Few who grow up in Baton Rouge can ever forget the majesty of the State Capitol Building, located just north of the old downtown area. At the time of its construction the area immediately to the south was a bustling center of commerce where most came to shop, work, see a movie or attend a function at the old Heidelberg Hotel. From anywhere downtown the Capitol is in clear view, rising tall above all else. It was also a place where teachers from around the state brought their students on day-trips to study and experience a big piece of the state’s history. And for some of us, it provided a huge and rambling playground full of trails, hills, old cannon and a nineteenth century Arsenal overlooking a lake.
Each time I return to Baton Rouge a part of one day at least is spent driving downtown to visit once more (for perhaps the thousandth time) the State Capitol Building, a National Historic Landmark. If nothing else, it’s always eye-opening to have a look at the city from the observation deck of the 27th floor, with its panoramic views of the Mississippi River to the west, and in the south the gardens and downtown below, in the distance Louisiana State University. And after so many years I still take joy in sitting on the big cannon and looking out over the lake.
The Capitol Building began as the dream of Senator and future Governor, Huey P. Long in 1928. As part of his gubernatorial campaign, Huey Long advocated the construction of a new, modern capitol building to replace the Old Louisiana State Capitol, built in 1847. A tremendous and ill-timed project, it became a symbol of the pride, history and spirit of Louisiana’s people. Only a powerful politician could have made this dream a reality. Constructing a large and expensive state capitol building during the Great Depression was testimony to the will and influence of a fierce politician. Call it irony that in 1935 Governor Huey P. Long was gunned down in a hallway of the Capitol Building.
Huey Long hired architects Dreyfous and Seiferth Weiss to design his dream capitol. The architects took as their model another architect’s design for the Nebraska State Capitol Building. The work was done during the depression and completed in March of 1932. Remarkably, it took only fourteen months to put up a magnificent building in the art deco style reaching a height of 450 feet (137 meters) with thirty-four stories. It cost the state five million dollars and included an apartment on the 24th floor for Huey Long.
Twenty-five hundred rail cars were needed to bring in the limestone used on the exterior and the interior marbles from places as far away as Vermont and Italy. Architects used symbolism throughout the design of the building, and as the square tower rises it cuts away to an octagon at the 22nd floor. At this point four allegorical winged figures representing Law, Science, Philosophy and Art guard the four corners. The building is approached by grand steps leading up to the fifty foot high main entrance. The steps are carved with the names of all US states in the order of admittance to the union. The forty-ninth step carries the names of both Alaska and Hawaii. The top step is carved with E Pluribus Unum (‘One from Many’) from the Great Seal of the United States.
Trees native to Louisiana, such as magnolia, live oak, and palm are prominent around the capitol grounds. The gravesite and memorial of Huey Long is a focal point of the park grounds, with a statue of Long standing before a model of the capitol. After being shot in the Capitol Building on September 8, 1935, Long was rushed to the hospital where he died two days later. His last words were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”