Douglas L. Villien Sr. never lived in Baton Rouge until starting his first job in 1972. But in anticipation of that, a grandmother, Annette Maude Gaidry Villien, showed him something he never forgot.
It was an album of photos of the city from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A boyfriend had given it to her in 1912. The relationship didn’t go the distance, but the album did.
“She cherished that for all of her 96 years of life,” Villien said.
Now, the public can enjoy these and other photos of what Baton Rouge used to be.
“Forgotton Baton Rouge,” published by Arcadia Publishing, contains 181 images of Louisiana’s capital city. Many are in library archives, but about a quarter of them are from Villien’s private collection.
“Some photographs in this album have never been seen in the collections I’ve researched here in Baton Rouge,” he said. “I didn’t want them to be discarded.”
Villien, 65, grew up in Abbeville and, after graduating from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), he worked for the Baton Rouge Planning Commission, retiring in 2001 to become a planning and zoning consultant. He previously wrote a book about the town of Maurice for its centennial celebration.
The photo album, meanwhile, got passed down from Villien’s grandmother to his father and, finally, to him in 2006. By that time, Villien had learned Baton Rouge’s history, and these photos opened a window into times when the city was becoming what we experience now.
That included LSU, which was downtown around what is now the Capitol complex before relocating to its current site in 1925. “Forgotten Baton Rouge” has photos of both locations.
The book has chapters devoted to transportation, including rare photos of the first airplane to land here; the arrival of Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil); and the Mississippi River. They span an era between the 1890s and the 1930s, and focused on some of the topics because they explain why the city grew instead of becoming a backwater.
In addition to historical oddities — such as a gasoline-powered passenger railroad car with a wedge-shaped, aerodynamic front, and long-abandoned celebrations like the Fireman’s Parade — the photos include many historic buildings. Some of them remain, but they look out of place as their surroundings have changed so radically.
For many readers, the book will not be about a Baton Rouge they forgot, but one they’ve never known. Until now.