They are also vestiges of an era of racial violence and repression. The white ruling class that regained control of Louisiana after Reconstruction built the imposing structures as symbols of its dominance.
The Old State Capitol traces the state's tormented political history like sedimentary rock. Abandoned for years, the Neo-Gothic structure has kept watch over the Mississippi River for nearly 175 years. Baton Rouge's history is registered through carved wood, polished floors, golden chandeliers and resplendent windows.
Exhibits and furnishings trace the state's agonized path from the Antebellum period through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the restoration of white rule and the tragic usurpation of blacks' civil rights, and the reign of Huey Long.
Along with impressive exhibits, the building considered a monstrosity by Mark Twain preserves the old legislative chambers and offices where political deals were consummated. A beautiful stained glass window graces the House's side, which looks ready for business. The Senate chamber, decorated with a glorious Christmas tree after Thanksgiving, is a favorite spot for weddings. A bride's room has been established where lobbyists once cajoled legislators.
Originally designed by New York architect James H. Dakin, the building resembling a medieval castle opened in 1845. During the Civil War, Union troops occupying Baton Rouge set fires that destroyed the interior. When Union forces gained control of Baton Rouge, the state capital moved to Opelousas and Shreveport, where the Confederacy made its last stand.
After a brief spell of Republican rule during Reconstruction, which saw the election of black officials including Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback, the Bourbon planters and merchants regained white control with the Louisiana Constitution of 1879. Baton Rouge was restored as the state capital, and the Legislature allocated $153,000 to realize architect William Freret's vision of adding the staircase, dome and towers. The renovated building opened in 1884.
In the next decade, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case that originated in New Orleans would cement white rule with the ignominious "separate but equal" standard. Belying the dome's serene beauty, Louisiana imposed white power enforced by lynchings and barriers to blacks' voting.
Depression-devastated Louisiana turned to Huey Long, who gave the state new roads, schools and hospitals. Long, who broke the Bourbons' power, built the soaring new state Capitol on the other side of downtown Baton Rouge from 1929-32.
Before the state government moved to the art-deco edifice where "the Kingfish" was later assassinated, the State Senate tried and failed to impeach Long in the last political drama played out at the Old State Capitol. Long gleefully referred in political speeches to his clinching victory over the Bourbons. The Old State Capitol's intensive exhibit on Long's career includes recordings of his orations as the melody of Long's anthem "Every Man a King" plays in the background.
The memorable Civil War diarist Sarah Morgan Dawson is also remembered at the Old State Capitol in an entertaining multimedia theatrical production "The Ghost of the Castle." Like the more heralded Mary Boykin Chestnut's diary, Dawson's work gives an absorbing eyewitness account of daily life in the Confederacy. Written from March 1862 until April 1865, Dawson's diary records the deprivations suffered by Southern women under Union occupation.
Like its staircase and dome, the Old State Capitol glorifies Louisiana's history. But the state's tragic and violence-stained past comes through. The Old State Capitol, like the river it overlooks, endures through the years.