Saving the Capitol House
Carolyn Bennett, executive director of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, was at a training session held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation about 20 years ago, where everyone took turns naming the most significant “white elephant” building in their city. Bennett, representing Baton Rouge, picked the Capitol House hotel.
“We all had buildings like that, that were just going to be so difficult to bring back,” she says.
According to The Advocate, The Hotel Heidelberg, which was the “old section” of the Capitol House, was built in 1927. Upon renovation in 1957, the old entrance was changed and moved to the new Capitol House addition.
In its heyday, the hotel had been a popular hangout for Louisiana politicians, including the Long brothers. Former President John F. Kennedy once was a guest.
But by 1985 the hotel had closed, and for two decades it primarily was a boarded-up, graffiti-tagged flophouse for the homeless, silently mocking any attempts to revitalize downtown. From time to time, there were reports of a comeback. A gambling outfit bought it in 1993, then backed away after being passed over for a state gaming license. In 1998 Bob Dean stepped in, but was unable to finance a renovation.
In 2003 the city-parish asked Camm Morton, then-president of what was then called Commercial Properties Development Corp., a for-profit arm of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, to get involved. Morton is credited with putting together the complex $70 million deal—including tax incentives, Regions Mortgage, and BRAF's Wilbur Marvin Foundation—that saved the Capitol House.
“Other developers saw the dilapidated structure and said forget it,” wrote Business Report Executive Editor JR Ball in 2007. “Yet Camm and his team made it happen.”
On Aug. 30, 2006, 21 years after it closed, the newly rechristened Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center reopened with a 1920s-themed gala.
“It was a major, historic day for the preservation movement in our city when we saw that it was going to come back,” Bennett says.
The Capitol Center was both a beneficiary of, and further catalyst for, the revitalization of downtown Baton Rouge, a process that has included construction of the Shaw Center for the Arts, the rebirth of the Hotel King as Hotel Indigo, and the renovation and reopening of the Kress at Third & Main.
There were complaints from some residents throughout the Capitol House's long hibernation that the eyesore needed to come down and join the Paramount Theater, the Old Baton Rouge Ice Plant and many other downtown landmarks in the dustbin of local history. Instead, it became part of a recent trend toward preserving, rather than demolishing, old buildings, which proponents say is one of the keys to re-energizing downtowns nationwide. Louisiana's state tax incentives, on top of federal benefits, help make such projects more attractive to developers.
“Though we lost several important buildings in the past, we figured out how to save this historic structure,” Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer says. “This success story for our community is one for the ages.”
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