New Bern, N.C. — While traveling through eastern North Carolina, you might consider a stop at the Colonial town of New Bern. A walking tour provides the splendid sight of 67 pre- and post-Revolutionary houses, the highlight of which is the awe-inspiring Tryon Palace.
To understand the story of the Tryon Palace, one must delve into the earliest history of New Bern. Named for his native Bern, Switzerland, the town was founded in 1710 by Baron von Graffenreid, who had come to North Carolina with a land grant from his patron, Queen Anne of England, to evade his many creditors in Europe.
By the mid-1700s, New Bern had grown to rival Edenton, until that time the colony's largest town and its capital since 1722. Because New Bern was more central, however, it became the host city to the Colonial Assembly, the area's governing body.
In 1764 King George III sent Lt. Col. William Tryon to the colony as its royal governor. Shortly after his arrival, the new governor concluded that what the colonists really needed was a capital building that would impress them with the power and dignity of the royal government.
To build it, John Hawks, a noted English architect, was brought over from England, along with skilled workmen. Construction started in 1767 and three years later Governor Tryon and his wife and daughter moved into what has been called "the most beautiful Colonial building in America."
It was also among the most expensive. When he levied a tax to pay for it, the angry colonists named it "Tryon's Palace." The mounting anger of the citizens prompted his transfer to Fort George, New York, as its new governor.
After the Revolutionary War the palace remained as the seat of government, housing the General Assembly and also serving as the home of four governors elected under the state constitution.
A high point in the palace's history was reached in 1791, when Gen. George Washington was entertained at a dinner and a ball. Unfortunately, by that time the buildings had started to disintegrate, causing him to remark that it was "a good brick building, but now hastening to ruins."
The colonists had stolen the ironwork and most of the furnishings, and no one seemed to care. For Washington's visit, the people brought in their own furnishings, so that he could be entertained in an appropriate setting.
The Assembly continued to meet in the palace until 1794, when Raleigh was selected as the new state capital. A few years later, during the night of Feb. 27, 1798, most of the palace burned to the ground. Only the stable to the right of the front entrance remained.
In succeeding years a street was put through where the palace had stood, and the stable building became an apartment house. About 50 other buildings were built on the grounds. All had to be bought and removed before the palace could be restored on its original site.
In the early 1940s a New Bern native, Maude Latham, established trust funds for the restoration and also donated many of the rare Colonial antiques that now furnish the interior.
She and other restoration planners had two pieces of good fortune, which came about as a result of their diligent work. First, intensive research in this country and England turned up the original architectural plans for the palace. Second, the planners found a detailed inventory of its furnishings, including the books that were in its library. Excavations at the site unearthed samples of the materials used in the original structure.
This definitive information has made possible the restoration of the palace buildings to their original condition and appearance. After 10 years of planning, the restoration began in 1952 and was completed in 1959.
Across the street is the Tryon Palace Center, where a film of the palace's history may be seen and tickets purchased for the tour -- $2 for adults, $1.50 for students. The tours are conducted Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For good food try the nearby Henderson House for lunch, served Tuesday through Saturday. Dinners are served on Friday and Saturday only.