First, a quote:
“It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things…pretending to be what they are not– should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place”
These are the words of one Samuel Clemens a.k.a Mark Twain, from his book ‘Life on the Mississippi,’ and the structure he is referencing is none other than the Old Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a building which he also called a ‘Little Sham Castle’ and ‘the ugliest building on the Mississippi.’
One thing is for certain – if a building can capture Mark Twain’s attention enough for him to make mention of it in his book, it most certainly must be unique. And the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge is indeed unique; it’s a 19th century government structure designed to look like a medieval castle, all overlooking the grand Mississippi River.
Built in 1847, the building is one of the crowning pieces of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States. It has survived the civil war and two fires, however, in 1932 it ceded it’s role as the house of the Louisiana government to the new state capitol, now Baton Rouge’s tallest building.
I found an hour on my lunch break at work one day to head over to the castle and check it out for myself. I had heard Mark Twain’s opinion on the building before I visited, but I was curious to see the site for myself. Was it really as atrocious as Twain had claimed?
Situated on a bluff above the Mississippi river, legend has it that this is also the same site that French explorers first found a red stick (which translates to le baton rouge in French) marking hostile American Indian territory.
When I got to the bluff, I found a structure that looked straight out of King Arthur’s Court, more at home in Medieval England than the American South. I spent a few minutes exploring the grounds, taking in the building from each side.
Intricate, ornate features detail the building. Turrets, rose windows, arches, and stained glass all contribute to the incredibly unique look and feel of the building.
Upon entering, I found an incredibly ornate interior. Opulent spiral staircases and elegant furniture and fixtures filled the historic old building – definitely a departure from a governmental building interior.
But the real star of the Old Louisiana State Capitol is the spectacular stained glass dome topping the structure. The dome is virtually undetectable from the outside of the state capitol, so the best way to see it is to go inside the building and look straight up.
The dome was added during the capitol’s restoration after the civil war and has since become the signature feature of the building. During the day, the light shines through illuminating each of the colored panels in a spectacular rainbow display.
There are several views of the dome from each level of the captiol, but my personal favorite was up at the top of the building, just underneath the dome.
And yet another view of the dome from the main level of the capitol…
So is this an ugly building? As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and to Mark Twain, this building was hideous. But I personally love this structure. Does it look out of place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana? Absolutely.
But I think it is a uniquely beautiful building. Simply put, it captures my imagination.
I’m sure it was a hugely controversial building when it was built, and it still remains as such today. But what do you think about the building? Is it beautiful? Hideous? Let me know in the comments.