A tour of North Carolina’s Tryon Palace, once known as Colonial America’s finest government residence
North Carolina’s Tryon Palace was once known as the finest government house in colonial America. Completed in 1770, just a few years before the Revolutionary War, the palace was built for British Royal Governor William Tryon. The price of building the palace caused controversy and added to the conflict in the colonies. During the war, he became North Carolina’s first capitol and the new state’s first governor. The palace’s checkered and storied past has seen it lavishly decorated, stripped of materials, looted, abandoned, burned, covered over and ultimately rebuilt.
Only the west wing of the palace, originally the stable office, has survived the ravages of time. Before the reconstruction, the foundations of the main building had to be excavated under a road that had been built above them. In fact, a whole community of other buildings had been built on the former palace grounds adjacent to the Trent River in New Bern, North Carolina. It was not until the 1950s that a major reconstruction effort included the removal of 50 deteriorated buildings and the excavation of the original foundations on which the architectural plans for Tryon Palace were later resurrected.
An English architect named John Hawks traveled with William Tryon to New Bern in 1764. Tryon wanted Hawks to carry out his vision of creating the greatest architecture in the colonies. As part of this effort, Hawks became the first professionally trained architect in North Carolina. He brought with him a wealth of experience, education and influence from English Georgian architecture. Inspired by the symmetry and richness of country houses near London, Tryon Palace brought European sophistication to the colonies.
The design of Tryon Palace borrows from English Palladian mansions. The main building has a pedimented frontispiece reminiscent of Palladian architecture in Venice and beyond. The colonnades curve from the main structure to the symmetrical side structures, or wings. This creates a courtyard space that faces the street and a royal entrance. The palace backs onto the beautiful River Trent. A collection of gardens beautifully accentuates the buildings throughout the grounds.
The first brick of the palace was laid on August 26, 1767. The Tryon family moved in three years later in June 1770. Hawks delivered on time, but the project far exceeded its original budget. Costs piled up and the budget tripled by the time it was completed. The whole project met with great disapproval from North Carolinian settlers, and for good reason. After all, they are the ones who paid for this very unorthodox mansion. Inspiring their outrage, the money came from a new liquor tax and a poll tax.
A group of dissidents known as the “Regulators” protested the taxes, saying, “We are determined not to pay a tax for the next three years for the Governor’s building or house. We don’t want such a house and we won’t pay for it. Royal Governor Tryon did not listen to dissenters. Before the Revolutionary War began, Regulators fought Tryon’s Militia in the Battle of Alamance. Many men were killed, injured or taken prisoner in the process. The rebellion failed but demonstrated the growing restlessness of settlers living under English rule.
Before the palace was completed, a major hurricane hit New Bern in 1769 and destroyed the majority of buildings in the area. Hawks’ brick palace survived. Several governors later, the war came and took a toll on the state of the palace. Eight tons of lead were used in the construction of the palace, much of which was removed to melt into musket balls for the war effort. After the war, valuables were stolen from the palace and uninvited guests claimed the government halls of the palace as shelter. The state capital was moved to Raleigh in 1794, leaving the palace to be leased to a private school, Masonic lodge, and boarding house. Four years later, the main palace building was destroyed when the hay cellar caught fire in 1798.
John Hawks was spared seeing his palace burn. He died in 1790 at the age of 59 after having had a successful career in North Carolina. Hawks rose to prominence in New Bern and was involved in civic affairs. Despite his English roots, he continued to be part of the cause of the patriots. In addition to a successful architectural career, he married into the wealthy Rice family, had children, and served on the State Council.
By 1945, most of the palace site was a distant memory. It had been covered by more than 50 houses that were said to be in poor condition and ready to be demolished. The surviving wing had been converted into an apartment building during the Great Depression. A woman named Maude Moore Latham remembered playing in the west wing of the palace as a child and hired a fortune to have the whole project rebuilt.
The Tryon Palace Commission was formed and used its endowment to further big business. The original foundations were excavated, and the builders followed Hawks’ original architectural plans, which were found in the library of the New York Historical Society. North Carolina’s first capitol was rebuilt over many years and opened to the public in 1959.
Now open daily, the palace retains a glimpse of America’s colonial past with its authentically restored structures, manicured gardens, and guides dressed in period clothing.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.