The Robert Hay House, built in the first decade of the 19th century, is modest by comparison to other homes on the Palace complex. Robert Hay, a Scottish immigrant and wagon maker, bought this Federal-style, wood-frame townhouse in 1816, the same year he married Nancy Carney, and resided there until his death in 1850 at the age of 96. Local tax records list this house as “unfinished” when Hay acquired the property for $1,000.
The Hay House is a “living history” museum. When you visit, you will get a first-hand feel for life in 1835 by talking with character interpreters who portray Hay household members and neighbors, and by hands-on experiences with the reproduction furnishings of this “Please Touch” museum. Want to see what a feather bed feels like? Go ahead, lie down!
The house was most likely built speculatively by a New Bern carpenter named Benjamin Good, who acquired the lot in 1804 at a time when the Eden Street area where it stands was relatively undeveloped. The original structure consisted of a single large heated room on the first and second floors, with a passage and stair located at the south end, and a cellar kitchen with a fireplace where meals were prepared.
To accommodate a growing family and business, Hay enlarged the house between about 1820 and 1830, with a new rear addition consisting of a double piazza, or porch, and two small heated rooms. Double porches or piazzas are a distinctive feature seen on many of New Bern’s early 19th-century houses of vernacular or regional design. When oriented to the southwest, as they were at the Hay House, such porches provided a comfortable outdoor sitting area during the hot summer months, as well as sunny afternoons in winter. In the summer, doors and windows were opened to capture prevailing breezes from the nearby Trent River and the original louvered shutters could be closed to keep out the sun’s hot rays.
The Robert Hay House has been restored to the appearance it had between 1830 and 1850. The four-year restoration process included archaeology, historical and architectural research, and a program of careful restoration, which preserved nearly all of the original plaster and woodwork. All interior and exterior paint colors were based on a detailed analysis. The house has been furnished with accurate reproductions made by skilled woodworkers using traditional hand methods. The furnishing plan was based on an 1843 list of some of Hay’s furniture, surviving Hay family pieces, inventories of similar New Bern middle-class households for the period, and known examples of local pieces. The grounds are now an accurate replica of an early 19th-century utilitarian landscape, with a swept-dirt yard and a kitchen garden, surrounded by whitewashed board fences.