The best introduction to any state is a visit to its capitol. That’s particularly true of Louisiana’s, the famed skyscraper where we can see the state’s story cast in metal and etched in stone, on a tour that doubles as a crash course on one of the most interesting eras of American art and design. The regular legislative session begins April 10 and adjourns no later than June 8 (but certain to be followed in this financially troubled year by a special session or two), so folks planning a tour must decide whether to enjoy the frenzy of a session or visit during quieter times.
When Huey Long proposed a new capitol, he and his architects chose a blend of styles (art deco and beaux arts with elements of classic revival) that had eased America from Greek revival and into the 20th century — symbolically perfect for the era when FDR’s New Deal and Huey’s Share Our Wealth were promising change.
Started in December 1930 and built in 15 months, the monument was unveiled as part of the inauguration of Gov. O.K. Allen.
Park on the riverside of the Capitol for views of the 1825 Pentagon Barracks and four WPA-era frescoes by Conrad Albrizio just inside the 1938 Capitol Annex Building.
Bring binoculars and pause at Long’s statue and grave in the formal gardens to view the topmost details of the Capitol, with its four-story angels (Philosophy, Art, Law and Science) seeming to support the great beacon and 27th-floor observation deck. Closer up, details of the frieze features scenes of Louisiana’s exploration and settlement era. To see the entire frieze (plus bas-relief profiles of 22 historic figures on the east and west facades), bring folding chairs and sack lunches.
Kids like to find their states’ names engraved (by order of annexation) on the broad steps that rise to the main entrance, stopping along their climb to view The Patriots, a cluster of sculptures representing protection of and by the state, and The Pioneers, a second set of sculptures featuring Robert de La Salle, Hernando DeSoto and the immigrants who followed. The 50-foot doorway rises between bas-relief scenes while large figures above the portal represent the inhabiting of Louisiana by original natives or, as in the case of France, Spain, the Confederacy and the United States, the ruling of the region.
A short hallway, which served the original governor’s office, was once the scene of a harrowing episode. On Sept. 8, 1935, Sen. Long was emerging when Dr. Carl Weiss stepped forward and fired a shot. A barrage of bullets from the bodyguards began instantly as Long fled, holding his abdomen and staggering down the four-tiered, Senate-side stairway to the aboveground basement, there hailing a friend who drove him to (then) nearby Our Lady of the Lake hospital. He died two days later.
Step into the elevator and pause on the second-floor balcony to view Memorial Hall from above. On the governor’s fourth floor, request a peek at the WPA-era Albrizio in the pressroom and 1880s George Mugnier photographs in the halls. Further up, you’ll find the observation deck, which is 350 feet high and offers lofty views of Baton Rouge and the winding river. It’s another ideal moment for binoculars and photographs — some folks buy postcards in the souvenir shop to be taken back down to the basement’s tiny post office for Capitol Station postmarks.
Who killed Huey?
There’s that bullet hole in the marble column, of course, but also of great interest at the assassination site is the original painting of the scene by Louisiana’s great John McCrady (commissioned for the June 1939 cover of Life magazine and on loan to the Capitol by Keith and Millie Marshall of New Orleans).
Was Long’s wound inflicted by Weiss or by Huey’s, shall we say, enthusiastic bodyguards? Those captivated by that mystery should go straight from the Capitol to Capitol Park Museum (beyond the Capitol Gardens on Fourth Street) to see an exhibit of Tommy guns of the type used by the bodyguards, and thereafter to the Huey Long exhibit room in the Old State Capitol (River Road at North Boulevard) to see the .32-caliber pistol carried by Weiss, but whose ballistic tests don’t quite match up. Hmmm. (louisianastatemuseum.org, 225-342-5428 and louisianaoldstatecapitol.org, 225-342-0500)
Most visitors who follow those footsteps linger down there to peruse the Louisiana crafts exhibit and visit the diner for burgers or daily specials.
Walkways from the basement’s east exit lead past a Native American mound, the vintage artillery and Capitol Rose Garden to the Old Arsenal Museum, which is an 1835 powder magazine with four-foot-thick walls, Civil War graffiti and stacks of (stage-prop) powder kegs rise to the vaulted ceiling.
Open 10 to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday 225-342-0401 sos.la.gov/HistoricalResources/VisitMuseums
When hunger overtakes explorers in the Capitol Park area, it’s good to know that 10 or so sources of take-along snacks and sit-down meals are clustered in the Main Street Market, corner of Main and North Fourth (breada.org/markets).
Alongside the market’s coffee shops and confectioners, small restaurants spill out to double as sidewalk cafes, some with dramatic views of our newest state office towers — the LaSalle, Iberville, Bienville and Galvez Buildings.