronzed hand before the Capitol symbolizes the deep influences he made in state politics. Michael C. Snell photos
Tried and true
As Louisiana observes the 200th anniversary of statehood, visitors to Baton Rouge have several attractions to explore that are steeped in political and cultural history.
Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, 100 North Blvd., is a 160-year-old, white, multi-story structure that could easily be mistaken for a castle or a church. After the interior was destroyed during the Civil War, it was rebuilt with a grand central spiral staircase leading up to a stained glass rotunda. The “Ghost of the Castle” immersive theatrical presentation gives an entertaining yet educational overview of the building’s history. The Capitol also has an extensive exhibit on Louisiana’s controversial Gov. Huey P. Long (1893–1935).
Long spearheaded the construction of the new state Capitol–the tallest in the United States. Oil on canvas murals depicting the goddess of abundance and the goddess of knowledge by artist Jules Guerin decorate the first floor. Elsewhere, a display case containing photographs and newspaper accounts of Long’s death stands in the hallway where he was shot. His statue stands in the formal English gardens of the Capitol grounds and can be seen from the open-air observation deck on the 27th floor. Enjoy the panoramic view of the Mississippi River Valley from here.
The Capitol was constructed on the site of a military post in use from 1810 to 1884. Most of the post was razed to erect the Capitol, but the arsenal and former barracks remain. The Old Arsenal to the east is operated as a museum. The structure was built with 4 1/2-foot-thick walls that not only protected the gunpowder, but also could contain an explosion. The barracks, southwest of the Capitol, is used for legislative housing when government is in session.
Exhibits at the Capitol Park Museum, A Louisiana State Museum, 660 N. Fourth St., aim to interpret the history and culture of Louisiana through an examination of river and agricultural commerce, cuisine, religion, and music. And yes, they also have an exhibit on Long’s political career. There’s also a full-size shrimp trawler on site. The museum is closed Sundays, Mondays, and holidays.
Another attraction, the LSU Rural Life Museum at 4560 Essen Lane, focuses on the lives of the 18th- and 19th-century working classes of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Many items in the collection had never been outside of the original families that owned them before coming to the museum. A 19th-century country church, with painted windows to mimic stained glass, is still periodically used by descendants of the original congregation. Other structures include a rural post office and buildings essential to running a small community and plantation.
An example of a Creole-style plantation home can be seen at Magnolia Mound, 2161 Nicholson Drive. The grounds may be viewed on a self-guided tour for a nominal fee, but the 1791 home can only be seen on a guided tour.
Golden oldies, now
Everything old is new again along Government Street, a portion of which is a burgeoning mecca of vintage and antique shops. Circa 1857 on the corner of Government and 19th streets is part architectural salvage yard, antique store, home décor shop, and art studio. Here shoppers can browse through the work of more than 100 metalworkers, sculptors, and painters.
Owner Marsha Rish refers to her shop, Honeymoon Bungalow, at 3153 Government St., as a vintage department store because they stock items for every room in the house. Though merchandise dates back to the 1920s, mid-century modern (1950s–1970s) is their primary focus. Time Warp Boutique, 3001 Government St., has grown to be one of the largest vintage clothing stores in the South. In addition to racks of plaid leisure pants, ruffled cocktail dresses, and alligator boots, owner Josh Holder also sells his own H.I.P. clothing line made out of vintage fabric and findings.
The younger crowd that explores the Government Street shops might want to check out Perkins Road Community Park. Try out the 30,000-square-foot concrete skate park, climbing wall, and BMX track. The skate park is open to skateboards and bicycles and contains bowls, benches, and ramps for catching air, or perfecting a dozen other tricks. A day pass gets adults and children above age 12 access to the 35-foot climbing wall, fitted with jugs and crimps. More advanced climbers may try to use the wall’s more natural features to ascend to the top. Across from the wall, the BMX track features three berms, doubles, and a starting ramp. A limited number of bicycles are available for rent on-site.
Bicycles to tour the nearby Levee Bike Path are also available for the guests of the Hotel Indigo, 3357 Highland Road. As a boutique hotel, the décor and cuisine reflects the culture of Baton Rouge and southern Louisiana. Regionally renowned Chef Scott Varnadoe prepares trendy dishes at the hotel’s King Bar & Bistro using fresh seasonal ingredients sourced from local vendors.
The Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center on Lafayette Street is a AAA Four Diamond hotel in the heart of downtown. Its restaurant, The Kingfish, serves prime steaks and Louisiana favorites.
Dining and nightlife
As the day winds down, thoughts turn to food. The menu of The Chimes, 3357 Highland Road, on the outskirts of the LSU campus, includes five types of po’boys plus seafood platters, oysters on the half shell, and white chocolate pudding with praline sauce. The restaurant also is known for its dizzying array of beers on tap.
When it comes to nightlife, weekend options in Baton Rouge are like night and day. On the one hand, you have the energy of the Third Street Entertainment District; on the other, the splendor of the night sky.
Boudreaux & Thibodeaux, 214 Third St., is a self-described rustic Cajun-style bar with a balcony and entertainment that ranges from comedy to live blues and rock. Food is served during lunch and happy hour only; try homemade boudin balls and blackened alligator.
Across town, the Highland Road Park Observatory, 13800 Highland, opens its dome for public viewing on clear weekends. Friday’s session begins with a lecture on a current astronomical topic. Saturday’s session begins earlier and is geared toward families with children under the age of 11.
There’s no law to govern a good time in Baton Rouge. Most folks prepare to simply go with the flow in this city along the Mississippi River.
Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Lawrence, Kan.
Louisiana Historical Trivia
During its bicentennial, history in Louisiana can become a topic of conversation. Here are a few interesting facts about Louisiana’s political history.
1814 William C.C. Clairborne serves his third year as Louisiana’s governor. A former U.S. Representative for Tennessee in 1797, he may have been the youngest Congressman in history (under 25 years of age).
1830 Donaldsonville becomes the capital of Louisiana. The capital returns to New Orleans a year later.
1849 Baton Rouge becomes the capital and the Capitol building opens one year later.
1860 At his inauguration, Gov. Thomas O. Moore, a former cotton planter, cites northern and southern hostilities over slavery as “favorable to a separation of states.”
1872 P.B.S. Pinchback becomes Louisiana’s governor and the first black governor in America. He assumes the office when Gov. Henry C. Warmoth is impeached. Pinchback’s tenure is only 34 days.