“It is pathetic enough that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things – materials all ungenuine 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.”
– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Apparently Mark Twain didn’t care much for the original Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, calling it a ‘little sham of a castle.’ I can kind of see his point. In his time, the building, constructed between 1847 and 1852, was relatively new but mimicked something far older. And a castle in the Deep South is as much out of place as building it in the 19th century was out of time. It is understandable how such a thing would offend his sensibilities. Had Twain lived to see Disney’s Epcot center, with its truly fraudulent facsimiles of the world’s great cities, his white-maned head may very well have twisted right off his shoulders in apoplectic seizure.
But I rather liked it. After 160 years, the ‘sham castle’ has acquired the stature of age, even if still just a fraction of the genuine articles. Today, we no longer question its appropriateness in either place or time. It simply is. And it is wonderful.
From the outside, the Old State Capital resembles a medieval style fortress set imposingly on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. On the inside, a commanding cast-iron staircase spirals upward through the center of a multi-storied rotunda decorated in dark wood and marble. Juxtaposing the richly appointed interior, a brilliantly hued stained glass dome – supported by a single central pillar – makes the entire rotunda feel as if it is enclosed within a carnival tent. The contrast should be jarring, but I found it fascinating instead.
No longer used as a government building, the Old Capital today serves as Louisiana’s Museum of Political History. On display are exhibits ranging from a lighthearted look at the Castle’s resident ghost, to a provocative discussion of the still controversial life and career of Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long. Presenting both sides of each argument, visitors are asked to decide for themselves: Was Senator Long a hero or a villain? Was he assassinated or simply a victim of an accidental shooting? It’s an effective approach to an enigmatic figure and the setting, within the walls of a building that has had some controversy of its own, couldn’t be better.