The Stanly House was built in the early 1780s for John Wright Stanly, a prominent New Bern citizen. John Hawks, the architect who designed Tryon Palace, may have designed the Stanly House as well. Built of hand-hewn longleaf pine, the Stanly House remains one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the South.
While the house has had many owners and uses and has been moved twice, its gracious center-hall plan and grand two-story stairwell are as striking today as they were for 18th-century visitors. Careful attention to every detail inside and out attests to the skill and taste of its builders and restorers.
The elegance of the Stanly House reflects the wealth of its owner. Stanly was a powerful businessman whose merchant ships raided British vessels to aid the American cause during the Revolutionary War. John Wright Stanly and his wife, Ann Cogdell, lived in the house only a few years before succumbing to the yellow fever epidemic of 1789. The Stanlys had nine children, the youngest of whom was only three months old at the time of his parents’ death. The house remained empty until the eldest son, John Stanly, Jr., came of age and took possession in 1798.
The house was empty in April of 1791, when President Washington came through New Bern on his Southern Tour. Legend has it that New Bernians, realizing what a fine house the Stanly home was, opened it up, cleaned it, and put their own furnishings inside for Washington to use. He wrote later in his diary that he had enjoyed “exceeding good lodgings.”
John Stanly, Jr., a lawyer and politician, occupied the Stanly home until the mid 1820s. Early in his career, Stanly had political differences with Richard Dobbs Spaight, a former state governor. In 1802, the differences escalated into a duel, and after four rounds, Stanly mortally wounded Spaight. Dueling was illegal and Stanly was forced to leave New Bern until his friend, Judge William Gaston, could convince the governor to grant him a pardon. It was the first gubernatorial pardon ever granted in North Carolina.
During the Civil War, when Federal forces occupied New Bern, the Stanly House briefly served as the first headquarters of General Ambrose E. Burnside. Later, the house was used as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy, Catholic nuns who served as nurses in nearby Union hospitals. From 1935 until 1965, the Stanly House served as New Bern’s public library.
The Stanly House was moved to its current location in 1966, when the New Bern Library Association gave it to the Tryon Palace Commission. It opened to the public in 1972. The furnishings cover both the Georgian and Federal periods ranging from about 1770 to 1825.
John Wright Stanly had another son who did not share directly in the family fortune. John Carruthers Stanly was generally acknowledged to be the son of John Wright Stanly and an enslaved African woman of the Ebo tribe. He was born into slavery, but gained his freedom at age 21 through the help of his owners, the Stewart family, who also facilitated his education and his advancement in society. Because of his first occupation, John C. Stanly became known as “Barber Jack.” After making a success of his barber shop, he went on to become a large-scale property owner and local entrepreneur, and his success in business made him one of the wealthiest men in Craven County in the early 19th century.
John C. Stanly is a paradox of history: he bought his own family members out of slavery, but went on to become a slaveholder himself. He was, in fact, one of the largest slave owners in Craven County.
His wife, Kitty, one of those whom he bought out of slavery, was a founding member of New Bern’s First Presbyterian Church, along with craftsman Robert Hay, whose home is also part of the Palace complex.