The Old Louisiana State Capitol

At first glance, you might see a British castle. Or perhaps a fancy French chateau. Or is it a fortress? This unusual building sits not in the rolling hills of Europe, but on the banks of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and was once the Louisiana State Capitol building. It is called the Old State House and was built in 1847.  Like most castles, chateaus, and fortresses, the fascinating bits aren’t just on the outside. You have to go inside to truly appreciate this unique building.

The building is now a National Historic Landmark, and is a museum you may tour free of charge. Guided tours are available to give you the inside story on the many incarnations it has withstood. You can visit the Old Louisiana State House website for information about visiting.

Not long after completion, the state house was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War, who used it as a command post and a prison. While under their watch, a fire gutted the building leaving only the exterior walls standing. Reconstruction in the 1880s added a beautiful spiral cast iron staircase and added a glorious stained glass dome. Sunlight streaming in through the stained glass shines a kaleidoscope of color onto the floors below creating a magical effect not to be missed.

Photo of the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge

Photo credit: Isaac Wedin on Flickr

Interior photo of the colorful rotunda in the Old State Capitol

Credit: Corey Balazowich on Flickr

The building is no longer an empty shell, though. After additional refurbishments in the 1990s, it now houses a Museum of Political and Governmental History of which this building played a big part.

If you enjoy history and art, you will enjoy a visit to Baton Rouge, and will be able to fill up a day just walking around downtown visiting the many arts and historic buildings. Within walking distance of the Old Louisiana State House is  the LSU art museum and gallery at the Shaw Center, the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum, and the Old Louisiana Governor’s Mansion which looks much like the White House in Washington DC – on purpose. At the time the Governor’s Mansion was being designed, it is rumored that then-Governor Huey Long wanted the building to look just like the White House, so that when he was president, he would know his way around. Now that is planning ahead! Baton Rouge has had more than one person’s taste in architecture becoming well known.

If you believe that any publicity is good publicity, then Mark Twain did the Old State House a favor. He held nothing back in his dislike of the Old State House building when he wrote:  “It is pathetic enough that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things – materials all un-genuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not – should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place. But it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.”  

An imitation fortress is something you either love or hate – but you cannot deny its unique style and interesting history. It is someplace to visit if only to be enveloped in the kaleidoscope of color. Not too many fortresses can offer you that pleasure.

If you’re interested in visiting–or taking a river cruise–the Mississippi River, USA River Cruises has several Mississippi river cruise destinations to choose from. 

Exterior photo of the old state capital in Baton Rouge

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