Along the Riverfront

Exploring Baton Rouge

Robert Holt PHOTOGRAPH

It seems that in the past few years, when no one was looking, life returned to the downtowns of Louisiana’s cities.

Some had catalysts, such as the expansion of the state government district in Baton Rouge and Main Street Program restorations in many towns, but most often it’s happened just because it was time. The personalities of our cities spring from the lore and charm of the old-town districts at their cores, and we simply gave way, finally, to our urge to return to them for work and for play.

The boom in entertainment opportunities and new uses for old business district buildings is especially visible in our riverfront towns,  including the capital.

The riverfront district of Baton Rouge could be defined as stretching between that city’s two great universities –– from sculptor Frank Hayden’s Red Stick monument atop the bluff at Southern to Death Valley and the old Campanile at LSU –– but the epicenter of the recent eruption of activity lies between the town’s two steamboat casinos, from the upriver Hollywood Casino down to the Belle of Baton Rouge in historic Catfish Town.

The elevated walkway alongside River Road provides a colorful and lively panorama of the sightseeing, dining and entertainment opportunities that await you here. With a single 360-degree turn, you can see the levee-top fountains and park benches; a permanently docked World War II destroyer; a modernistic steamboat dock; a veterans’ memorial museum with its statues and monuments; the mini-parks and fountains surrounding the sprawling Baton Rouge River Center, which hosts conventions and entertainment acts; the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in its old brick railroad station; the dazzling new Shaw Center for the Arts; the venerable Old State Capitol; and, of course, the sine qua non: the mighty Mississippi itself, with its big ocean-going vessels, tiny tugs and acres of passing barges.

Along the Levee
Permanently moored just over the levee is the only unmodified World War II Fletcher-class destroyer still in existence, the USS Kidd, and on the levee’s dry side stands the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial Museum. Together they present what is perhaps the most stirring military memorial in the state, and your first stop will
probably be the Louisiana Memorial Plaza, an open-air enclosure whose black granite walls bear the names of Louisiana’s casualties of every war (except the estimated 13,000 from the War Between the States).

The museum itself houses full-scale replicas of the gun deck of Old Ironsides and the wheelhouse of the steamboat Louisiana, the USS Kidd Room, a 1-to-9-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington and a large and significant collection of nautical models. For most visitors, however, the most meaningful part of a visit is the Louisiana Veterans Hall of Honor, which Tim NesSmith of the Kidd staff calls “Louisiana’s showcase for honoring our own soldiers whose military careers were outstanding or somehow unique, from times gone by to Afghanistan and Iraq, from buck privates to top brass [such as Army Chief of Staff ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins and Marine commandants John Lejeune and Robert Barrow], from 101st Airborne medic Eugene Roe of Bayou Chene to ‘Flying Tigers’ Gen. Claire Chennault of Tensas Parish.

“It is here,” he continues, “where even people in a hurry tend to slow down, actually stop to see every item, to read every word, maybe because their surnames, their hometowns, their experiences make these men seem familiar, real, to our visitors.”

Named for Adm. Isaac C. Kidd, a Pearl Harbor casualty, the 276-foot, 2,050-ton USS Kidd, complete with all artillery, sports an incredible list of “battle stars” from its service in World War II and Korea. The grizzliest day of the ship’s long career came on April 11, 1943, while on aircraft carrier escort duty off Okinawa, when a kamikaze attack left 38 crewmen dead and the young ship’s physician, Broox Garrett of Shreveport, blinded in one eye. The Kidd cruised up the Mississippi to its permanent home in 1982 and welcomes visitors for tours or –– for groups of 20 or more –– even for onboard overnights.

Just upriver in its big 1925 Yazoo & Mississippi Valley (later Illinois Central) depot, the Louisiana Art & Science Museum boasts the 60-foot dome of the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium at one end and sidetracked steam-era engines and rail cars at the other. The planetarium features awesome 3-D space imagery plus 5,000 square feet of space-related exhibits, and other galleries offer three centuries of American and European art, the art and artifacts of ancient civilizations, and the works of 20th-century Louisiana artists and sculptors.

Along the Ridge
Facing the old depot and the river, our beloved Old Capitol –– as famous for its Sir Walter Scottish romanticism as for providing the setting for Louisiana’s secession and Huey Long’s impeachment proceedings –– rises from atop the ridge that marks the eastern rim of the 40-mile-wide Mississippi River flood plain. The Gothic Revival castle was designed by James Dakin and constructed in the late 1840s, occupied in January 1850, gutted by fire in 1862 during Union occupation, restored (but burdened by unsightly iron turrets that were thankfully short-lived) in 1880 by architect James “Iron Fetish” Freret, renamed the Capitol in 1882, forced into retirement a half-century later by Huey Long’s upstart New Capitol, and then left to languish in semi-abandonment for a half-century until its opening in recent years as the Center for Political and Governmental History.

Here you can walk right up to a screen and, with the push of a button, choose from dozens of film clips to see Earl Long’s “Socks on a Rooster” speech, Huey’s “Share Our Wealth” propaganda or Jimmie Davis riding his horse Sunshine up the Capitol steps or singing his farewell performance of “You Are My Sunshine” to the Legislature.
Of special interest to many is a room dedicated to Huey Long assassination information and displays, not the least of which is the very pistol that Carl Weiss (might have) used when (make that “if”) he shot the governor, complete with slugs from the pistol bearing ballistic evidence proving beyond a doubt that there will always be doubts.

Beyond the Old Capitol, a sunken fountain adorns the large plaza leading to Baton Rouge’s modern governmental complex, and along the waterline hangs a dramatic interpretation by the late Southern University sculptor Frank Hayden of the Marcha de Galvez –– the march from New Orleans by Spanish Gov. Bernardo de Galvez to defeat the British in Baton Rouge in 1779.

Just up North Boulevard is the Old Governor’s Mansion, built in 1930 for Gov. Huey Long with instructions that it closely resemble the White House (his second book, remember, was a “prophesy” titled My First Days in the White House). The mansion is now meticulously restored right down to its hand-painted wallpaper (saved by art restorer Margaret Moreland of Baton Rouge), and various rooms are set aside for displaying the furnishings, clothing and personal items of the nine governors who occupied the mansion.

A stroll along the Old Capitol’s dramatic ridge, following Lafayette Street, leads to several points of interest.

In the first block you can rest a while at Rest Awhile Park, which is in the shade of the historic Baton Rouge Standpipe (a handsome 1888 water tower listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Directly across the street is the entrance to the new Shaw Center for the Arts, and after a visit, you can walk a block farther along Lafayette to see the historic Heidelberg Hotel and another block to the historic Lafayette Building that dates to 1825. Legend has it that French Gen. Lafayette of Revolutionary War fame, on our noble ally’s triumphant 50th anniversary tour of America, made a speech to Baton Rougians from the upper gallery of that handsome new building and left behind his name to forever mark the street.

Huey Long’s favorite local hotel, the Heidelberg, was built in 1927 and retains the distinctive decorative touches of that era –– and not by accident. Much of its art deco detail was destroyed or covered when the old hotel was enlarged and “adapted” to the appearance of a modern addition, so the surviving examples of the original columns, woodwork and plasterwork had to be duplicated to recapture its original appearance when it was purchased to become the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center. Huey would be pleased. Local artwork and vintage local photography (such as the photo of the governor leaning over the Heidelberg bar to “assist” with a Ramos Gin Fizz) can be found in guest rooms and common areas. The Kingfish dining room offers hefty steaks and Kingfish Redfish, and every guest room presents a view of the river or downtown Baton Rouge.

Nearby, occupying a city block with entrances from Lafayette and Third streets, three entities are sharing one dazzling new center for all creative and performing arts: the 125,000-square-foot Shaw Center. The oldest of the three is the LSU Museum of Art (born as the Anglo-American Art Museum in the cramped quarters of LSU’s Memorial Tower), whose original collection of English and American furniture, paintings, silver and decorative arts is still one of the permanent exhibits at the Shaw Center. With its new and spacious fifth-floor galleries, the Museum of Art presents several permanent collections (such as Newcomb pottery, the famed Peltier Chinese Jade collection and colonial silver), with ample space remaining for changing presentations such as its recent Rodin and Warhol exhibits and the George Ohr Rising, which runs from March 7 to Aug. 1 and displays early-20th-century ceramic masterpieces by the man once known as the “mad potter of Biloxi.”

The Shaw Center also houses three innovative stage spaces including the “325-front-row-seat” Manship Theater (a marvel of actor and audience “presence” and audio technology), plus two infinitely adaptable black-box
theaters. 

Finally, the Shaw Center houses the LSU School of Art’s Glassell Gallery, with venues for lectures and receptions as well as appropriately contemporary galleries for presenting contemporary art from LSU, the nation and the world.

Third Street Beat
Does art attract pleasant dining and entertainment establishments, or do music and good vittles attract the art crowd? 

Probably both. A 2-year-old arts-and-entertainment district centered on Third Street uses wine walks and art exhibits to focus attention on the street, but judging by the numbers of food- and music-seekers strolling the street that encompasses Roux House, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, Happy’s Irish Pub and a dozen other spots, the crowds are here to stay.    
  
Streetcar-esque shuttles run up Third Street and back down Fourth Street between the entertainment district and the State Capitol, passing such Capitol Park attractions as the Louisiana State Library and the newest facility of the state museum.

Huey Long’s 1932 skyscraper Capitol –– a 450-foot tower of “Beaux-Arts modernism” –– became, in effect, the largest headstone in history when Long was shot in its main-floor corridor in 1935 and buried front-and-center in its formal garden. His statue now marks the grave site, with the grand art deco Capitol towering above.

Around the Capitol’s Memorial Hall stand inspiring marble statues of Bienville; Claiborne; Civil War Gov. Henry Watkins Allen; Gov. Francis T. Nicholls (elected after losing a foot and an arm during the war); and a bronze bust of P.B.S. Pinchback, a swashbuckling steamboat man, newspaper editor, duelist, captain in the Louisiana Native Guards and only Reconstruction-era black man to hold the highest office of a Southern state. As lieutenant governor in 1871, he served as governor for 35 days between the impeachment of Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth and President Grant’s appointment of Gov. William Pitt Kellogg as Warmoth’s replacement.

The Capitol’s lofty observation deck –– with its bird’s-eye view of the formal garden, city and river –– is undergoing a transformation that will restore its appropriate art deco décor. It will likely reopen in March.

The new state museum building, dedicated on the centennial of Louisiana’s state museum system, eloquently tells the story of Louisiana –– an introduction of the forces and resources that have shaped the place, as well as the characters and customs that it, in turn, has shaped. On the first floor a Grounds for Greatness section measures Louisiana’s role in terms of its national significance: Poverty Point and other evidences of its prehistoric importance; the role of the Mississippi in shaping Louisiana’s identity and history; the impact of the Louisiana Purchase in shaping the nation; and Louisiana’s role in war, commerce, civil rights and other aspects of modern history.

With that introduction, even a stranger can move on, with adequate insight, to the third-floor’s tribute to the peoples and cultures of Louisiana called The Louisiana Experience, which presents our traditions of food, architecture, religion, music, festivals and recreation: an LSU tailgating setup, a Lucky Dog cart, the Evangeline Oak ... you get the picture.
 

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