Freeway Free down the Mississippi: Huey Long’s Long Shadow in Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge is to New Orleans as Oakland is to San Francisco, forever in the shadow of its more glamorous sister city further south along the Mississippi. As the capital of the State of Louisiana Baton Rouge has its own history and its own character. Like Washington DC, it started out as a small town strategically located in the center of the state. Just as Washington grew into its role and was transformed by Pierre L’Enfant and his grand plan, Baton Rouge was also transformed by a man with a vision. That man was not an urbane French urban planner like L’Enfant. Baton Rouge had “the Kingfish” the great populist politician Huey Long.
When I was in high school I read the great novel All the King’s Men, which Robert Penn Warren transparently based on the life and death of Huey Long. I had been equally enthralled by that other great Southern novel, Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the world’s of those two novels is neatly visible in Baton Rouge.
Before the Long Reign, Baton Rouge sported a perfectly ghastly Capitol building, a crenellated castle built in 1849 as if to withstand attacks by the protesting proletariat. As a proud member of the proletariat, Huey Long naturally preferred a more modern design. The new Capitol is a miniature of the Empire State Building, the tallest Capitol building in the country, and seventh tallest building in Louisiana. A massive statue of Huey Long marks the burial site of the Kingfish, It stands facing the building rather than the city ” so he could keep an eye on the Legislature. ”
The Governor’s Mansion seen above, also built by Huey Long has a totally different vibe – it is said he had it built based on Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for the White House, so when he was elected President he would already know his way around.
Long’s mansion was replaced in 1963 by a new building which was modeled on ante-bellum mansions (specifically, Oak Alley in Vacherie, LA). It could have been used as a site for the exteriors of Tara in Gone with the Wind. Louisiana’s public face has come full circle.