Traveler: Capitol Time for a Tour

In Baton Rouge on April 28, at a memorable festival celebrating the 200th anniversary of Louisiana statehood, dozens of chefs, speakers and musicians gathered to share regional history, lore and traditions at stages and food booths strewn across Capitol Park, all along North Fourth Street and right through the formal gardens to the steps of the Capitol. Then on the actual anniversary date, April 30, the Senate and House convened a historic joint session to celebrate the moment with stirring speeches and to welcome officials from the U.S. Postal Service for the official issuance of our bicentennial commemorative stamp. And the fun’s not over, as the list of upcoming events at will attest.

But with all of the hoopla out of the way and summer coming fast, now is actually a better time for a daylong kid-friendly visit to the Capitol complex. It’s always been one of our top attractions for youngsters, in terms of entertainment and state pride, and that was even before the State Museum’s Capitol Park display facility opened with its two Disney-quality permanent exhibits. For lagniappe, its current blockbuster bicentennial exhibit, Our Louisiana, is likely to be the highlight of your day, so we’ll save it for last!

The Capitol Park Welcome Center’s parking building (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays) has entrances from Lafayette Street and River Road, but it’s best to start your fun a few blocks downriver at the Old State Capitol, with its tour and gee-whiz multimedia film, and then take the Third Street shuttle to the Welcome Center.  Besides general Louisiana travel literature, it provides maps and information on the sights of Capitol Park, plus special booklets on the Capitol and legislative process for children. The kids (and you) will love the center’s giant layout of Capitol Park (its detailed buildings crafted in wood by model artist Nellie Watson of New Orleans), created in the 1990s to help convey to bond-buyers the concept of our now-complete government-complex expansion into the city’s business district.

Instead of taking the sidewalk up Third Street from the Welcome Center to the Capitol, you’re welcome to walk through the big grassy courtyard of the 1820 Pentagon Barracks, encircled by its four white-columned masonry barracks that have housed Confederate officers, Union officers and LSU “cadets.”  Just across State Capitol Drive is the 1938 Capitol Annex where you’ll find, just inside, four Depression-era murals by Conrad Albrizio depicting Louisiana’s industrial prowess, social well-being, health care and “modern” architecture. 

Traveler: Capitol Time for a Tour
Huey Long from elevator door

From the front of Huey Long’s towering Capitol, which soars from its 60-foot foundations to its 450-foot peak, climb the 48 great granite steps, bearing, by order of annexation, the names of U.S. states (Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union after the building was constructed). The 18th step – Louisiana’s, of course – provides a fine view of the entrance adornments, including the two monumental sculpture groups, The Pioneers and The Patriots. Flanking the entrance inside are information desks whose guides lead periodic tours through beautiful Memorial Hall – focal point of the Beaux-Arts “classic modernism” that defines the building – and into the Senate and House chambers if the Legislature is not in session. If it is, you’ll find a marble stairway in each chamber’s lobby that leads to a spectator gallery.

Around Memorial Hall, exquisite urns and chandeliers are interspersed with marble statues of four pre- and post-statehood governors – Bienville, W.C.C. Claiborne, Henry Watkins Allen and Francis T. Nicholls – as well as busts of John J. Hainkel Jr. (former state House speaker and state Senate president) and P.B.S. Pinchback (steamboat man, duelist, newspaper editor, captain of the Louisiana Native Guards and to date the only black governor of the state).

Two giant murals by Jules Guerin celebrate Louisiana agriculture, and, jointly titled Abundance of the Earth, they surround the entrances to the Senate and House lobbies. Four pairs of massive bronze doors, which lead to the two lobbies and then into the two chambers, bear a total of 50 scenes from Louisiana history by Attilio Piccirilli.

The bronze panels of Memorial Hall’s three double-door elevators present the likenesses of every governor from Claiborne to Long, and behind those elevators is the hallway, adjacent to the original Governor’s Office, where U.S. Sen. Long was shot on Sept. 8, 1935. At least one bullet puncture can be seen on a marble column, and a display case contains newspaper headlines and the Life magazine cover bearing the famous John McCrady painting of the shooting.

Now take an elevator ride to the 24th floor, where an elevator change is required and where a vintage coin-squashing machine will transform your penny into an oval souvenir of the Capitol as you wait to be hoisted to the Observation Deck three floors up.  There, from its surrounding open-air walkway, you can peer down 350 feet to the formal gardens or enjoy a 360-degree view: south to downtown Baton Rouge, upriver to the bluff at Southern University, downriver to Tiger Stadium and east to nearby Capitol Lake (once the site of Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where Huey died).  Inside, a small shop offers Louisiana books and souvenirs, Tabasco ties, Louisiana shirts and the like. As funds become available, the shop will close in the near future for a several-month restoration, aimed at providing a proper 1930s appearance and adding displays that will tell the story of the old skyscraper’s construction and endless symbolic art.

If you care to visit the basement for lunch or snacks in the cafeteria or to see the old phone booths, shoeshine stand and Louisiana crafts displays, it’s best to exit the elevator at Memorial Hall and find the nearby narrow stairway, there to follow the footsteps of Huey Long who, clutching the wound in his abdomen, managed to stagger down to the basement and enlist an acquaintance to drive him to the nearby hospital. When you exit the east end of the basement (ground level), follow the walkways to a prehistoric Indian mound (topped by vintage artillery pieces) and to an 1835 arsenal set on a rise just beyond the Capitol Rose Garden.

Traveler: Capitol Time for a Tour
Old Arsenal Museum

Inside the masonry enclosure and 4-foot-thick walls of the Old Arsenal Museum, stacks of powder kegs rise toward the beautifully vaulted ceiling. A glass-covered floor opening reveals hand-hewn beams that allowed the under-floor airflow necessary for storing explosives, and two walls still bear the graffiti of Union soldiers.

Our “new” Governor’s Mansion is close by but not near enough to be part of your walkabout. To arrange a tour (available Tuesday through Thursday only, free admission), call (225) 342-5855.

From the arsenal, walk back to the front of the Capitol and follow one of the two 20-foot-wide walkways through the formal garden, designed, like the entire 27 acres of the Capitol Grounds, by professional landscapists from the Jungle Gardens of Avery Island. Paralleled by boxwood hedges and great old azaleas and camellias, the walks pass the grave of Huey P. Long at the garden’s center. The bronze statue of the governor/senator was erected there in 1940 upon a pedestal of white marble whose carving features a miniature Capitol and etchings of the governor with his constituents.    

From the garden it’s just a few steps down Fourth Street to the new State Library on the right and, on the left, the new Capitol Park branch of the State Museum. Small exhibit areas at the entrance of the library and throughout the Louisiana Collection (fifth floor) offer changing book-related exhibits, such as the Louisiana Room’s current display of books related to Louisiana festivals.   

The permanent displays at the Capitol Park Museum are meant to be a lively introduction to Louisiana for visitors and a colorful review of our traditions and lifestyles for us home folks, beginning with the Grounds for Greatness section on the first floor, which uses dazzling multimedia exhibits to measure attributes of the state in terms of their national significance: Poverty Point and other evidence of prehistoric importance; the role of the Mississippi; the impact of the Louisiana Purchase; and Louisiana’s role in war, commerce, civil rights and other aspects of modern history.

The Louisiana Experience, upstairs, is a good-time tribute to our peoples and cultures, laid out as a graphically ingenious highway tour, region by region, passing remarkably preserved artifacts and stunning props – an actual shrimp boat, an amazing representation of Oak Alley, a huge sugar cane harvester, a logging truck, a cotton gin, a Lucky Dog cart, a Civil War submarine, a LSU tailgating setup, the Evangeline Oak – with tributes, along the way, to our regional foods, architecture, religion, folk art, festivals and music (complete with country, jazz and Cajun nightclubs and dance halls). It’s one giant show composed of dozens of little ones.

The special Our Louisiana exhibit, presenting not only our state’s past but also its personality, occupies other upstairs rooms and will remain through the bicentennial year and on into March 2013. Drawn purposely from State Museum holdings that previously had been displayed rarely or never, it’s a uniquely Louisiana assemblage of tangible memories that define our past two centuries but not as any chronologically organized documentary. It is, rather, an unpredictable series of surprises representing wildly variable topics. In truth, the 150 items have only one thing in common: the constant exclamations of recognition and delight from their thoroughly entertained viewers.

As the Smithsonian has been called “America’s attic,” State Museum Division Director Bill Stark calls this exhibit “Grandma’s attic” – if not your grandma, then a composite grandma of the entire state. Imagine the bicycle of beloved 1930s photographer Fonville Winans hung near a doctor’s century-old brain probes (electrified by hand-cranked generator), Jefferson Davis’ horse-drawn hearse and a neon K&B sign, a painting of Longfellow’s Evangeline and Gabriel and a King Creole movie poster, Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax and an over-the-top Louisiana quilt created for our 1884 World’s Fair, an 1830s Sabine River pirogue and Louie Armstrong’s autograph on a café napkin, a portrait of Gov. William C.C. Claiborne and a Jimmie Davis “U-R My Sunshine” campaign pin!

When you absolutely must leave, shuttles will be passing the front of the museum to take you back downtown. Don’t wait for our 250th to visit your Capitol again, and always come with a carful.

Best Bets

Traveler: Capitol Time for a Tour

C.C. and the Stamp: Early Louisiana Life photographer C.C. Lockwood was the star of the show at the unveiling of the Louisiana Bicentennial stamp bearing his immortal scene of the Atchafalaya. If you missed the April 30 event in the Capitol, you can still acquire the special bicentennial envelopes designed by Lockwood, each bearing a stamp and prized “first-day cancellation.” Just visit, where you’ll also find offers for a limited edition portfolio set (500 only) and a large framed composite of the photograph with inset stamp.   

Best Fest: Talk about enthusiasm! Louisiana Life has long urged readers to fly flags and plan nice suppers to celebrate La-La Day (Louisiana Purchase/Louisiana Statehood Day) every April 30, but in this very special year the entire DeSoto Parish town of Grand Cane on U.S. 171 turned out for a full-fledged La-La Day Festival! Good music, good cooking, good times, good cause!
Word is it’ll be annual, as well it ought.

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