The year was 1991, and the only way to enter Louisiana's Old State Capitol was by climbing a tower of scaffolding and going through a second floor window.

Mary Durusau, now director of museums in the Secretary of State's Office, was a part-time worker back then who made daily visits to the grounds.

The scaffolding was a sign of the restoration that was going on at the Old State Capitol, which had suffered decades of neglect. Three years later, the building reopened as Louisiana's Museum of Political History. 

"This year marks the 25th anniversary of our restoration, and we're celebrating," Durusau said. "But when I look at the photos from that time, it really puts things into perspective. There was so much to be done."

The Old State Capitol began the celebration of its $6 million restoration in February by opening a permanent exhibit chronicling the building's history. The festivities will continue on May 5 with "Once Upon a Time ... A 25th Anniversary Picnic" on the grounds.

Visitors can bring a lunch or purchase eats from a food truck while taking part in the free celebration, which includes activities throughout the grounds — the same grounds that were a combination of grass and mud and lots of scaffolding in the early 1990s.

"I remember bringing a tour here at that time, and one lady just went to pieces when she learned that we would have to climb the scaffolding to get in," Durusau said. "I told her it was the only way in. I remember being nervous the first time I had to climb it, but I became used to it."

During the restoration, the building's entry was boarded and blocked to protect it. A wooden cover also had to be constructed over the spiral staircase, a signature architectural element of the building although not in the original construction, which took place between 1847 and 1850.

In photos of the restoration shot by Marie Constantin, who was hired to document the process, the grand interior is almost unrecognizable.

But, as Durusau points out, the restoration didn't start with scaffolding. 

"The building had been in disrepair, and a group of mostly ladies here in Baton Rouge had been working to get it transferred from the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism to the Secretary of State's Office," she said. "The CRT had a lot on its plate at the time. There was the fire at the Cabildo in New Orleans, and they were having to do restoration work on it."

The State Legislature approved a bill crafted by Reps. Raymond Jetson and Sean Reilly and Sen. Larry Bankston, all of Baton Rouge, to transfer the building to the secretary of state in 1990 with restoration starting in 1991.

The late Fox McKeithen, then secretary of state, led the restoration effort, reopening the building with a mission to educate the public on the state's history and the democratic process through exhibits, programming and the arts.

Lots of the work involved undoing what had been done over the building's long history.

"Different offices were housed on the third and fourth floors over the years," Durusau said. "Those floors were in the worst shape. They were covered with ugly orange shag carpet from the 1970s, the walls were covered with paneling. And the ceiling had been dropped."

Floors in the Senate and House, which once sloped, had been covered and leveled out. The floors were pulled up, and the House chamber's incline was reinstated to accommodate local performances.

An added ornate, curved ceiling also was removed in the Senate to fully expose the chamber's stained glass window.

"The workers discovered a cistern while digging up a floor in the basement, so we had to call the LSU Archaeology Department to investigate it," Durusau said. "All work has to stop when that happens. They discovered a bone, but it was an animal's, not a human's."

The project also included some reconstruction with the addition of staircases on the north and south sides to meet fire codes.

The Old State Capitol lost a few rooms in the process, but it wasn't the first time the interior had been remodeled.

A Capitol history

"We're known for our spiral staircase and our stained-glass dome, but those things weren't in the original building," Durusau said. "The Old Capitol originally had three floors, with some kind of skylight. There was a staircase, but we don't know where it was. But we do know that there were a lot of complaints because of how dark the building was."

It was constructed in the late 1840s atop a bluff facing the Mississippi River, believed to be the spot marked by the red pole, or le baton rouge, which French explorers claimed designated a Native American council meeting site, also the city's namesake.

Architect James Dakin designed the building as a Neo-Gothic medieval-style castle rather than, as other states had done, mimic the U.S. Capitol. The castle became a prison in 1862 with the Union Army's occupation of Baton Rouge during the Civil War, during which it caught fire twice, leaving it a gutted shell.

The old statehouse was reconstructed in 1882 with the addition of a fourth floor, the stained-glass dome and the free-standing, cast-iron staircase. 

"What's really great about this building is how you don't know that it has a stained-glass dome by looking at it from the outside," Durusau said. "A lot of visitors walk in, and they are amazed when they look up."

Officials are now seeking donations of artifacts original to the building, many of which, including things like door latches, have since been reproduced from their 1882 design.

Wall and decorative colors also have been restored to their 1882 appearance, as well as lighting and plaster molding.

"An HVAC system had to be installed in the building, and the city of Baton Rouge was very gracious by putting us on the same system as the River Center," Durusau said. "We are so grateful for the support we've had through the years."

And Durusau is grateful for the building's elevator and interior staircases.

"That scaffolding was a challenge, but we all climbed it," she said. "And now we have this beautiful building." 

The Old Capitol served until 1932, when the new State Capitol opened.


Once Upon a Time … A 25th Anniversary Picnic

A celebration of the 25th anniversary of the restoration of the Old State Capitol

WHEN: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 5

WHERE: Louisiana's Old State Capitol, 100 North Blvd.

ADMISSION: Free

INFORMATION: (225) 342-0500 or louisianaoldstatecapitol.org


Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.