History of the Palace Gardens

What were the Palace Gardens really like?

We can only make intelligent guesses about what kind of gardens there might have been surrounding the 18th-century Palace. Governor Tryon seems to have had little interest in horticulture. Two maps of New Bern, drawn in 1769 during the Palace construction, by Claude Sauthier, a French cartographer, reveal two different garden plans.  In Sauthier’s maps of New Bern, the formal gardens were on the Pollock Street side.  This may have been a conceptual drawing, perhaps the pathways having been laid out. Another map, located in Venezuela in 1991, features a John Hawks plan given to Venezuelan traveler Francisco de Miranda, during his 1783 visit to New Bern. The Miranda plan suggests a strong French influence instead of the more-to-be-expected English garden style. The Miranda plan, furthermore, contrasts with Sauthier’s more rectilinear design, showing instead that the garden’s plan was for a path and open lawn from Pollock Street to the Palace courtyard, with more formal parterres in the French fashion extending behind the Palace to the Trent River.

None of the historic garden plans have ever been implemented at the Palace and no archeological studies have provided evidence for the veracity of one map over the other. Morley Williams designed the current Palace gardens at the time of the Palace restoration from 1955-1961. Before undertaking the Palace project, Williams had served on the faculties of Harvard and North Carolina State Universities and assisted in the restoration of the gardens at Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall. He was asked to recreate an English style garden appropriate for a house of this style in England, making this not necessarily historically accurate to houses of similar nature and time-period in the United States. His designs are in the “Colonial Revival” style that was widely employed in the mid-20th century.

Over the last 60 years, the gardens have been changed and adapted to reflect plants that grow and thrive in our area. The changing climate around us has lessened the ability to use some more traditional English varieties and strengthened our need to use well adapted nativars and natives. There is more push for pollinator focus and sustainability, and an overall push on year-round blooms. The gardens have also shifted to focus more broadly on our educational efforts as we realize that we are the closest public garden for many people in Eastern North Carolina and a testing ground of sorts for what may work in their own landscapes. As we look into the future, we strive to develop gardens that bridge our past, our present and our future in a way that is inclusive and welcoming to the wide range of audience we reach today!