Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Dark Side Blues

CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 7:  Baton Rouge, LA to La Place, LA

Once our car was serviced at the local Acura dealer Monday morning, we left Baton Rouge, continuing back east on the top section of a loop that would take us almost back to New Orleans.  Last week when plotting our course from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, we debated whether to follow the southern route through the heart of Acadiana or stick with the river road through Plantation Alley.  Unwilling to choose one over the other, we opted to do both.

After the cultivation of sugar cane was introduced into Louisiana in the late 18th century, large sugar plantations sprang up along the Mississippi River to raise this lucrative crop.  Enriched on the backs of enslaved laborers, wealthy planters eventually lined the river banks between New Orleans and Natchez with columned Greek Revival mansions set amidst lush gardens and massive moss-draped live oak trees.  Writing in Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described the scene:
 "From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations border both sides of the river all the way, . . . Plenty of dwellings . . . standing so close together, for long distances, that the broad river lying between two rows, becomes a sort of spacious street."

Today the number of these opulent houses is greatly reduced, but a few survive and are open to tourists, offering a glimpse of a vastly different era.  The seventy-mile stretch along the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is promoted as Louisiana's Plantation Alley, and we had selected four plantations to visit in the next couple of days.

Our first stop was Nottoway, billed as the largest surviving antebellum plantation in the South.  Purchased by an Australian health care entrepreneur in 1985, the plantation was returned to its 1850s splendor in an extensive $15 million renovation in 2009.  The project also added new resort style lodgings and venues popular for weddings.

Nottoway Plantation
At Nottoway, we took the guided tour of the house with Phyllis, a local young woman dressed in period costume, who did a creditable job and provided interesting information about the plantation's history.

Leaving Nottoway, we drove along the river to Burnside, crossed on the Sunshine Bridge at Donaldsonville, and continued east to Houmas House near the little hamlet of Darrow.  Having read a bit about this plantation and its features, we opted to pass on a guided tour of the fine house in favor of walking through its celebrated gardens.  Mind you, there was still an admission fee involved but it cost less in terms of cash and time, or so we thought.

Houmas House Plantation
Arriving at this legendary plantation after 3 p.m., we ended up spending an hour and a half just meandering around the 12 acres of gardens on the property.  Meticulously maintained and cleverly creative, the luxuriant grounds repeatedly offered a surprising and pleasing sight around the next corner.  Like Nottoway, Houmas House derives part of its revenues from cottages and restaurants on site.  And it goes without saying, Houmas is also a popular location for weddings.

From Houmas, we continued east to Gonzales where we stayed overnight in the local Hampton Inn, eager for what awaited us along Plantation Alley the next day.

On Tuesday morning, we recrossed to the west bank of the river to visit Oak Alley, the 1,200-acre estate that is the epitome of the antebellum plantation.  As its name implies, the mansion is situated at the end of an alley of 28 majestic live oak trees, which were more than a century old when the house was built in the late 1830s.

Oak Alley Plantation
A steady stream of visitors made their way to this popular plantation today.  Seven tour buses were in the parking lot, but logistics have been refined to the point that numerous groups could be on site harmoniously, even obliviously.  With the luck of the draw, we ended up with an outstanding tour guide.  Dressed in period costume, as local custom dictates, Julia is a native of nearby Napoleonville.  She spoke articulately and passionately about the Roman family who built the house as if she knew them personally.  

From Oak Alley, we drove to the nearby Laura plantation for a visit, but after learning about the extreme restrictions, unlike any we had encountered—no setting foot anywhere on the property unless accompanied by a guide, very limited areas for photography—we decided that it was just too prohibitive for our tastes.

We tried again at Whitney plantation, but found it empty, whether from some inadequacy in promotion or other reasons, we were not sure.  San Francisco plantation was next on our list, but its location behind a chain-link fence surrounded by a Marathon Oil processing plant was offputting, so we passed again.  Judging by their empty parking lot, other tourists did as well.

Our Tuesday ended just 20 miles from New Orleans in the town of La Place on the east bank of the river.  When we visited the local Wal-Mart seeking grocery supplies, we noticed again what must be a local tradition as we have seen it elsewhere.  The parking lot was full of stray shopping carts left in random locations, even when a cart corral was nearby.

Tomorrow we'll head back west and north, finally leaving the fascinating Louisiana after eleven interesting days of exploring the southern half of this unique state.

Chapter 7 Stats:
  • Miles driven:  225
  • Plantations visited:  5
  • Weather:  58° to 84°, clear to partly cloudy
  • Letterboxes found:  0
  • Blues music heard:  nope
More Photos from Plantation Alley

Owners' Cemetery at Nottoway
Luxurious molding at Nottoway
Side view of Nottoway shows off multi-story porches.
White ballroom at Nottoway reflects owner's intention that nothing detract from his daughters and their lovely ballgowns.
Houmas House and one of its venerable live oaks
A sight from the Houmas House gardens
Another creation of the Houmas House landscapers
A massive beehive on the Houmas House grounds
A view of Houmas House from the road, familiar perhaps to those who saw the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte
The Houmas House garçonnière (lodging for unmarried young men)
View of Oak Alley from the second story veranda
Our very capable Oak Alley tour guide, Julia
Sugar kettle at Oak Alley, traditionally used in 19th century sugar refining
Bauxite ore stains everything rust color at this alumina plant on the river near Gramercy, LA.
The 1849 Louisiana State Capitol

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Venture Capitol

More than 300 years ago, adventurous French explorers were plying the Mississippi River and claiming territory west of it for France.  At the time, a prominent red stick, stained with the blood of game, was posted on a bluff above the east bank of the river to mark the boundary between the hunting grounds of two local Native American tribes.  Explorers began to refer to the spot as Baton Rouge (red stick).  Eventually a settlement grew up there, and today the city still bears that name.

This morning we drove the 50 miles from Lafayette to Baton Rouge and tried to turn our letterboxing luck around from yesterday's dismal count.  Louisiana's capital city was much kinder to us, as we found nine of the 12 boxes we searched for, including two that were more than 10 years old.

Since the last box on our list was near the Louisiana State Capitol, we decided to grab some exterior shots of the building.  Our capitol-visiting experience has taught us the value of seeing and photographing the outside on weekends when the statehouse is not surrounded by vehicles.  As we were getting some uncluttered shots, we noticed visitors entering and exiting the building and were delighted to discover that the state capitol is open to visitors on Sunday afternoons.  Parking was easy in a free lot about 150 feet from the grand entrance steps, and the typical security screening—walk-through metal detector and bag x-ray—was friendly and efficient.

Mr. Long's dream
The current Louisiana Capitol started as the dream of one man—the controversial and flamboyant Huey P. Long, an outspoken populist who served as governor from 1928 to 1932.  Proposals to build a new statehouse to replace the castellated 1849 structure had been floated since the early 1920s, but had languished in the legislature unheeded.  After he was elected, Long made a new capitol building one of his priorities, hiring an architectural firm with an executive order and approving the design himself.  Inspired by the Art Deco skyscraper statehouse that was under construction in Nebraska when he began his pet project, Long insisted that architects make the building a tower and infuse it with symbolism reflecting Louisiana and its history.

As was his style, Governor Long used his forceful persuasive powers to convince the legislature and the Louisiana populace that building a $5 million building at the height of the Great Depression was not just possible, but desirable.  While others suggested it might be a risky venture, the governor forged ahead.  This would be the people's capitol, he declared, and he wasn't willing to wait indefinitely for its construction.  Thanks to active urging and prodding by Huey P. Long, the Louisiana State Capitol was built in just 14 months on a prominent downtown site which had formerly housed the LSU campus.

Just as Mr. Long envisioned, this building is distinctly Louisianan.  Though dozens of kinds of stone from locations around the world were used in the construction, every decorative motif references the history or natural history of this unique state. Sculptures and reliefs include pelicans, turtles, swamp waters and magnolias.  Unlike numerous capitol buildings we have seen which could easily be transplanted to any other state fittingly, this one is a unique reflection of its state.

Memorial Hall, Louisiana State Capitol
Upon entering, we stepped into the striking Memorial Hall, which serves the same ceremonial and magisterial role as the rotunda in most statehouses.  With a ceiling four stories high, the magnificent room is flanked on either end by the legislative chambers, whose double bronze doors feature scenes from Louisiana history, as does the frieze around the top of the walls.  Flags of the ten governments that have controlled Louisiana over the past 300 years hang above two priceless porcelain and gold vases, gifted to the state by France.

Relief map
In the hall's center is a bronze relief map of the state with depictions of natural products.  Names of each of the state's 64 parishes (counties) surround the map, which was littered with coins—donations to the state treasury, we presume.  

House of Representatives Chamber
Like the Memorial Hall, the House chamber is ornately decorated with bronze, various kinds of stone, and rich woods.  A plaster frieze depicts plants and animals found in a Louisiana swamp, and other state symbols, such as pine cones and cattails, are featured prominently.

Senate Chamber
As we see so often, the decor of Senate chamber was considerably more opulent than that of the House.  Its elaborate marble columns and coffered ceiling are reminders that this is the "upper house" of the legislature.  In both chambers, the Celotex ceiling is made of bagasse, a byproduct of sugar cane processing, one of Louisiana's primary crops.  Sixty-four hexagons in the Senate ceiling reflect the number of the state's parishes.

South gardens in front of the Capitol.
On the 27th floor, an observation deck offers spectacular views of the gardens, the river, and downtown Baton Rouge.  The formal south garden stretches between the front of the capitol and the city.  After Huey P. Long, then a member of the U.S. Senate, was assassinated in the state capitol in 1935, his remains were buried in the center of this formal garden.  Later a 30-foot monument with a 12-foot statue of the governor looking toward the statehouse was erected at the site.

Of the 23 state capitols we have visited, Louisiana's ranks near the top of our list, for both its architectural distinction and its state-specific design.  Art Deco features decorate the exterior all the way up the tower, many of which are all but impossible to appreciate without binoculars (or a hot air balloon ride).

Huey P. Long had a legion of detractors and an army of supporters.  Without weighing in on the arguments about whether he was a hero of the common man or a dictator, let us just say, on the Louisiana statehouse, he did very well.

Louisiana Capitol Stats:
  • Construction dates:  1930-32 (14 months)
  • Height:  450 feet (34 stories)  tallest state capitol in U.S.
  • Construction cost:  $5 million
  • First occupied:  1932
  • Size of grounds:  27 acres + 30-acre gardens
  • Total length of sidewalks on grounds:  10 miles
  • Architectural style:  Art Deco
More Photos from Louisiana Capitol

Pioneers sculpture near entrance pays tribute to pioneers who settled the state.
Twice-life size marble sculptures of prominent Louisiana figures, like first Governor Claiborne adorn Memorial Hall.
Louisiana governors are memorialized in bronze on elevator doors.
A 30-foot monument to Huey P. Long faces "his" capitol and marks the site of his grave.
The Long monument in the center of the south garden
Entrance steps feature the names of all the states in order of their admission to the union.

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