Tryon Palace was originally built between 1767 and 1770 as the first permanent capitol of the Colony of North Carolina and a home for the Royal Governor and his family. Governor William Tryon had brought John Hawks, an English architect, with him when he came to North Carolina in 1764. Hawks designed the Palace in the manner of a number of fashionable country houses in the vicinity of London – Georgian in style, with symmetry maintained throughout. It was soon regarded to be one of the finest public buildings in the American colonies. Governor Tryon, his wife Margaret Wake Tryon, and their daughter Margaret lived in the Palace for just over a year. They left New Bern in June 1771, when Governor Tryon was appointed to the governorship of New York. Josiah Martin, the second royal governor to live in the Palace, fled in May of 1775 at the beginning of the American Revolution and his furnishings were later auctioned off by the newly formed state government. Patriots made the Palace their capitol and the first sessions of the General Assembly met there to begin designing a free and independent state. Four state governors used the Palace: Richard Caswell, Abner Nash, Alexander Martin and Richard Dobbs Spaight.
On the evening of April 21, 1791, the Palace was the scene of a dinner and dancing assembly held in honor of President George Washington, who was exploring New Bern while on his Southern Tour. (See the section on the Stanly House.) Raleigh became the state capital in 1794. Space in the Palace was rented for various purposes, including a Masonic lodge, a private school and a boarding house.
In February of 1798, a fire started in the cellar where hay was being stored. The fire quickly devastated the main building, which collapsed, but the Kitchen and Stable Offices were saved.
The Kitchen Office was demolished in the early 19th century; only the Stable Office remained. In the 19th century, George Street was extended over the original Palace foundation and dozens of houses and businesses were built on either side. At the end of the street, a bridge crossed the Trent River.
In the 1930s a movement began to restore North Carolina’s first capitol. The movement gained strength when volunteers tracked down John Hawks’ original architectural plans. In 1944, Mrs. James Edwin Latham, a Greensboro resident and native of New Bern, challenged the State of North Carolina to join her in restoring the Palace. She guaranteed her commitment through establishment of a trust fund dedicated solely to the Palace restoration. In 1945, the legislature created the Tryon Palace Commission, a body of 25 persons appointed by the governor, and charged it with the reconstruction of the original Palace from its original plans on its original foundation. As part of its commitment, the state further agreed to maintain and operate the restoration when it opened to the public.
Mrs. Latham died in 1951, shortly before the reconstruction of the Palace began. Her daughter, Mrs. Mae Gordon Kellenberger, took on leadership of the restoration. The first restoration challenge was to clear the site. This involved removing more than 50 buildings and rerouting North Carolina Route 70, including a bridge over the Trent River. Archaeological digs followed. They soon uncovered the original Palace foundation, directly under the site that the highway had occupied. Layers of stucco were removed from the Stable Office, the only remaining part of the 1770 complex.
Then the painstaking job of reconstructing the Palace began. Craftspeople from across the country and abroad were brought in to do the work. In the meantime, trips to England yielded furnishings appropriate to the period of the original Palace. Earnings from Mrs. Latham’s trust underwrote all of these time-consuming and costly tasks. The Palace was opened to the public in April 1959, as North Carolina’s first great public history project. The furnishings at the Palace are primarily English. Governor Tryon made a very detailed inventory of his possessions following the destruction by fire of his later home at Fort George, New York. This inventory, which revealed the Tryons’ taste in furnishings, was used as a guide in refurbishing the reconstructed Palace.
Today, guides in period dress conduct tours of the building. Both floors are open, as well as the cellar, which has recently been reinterpreted according to descriptions contained in architect John Hawks’ letters.