Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pentagon Barracks, Baton Rouge LA

The Pentagon Barracks is one of several unique places that I happened to stumble upon while on my Spring Road Trip.  I had seen a reference to them while looking through tourist information in the hotel lobby, and spotted them as I pulled up to the Louisiana State Capitol. When I ventured briefly out onto the Capitol's observation deck I was puzzled about why they are referred to as "pentagon" when there are only 4 buildings and, therefore, only four sides rather than five.  Time for a little research! But little did I know the problems I would have as the available information is sketchy and sometimes conflicting.  Plus, I felt that some of the explanations I found were not really well documented.  What I share here is what I sifted through and found to be accurate.
  • This area had been settled by the French after French explorer, Pierre Lemoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, discovered this area along the Mississippi River in the early 1700's.   
  • In 1763 the area was ceded to the British.  They built the first fort in 1779 and named it Fort Richmond. In September of that year Spain would capture the fort and re-name it Fort San Carlos. 
  • In September 1810 it was captured by a group of revolting citizens who then formed the short-lived West Florida Republic and changed the name to Fort Baton Rouge.
  • In December of that year the republic requested acceptance into the union and U.S. soldiers assumed control.

  • 1816-because of its location on the river the fort was selected as an ordnance depot by the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. A major expansion of the fort was undertaken during the years from 1819 to 1823.  Plans for the depot were drawn by a young Army engineer, Lt. James Gadsen, and the construction contract awarded to Joel Hill.  Hill was already under contract to the Quartermaster department to build four barracks buildings and a combination commissary-warehouse building.
  • 1825-the five building complex was completed and it was at this time that the quartermaster building complex became known as the Pentagon Barracks.  The commissary-warehouse building was soon torn down due to faulty construction, leaving only the four barracks buildings.  The fort became known as the Baton Rouge Arsenal and Ordnance Depot and soon was the largest in the South; during the Mexican War it was the military’s main supply depot. 
  • 1861-state militia forces led by Louisiana Governor Thomas Overton Moore captured the fort. The Confederate Army would assume command soon afterward; the ordnance in the fort supplied many Louisiana volunteer units.
  • 1862-in August the fort was captured by Union forces, renamed as Fort Williams, and held by them for the remainder of the war, continuing to function as an ordnance depot.
  • 1869-the fort was formally transferred to the Quartermaster Department.
  • 1879-the post is deactivated June 6th and the Army leaves.  Only one sergeant remains as a caretaker.
  • 1884-the property was transferred to the Department of the Interior. The General Assembly of Louisiana passed a resolution granting full use of the property to Louisiana State University.

LSU began using the facilities of the former fort for classes in 1886 and would be given full title to the property in 1902.  The university would move to its present day location in 1926, but the barracks continued to house cadets until 1932 and then co-eds until 1950. The other old buildings on the post would be torn down in 1931-1932 to make room for the new State Capitol. 

In 1951 ownership of the barracks was transferred to the State and the barracks were renovated into apartments and office space.  A complete interior renovation was undertaken in 1966 and again in 2006 so nothing remains of the interiors of the barracks used by the military or LSU.  Today these apartments are rented out very cheaply to legislators (yes, there is quite a controversy in LA over that!).

The barracks originally had 4 fireplaces; the galleries on both side of each building were added around 1834.  The Historical American Buildings Survey conducted in 1978 describes the galleries as being the finest example of Greek Revival colonnades in the area, but then later describes them as being Tuscan in style, and makes the observation, "Despite the fact that the columns are too widely spaced and entasis is improper, the colonnades are large and boldly formed, creating an overall effect of strength". There are many sources of old photographs of the barracks available on the internet, but click here to see a few that show good views of the buildings and the area around them.

 Today the barracks are not officially open to the public, but I didn't know that when I was there.  It was early on a Sunday morning and I strolled around the grounds enjoying the serenity of the park area in the middle of the complex and wishing that I could be there to see this very large magnolia when it was in full bloom!