Louisiana is known for holding fast to its unique cultural heritage. While food and music tend to grab the most attention, Louisiana is also protective of its architectural jewels. In fact, you’ll find more sites here that appear on the National Register of Historic Places than in any other state. In Baton Rouge, the two state capitol buildings—one from the 19th century, one from the 20th—stand out.
The Old State Capitol was designed by the celebrated architect James Dakin and completed in 1852. The Gothic, fairy-tale edifice occupies a regal position overlooking the Mississippi River.
The current Louisiana State Capitol, meanwhile, serves as a sort of trademark both for Baton Rouge and state government in general. Like the old capitol, it rejects the standard dome-based construction, but goes for height. The building is a skyscraper, standing nearly as tall as the ego of fabled Gov. Huey Long, who saw to its construction in the 1930s. But to truly appreciate it, one must climb its steps and observe the details surrounding it at ground level, then enter its richly-appointed lobby.
In the state’s original capital city, New Orleans, there are so many architectural jewels that one must approach it in terms of neighborhoods, rather than individual structures. Foremost among these is the original city, commonly known as the French Quarter or the Vieux Carré, which is perhaps the most historically intact neighborhood of its age in the U.S. Its predominant style was heavily influenced by Spanish colonial rule in the last decades of the 1700s: stucco masonry buildings standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the street with courtyards in the interior.
New Orleans architect Ken Gowland has studied the architectural development of the city. He says various neighborhoods are emblematic of various time periods and influences, ranging from cultural and historic to geological and climate-oriented. Many historic neighborhoods have raised houses to avoid flooding. Neighborhoods like the Garden District—which boasts one of the finest collections of antebellum mansions in America—are known for tall windows and wide verandas out of respect for the warm climate. Faubourg St. John, meanwhile, contains a smattering of French Caribbean-style plantation houses along Bayou St. John that date to the colonial era.
Other neighborhoods, such as Faubourg Marigny, are built in a Créole fashion and tightly configured to reflect the boundaries of ancient land grants along the river and the scarcity of developable land during that swampy era. “It’s serendipity,” Gowland says. “The housing styles are extremely different from one area to the next.”
Another of the state’s oldest settlements, Natchitoches, is similar to New Orleans, but much quieter. It has a French Quarter-style downtown and a lovely collection of mansions just beyond. Communities throughout the state are rich in historic architecture, from the Charpentier Historic District of Lake Charles to beautiful, well-preserved structures across north Louisiana. Take time to explore and you will be well-rewarded.