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Tryon Palace: North Carolina's Colonial Capitol
ryon Palace, New Bern's glorious mansion and seat of the colonial government during the tenures of North Carolina's last two royal governors, was constructed between 1767 and 1770. Architect John Hawks designed what was considered to be one of the grandest structures in British North America. The estate was the site of the First Provincial Congress in 1774 and the first meeting of the state's legislature in 1777. With the new state government meeting in various locations prior to the establishment of the permanent capital in Raleigh, Tryon Palace began to deteriorate from indifference and neglect. In 1791 George Washington described it as "a good brick building but now hastening to ruin." A fire destroyed the main section in 1798, but the two wings were saved. While the East Wing's fate is unknown, the West Wing served many functions over the years until it landed in the hands of the state of North Carolina again nearly 150 years later.
As early as 1926, citizens of New Bern talked of reconstructing Tryon Palace, and no one talked of it more loudly than did local newspaperwoman Gertrude Carraway; but the movement did not begin in earnest until January 1944. At that time philanthropist Maude Moore Latham, a Greensboro resident but native of New Bern, established a trust fund with a gift of $100,000 in stock to be used for the restoration. Her gift was contingent on the purchase of the palace site and the maintenance and operation of the restored property by the state. Christopher Crittenden was named to the board of trustees of the trust fund. The Executive Board of the Department, formerly the Historical Commission, passed a resolution supporting the state's involvement in the project.
Following a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, Gov. J. Melville Broughton was convinced that the restoration would bring large numbers of tourists into the state. In fact, a Williamsburg official jokingly offered to personally finance the whole project if he could have in return the gasoline taxes paid by tourists to the site. The Department of Archives and History published and distributed an eighteen-page pamphlet about Tryon Palace, written by Gertrude Carraway, to enlighten legislators and other citizens about the historical significance of the building. With the help of such shows of support, legislation was adopted in February 1945 appropriating $150,000 for the project. Maude Moore Latham died in 1951, leaving the residue of her estate, then valued at $1,116,000, to the Tryon Palace Commission to ensure the complete restoration of the palaceher life's dream.
In January 1952 William G. Perry, a Boston architect, was selected to draft the plans for the palace. His experience with the reconstruction at Williamsburg made him uniquely qualified for the project. By that time Maude Moore Latham's daughter, May Gordon Latham Kellenberger, chaired the Tryon Palace Commission. Mrs. Kellenberger and her husband John in turn devoted their time and resources to the restoration and development of the complex through the auspices of their own legacy, the Kellenberger Historical Foundation of New Bern. Tryon Palace, which opened to the public on April 10, 1959, is presently a jewel in the crown of Archives and History and annually receives in excess of 85,000 visitors.
Ansley Herring Wegner
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