Baton Rouge native Barbie Irwin was familiar with the Louisiana State Capitol and its grounds but had never visited the nearby Pentagon Barracks complex until Saturday morning.
Catherine Hanks, of Fairhope, Ala., was in the city visiting relatives and snapped cellphone photos of a sign indicating where the home of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States, once stood several hundred yards from the State Capitol.
The women were among more than 60 area residents and visitors of all ages who took part in a sun-drenched, hour-long walking tour of the Capitol Park complex hosted by the Louisiana State Museum.
“I grew up in Baton Rouge and have been here all my life, but I’ve never been inside the barracks (complex),” Irwin said as she and her husband, Dr. Sam Irwin, a retired surgeon, listened to curator Susan R. Moreau explain how the four buildings’ soft, red-painted bricks are slowly crumbling.
The barracks were built in 1819 to house yellow fever epidemic victims and later used as LSU housing, but the visitors did not enter any of them Saturday.
Hanks said she was interested in where Taylor’s 1840s-era cottage, Buena Vista, once stood because, “Zachary Taylor is one of my ancestors.”
The tour began at the State Museum at 660 N. Fourth St., then headed two blocks toward the Mississippi River and the Taylor home site and the location of a British fort built in the 1770s.
After the fort was seized by Gov. Bernardo Galvez’s Spanish forces in 1779, it was renamed Fort San Carlos, according to a brochure and map of the area provided by the museum.
Longtime Spanish Town resident and first-time tour participant Allan Williams said his neighborhood, three blocks east, was built, allegedly, just out of reach of cannons fired from the fort.
“Urban legend has it that is where the people felt safer,” Williams said. “Nobody knows for sure.”
As the day got hotter, several young families with children dropped out of the tour that wound around the Welcome Center situated along River Road North, and then headed through groves of live oaks back toward the manicured grounds surrounding the grave of Huey Long and his statue.
Phil Yeates was carefully carrying an antique map of 1778 Louisiana, the last year of the British occupation, that he was going to copy and donate to the museum.
“I come on all these tours,” Yeates said. “I love it — they (tour guides) are all super-knowledgeable.”
R. Martin Guidry, a former Air Force Academy teacher and Acadian genealogist now living in Baton Rouge, said he also takes part in many of the tours. “I learn something new every time.”
The group stopped under the trees across from the 34-floor state Capitol, which was built during the administration of then-Gov. Huey Long.
The structure took 14 months to build and it was finished in March 1932. “He wanted it to be the tallest state capitol in the country,” she said.
Members of the group crossed into Arsenal Park where they saw flower gardens, a large monument to George Washington and a replica of the Liberty Bell. T
hey slowly hiked up a small hill, which is actually an ancient Indian Mound, according to the brochure.
The mound’s summit, what was perhaps the site of a Coles Creek culture temple or chief’s house, according to the brochure, is now topped by a pair of rusty Civil War-era cannons pointing across Capitol Lake toward the refineries north of town.
Vera Hills, of Baton Rouge, said she enjoyed the tour and was one of the few who carried an umbrella for shade. “I’ve never been on one of these tours before,” Hills said. “I liked it very much. I like to walk.”