Setting the Scene for the Session

Apr 10, 2015

Memorial Hall

Participants in the legislative process can easily get sucked into the intensity of a session. BUT Louisiana lawmaking does not take place in a vacuum. It happens in the tallest state capitol building in the United States—a place filled with symbolism.

Built in the first few years of the Great Depression, it was the brainchild of then-Governor Huey P. Long.

“He completed it in just 14 months’ time, at the cost of five million dollars,” explains Capitol tour guide Audrey Fry.

I tagged along with her as she introduced students from the Baton Rouge International School to the home of state government. We started in Memorial Hall—often called the “rotunda”, though it is not round.

“The floor we’re standing on is polished lava from the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, in Italy,” Fry explains.

She tells the students many of the materials—like the Minnesota granite used for the Capitol steps—are no longer available, so the building itself is “priceless.”

“We have 26 different varieties of marble. This red marble’s from Italy, the green from Vermont, and the white statues are made out of white marble from the state of Georgia.”

Those statues depict former governors: William Claiborne, Sieur de Bienville,  Henry Watkins Allen, and Francis T. Nicholls.

“This bronze frieze wraps around the room and it depicts our history,” Fry gestures upwards to where the walls and ceiling meet. “So when you look above the American flag where the gentleman is seated, that was the signing of the Louisiana purchase.”

Massive murals decorate the end walls, leading to the House and Senate chambers.

“Many people find the paintings unusual, but they’re typical of Art Deco,” Fry says, alluding to the bare chested female figures that dominate the upper center of each mural. “One is the goddess of abundance; the other is the goddess of time and knowledge.”
We move to the House chambers, where the railings and one-ton chandeliers are ornamented with stylized versions of native Louisiana plants.

“The desks and chairs here, as well as those in the Senate, are all made from American walnut,” Fry says.

She then urges us to look up.

“We have the ceiling in here—and in the Senate—made out of sugar cane,” Fry says.

The kids are disbelieving, questioning, ‘Sugar cane?”

“It’s a by-product of milling sugarcane, called bagasse. They took all the pulp and refuse and they turned it into 12-by-12 square acoustical tiles.”

Perhaps that’s the most apropos symbol for lawmakers this year: take what’s left and make something useful from it.