With a picnic on the grounds, open to the public, one of Louisiana’s true landmarks celebrates on Sunday the 25th anniversary of its restoration: the Old State Capitol on the Mississippi River.
It’s a part of history that has a unique qualification for notice: It was criticized in print by no less than Mark Twain, who did not like the turrets and crenelated “battlements” of the structure as seen from a riverboat.
But if Twain was disdainful, the place was eventually restored from a Civil War fire and became Louisiana’s official state capitol until 1932, when Huey P. Long opened his skyscraper at the former LSU site up the river.
Huey was impeached at the Old State Capitol by the House — though not convicted by the Senate — and he was another famous figure who thus had unhappy memories of the place.
It reeks of history, but a quarter-century ago, the landmark reeked of decay and disuse.
During his tenure as secretary of state, the late Fox McKeithen was given control of the building, which was a mess. Among other problems, the state’s museum agency was busy dealing with the aftermath of the disastrous Cabildo fire in New Orleans, recalled Mary Durusau, then a volunteer and now director of museums in the office of Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin.
A sustained effort involving public money and private donors was needed to revive the historic treasure.
The 1990s restoration sought to bring the building back to its 1882 condition, although many changes had to be made along the way. Today, its dramatic skylight and spiral staircase are the centerpiece of the interior, and it is a frequent gathering spot for community life in Baton Rouge. It's also a political museum in a place where politics, as Long said back when, is the sport of kings.
Since Louisiana has always felt itself somewhat apart from the parvenu United States that took possession in the early 1800s, architect James Dakin designed the building as a neo-Gothic castle rather than, as many other state capitols had done, mimic the U.S. Capitol.
But if the design was a departure, the building, like a number of others in downtown Baton Rouge, was not being utilized well after the New State Capitol opened. It took a joint effort of public and private partners to make the Old State Capitol the showplace it is today. The picnic celebrates the success of the downtown of which the Old State Capitol is a central feature.
With other landmarks around the district, Baton Rouge’s history on the river can still come alive, to the benefit of future generations as well as this one.