Baton Rouge Bucket List: Exploring the Old State Capitol

This is the second article about one of the 26 items on the Baton Rouge Bucket List. The Advocate's features staff will complete the 26 items throughout 2023 and write and report first-person experiences and/or previews of the experiences every other week throughout the year. We encourage readers to play along and let us know about your happenings related to the Baton Rouge Bucket List.

Mark Twain penned witticisms and insults for the ages. His targets were many — including, on several occasions, Louisiana's Old State Capitol building. 

Twain wasn't a fan of, as he put it, the "sham castle," or "that monstrosity on the Mississippi."

"It would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began," he wrote.

Ouch. These days, seeing what raised Twain's ire is difficult. The Old State Capitol, with its stately gothic architecture, has graced downtown Baton Rouge since construction began in 1847. It's one of the city's most recognizable buildings and, despite what Twain said, one of its most attractive — it's even inspired a line of Mimosa jewelry.

As it's such a part of the landscape, many may forget just how much the Old State Capitol is worth a visit. These days it's a National Historic Landmark and home to a range of fascinating exhibits.

Walk through the large entry doors and you enter a beautiful building full of ornate wooden furnishings, a gleaming black and white checkered floor and a spiral staircase. Up top is a stunning stained glass dome, which has lent its elegant air to the building since the 1880s.

Entry is free, and visitors can amble around to their heart's content. Still, probably the best way to see all the building's wonders — of which there are a fair few — is to get a guided tour by one of its enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers.

David Fitzgerald, a retired public servant, is one. His knowledge is breathtaking. After 11 years at the building he knows all the quirks, the best spots, the highlights. He can give tours both long and short, pointing out small differences in architecture and even the odd historical misspelling.

Partly thanks to the the internet, which has spread the word about the capitol's wonders — and its role in television shows like Disney's "National Treasure: Edge of History," Fitzgerald said these days are a good time to be a tour guide. 

"When I started there would be some days where you'd get two or three people coming through, so you'd sit around all day and read," he said. "But now it's really busy. We see people from all over the world come through."

While the building's nadir was probably getting burned down while occupied by the Union Army during the Civil War, it suffered decades of chopping and changing after the center of power moved down the road in the 1930s. For years, it was used for everything from offices to a (very much unsanctioned) party space for college kids. The stately building fell into scruffy disrepair until it was painstakingly restored in the 1990s.

A good starting point for a tour is the impressive short film, "The Ghost of the Castle," in which the building's history is laid out by a ghostly version of Sarah Morgan (of "Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary Of A Southern Woman").

The Old State Capitol has plenty of historical trinkets on display, including the relatively recent addition of a watch, engraved with a picture of the building itself, once worn by 19th century Baton Rouge mayor Leon Jastremski.

The presence of former Gov. Huey Long looms large, as ever, with an exhibit on his life that's quite literally split in two: half focusing on the positive side of his governorship, the other half on the less savory one.

Though he's arguably most closely associated with the new State Capitol building down the road, the old one played a large role in Long's life and career. It was here that impeachment proceedings were conducted against him, and a reproduction of one of the key documents from that episode — the round robin book, signed by 15 senators in support of Long — is on display in the building today.

Also on view is the gun that Carl Weiss used to shoot and kill Long in 1935. Both are in clear boxes, and having such history-altering pieces just inches from your fingertips can be an oddly powerful feeling.

There's plenty to see outside as well, including the grave of former Louisiana Gov. Henry Watkins Allen. Out front, the grounds slope steeply down to South River Road. It's been a favorite spot for kids to roll down for decades and, Fitzgerald confirms, it still is. Sometimes groups of visiting school kids number more than 200 over the course of the day — leading, one suspects, to an awful lot of rolling.

If you're after a post-tour refreshment, a trip across the road to the rooftop Tsunami restaurant provides both a stunning view of the Mississippi and an aerial view of the Capitol. Interestingly, from high up its beautiful dome is covered and thus hard to see, something that's apparently confused plenty of tourists over the years.

Looking across at the now-defunct train station on South River Road — now home to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum — it's not hard to imagine Long, in all his pomp, rushing out of the station and hurriedly making the short trip across the street and up the steps to the capitol. Spending an afternoon in the Old State Capitol, a place so steeped in history, will do that to you.