Plantation home burns

Early morning fire destroys Tezcuco house

By JOSH NOEL
jnoel2theadvocate.com

Advocate staff writer

 
photo: river
Advocate photo by Tom McElroy
   Fire consumes the 147-year-old Tezcuco plantation house on La. 44 early Sunday morning. Two women were sleeping inside the building, a bed and breakfast, when the blaze began. They escaped uninjured. Investigators don't know what caused the fire.  
DARROW -- As word spread that the 147-year-old Tezcuco plantation home near the banks of the Mississippi River was destroyed by fire early Sunday morning, the calls began pouring in. It was hard to know what to say.

"It's the kind of thing that, until you see it, it just can't be described," Jan Clyburn, Tezcuco's operations manager, said Sunday afternoon.

Moments later, one of the people who had called -- Clyburn's 27-year-old daughter, a former Tezcuco employee -- walked up. She gasped, cried a little and hugged another former employee.

"Once you've worked here, it just becomes a part of your heart," said Clyburn as her 7-year-old grandson picked up pieces of slate from what used to be the building's roof.

The 4,500-square-foot house, the centerpiece of a former plantation that is now a bed and breakfast, was just a blackened skeleton after burning for more than 21/2 hours Sunday.

The rest of the 20-acre plantation -- including a dozen small cottages, two museums, a gift shop, a gazebo, a restaurant, a chapel, the office and dozens of 200-year-old oak trees -- were spared. So were a pair of metal hitching posts and a bell at what was the bottom of the stairs.

 
photo: news
Advocate staff photo by Patrick Dennis
   Members of the state fire marshal's investigative team rest Sunday afternoon in front of the ruins of the Tezcuco plantation home.  
Tezcuco was a surviving piece of history beside the Mississippi River. The area, about 20 miles south of Baton Rouge, is dotted with spacious, newly constructed houses and sprawling refineries.

Gregory Greco, a state fire investigator, said the cause of the blaze has not been determined, but no scenarios have been ruled out. Most Tezcuco employees will be eagerly awaiting the result of the investigation.

"I just want to know that it was an accident," said Meg Madere, who led tours though the home.

Mike Lambert, chief of the volunteer Sorrento Fire Department, said more than 120 firefighters from nine departments battled the blaze, which began shortly before 3 a.m. Lambert said the fire was so intense that it melted the lights atop a fire truck more than 200 feet away.

He said firefighters spent an hour cooling the blaze with water cannons before trying to extinguish it with hand-held hoses.

"That old cypress wood burns extremely hot," he said.

 
photo: news
Advocate staff photo by Mark Saltz
   The Tezcuco plantation home in 1998. The building became a bed and breakfast in 1983 and has been a popular wedding spot.  
Lambert, who spent more than 12 hours at the scene, said the single fire hydrant just south of the former plantation didn't provide enough water, so firefighters were forced to improvise. He said eight fire trucks shuttled 1,000 gallons of water a minute from a nearby aluminum plant while a fire brigade from a neighboring refinery pitched in.

Lambert said four firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion.

Two women from New York City who had recently attended a conference in New Orleans were sleeping inside the building's converted second-floor attic when the blaze began. Lambert said that after they were awakened by fire alarms, the women ran to their car and laid on the horn to rouse other guests.

Robbie and Angela Jenkins of Ruston, who were staying in the cottage directly behind the home, ran to their porch after hearing the horn.

"The house was just engulfed," Robbie Jenkins said. "Flames were leaping over the tops of the oak trees."

Robbie Jenkins' 31-year-old sister was married in front of Tezcuco on Saturday. On Sunday, his 26-year-old sister was to be married there as well.

The younger sister was married instead at the home of a nearby justice of the peace. The chairs for Sunday's wedding at the plantation -- some singed -- were still set up in front of the house.

"After seeing all the antiques and beautiful things in there, it's hard to believe it's gone," Robbie Jenkins said.

Dozens of locals showed up Sunday afternoon and stood against the plantation's white picket fence, shaking their heads and snapping photos.

Paul and Paige Robinson of Lutcher were married at Tezcuco on May 12, 2001. They had planned to visit Sunday on the occasion of their one-year anniversary to eat pieces of their wedding cake. After hearing about the fire, they ate the cake at home but still decided to make the drive.

"When I heard I thought, 'What are we going to show our children?'" said Paige Robinson. "You always want to go back and show them wherever you got married. It's gone."

The property's owner, Annette Harland, who bought the plantation in 1991, was visiting her mother Sunday in Michigan but has booked a flight to return home early, Clyburn said.

The Greek revival plantation house was completed in 1855 for Benjamin Tureaud, a veteran of the Mexican wars. It was named after a lake near Mexico City, where the Aztec ruler Montezuma fled to escape the Spanish conquistador Cortez, according to The Pelican Guide Plantation Homes of Louisiana. Tezcuco means "resting place" in the Aztec language.

The plantation was opened to the public and became a bed-and-breakfast in 1983, Clyburn said.

Nancy Jensen, 56, is a member of the last family that lived in the home. She moved in the early 1950s when she was 5 and left when she was 24. She now lives in Baton Rouge.

Her father was a country doctor whose office, which stood between the house and La. 44, burned in the spring of 1969. As firefighters battled that blaze, she said, they also kept the trees wet so the house wouldn't also catch. She said the cause of the fire was never determined.

The last time Jensen saw Tezcuco was a year before her parents sold the building in the late 1970s. She said she never wanted to visit -- and she certainly won't now.

"I've always just wanted to remember it as it was," she said.