Arts & Culture

North Carolina’s Living History

The meticulous re-creation of Tryon Palace showcases a 250-year-old story

Photo: Courtesy of Tryon Palace

They say you can’t rewrite history, but New Bern, North Carolina’s Tryon Palace comes close. With a sprawling re-creation of the state’s first permanent capitol, the sixteen-plus-acre property encompasses historic houses, gardens, and museums, which together create an immersive experience that captures the spirit of the colonial South. 

From its completion in 1770, Tryon Palace has had a tumultuous story. The eighth royal governor of the North Carolina colony, William Tryon, established it as the colony’s first permanent capitol and his own family’s home. After the opulent edifice was completed, Tryon resided there for only six months before moving to New York, and following the American Revolution, the growing state government eventually moved the capital to a more central location in Raleigh. Though the Palace was then repurposed, its upkeep proved too expensive for the state to maintain. A fire ravaged the building in 1798, and “to be honest, it was a bit of a relief to everyone,” says Lindy Cummings, the site’s research historian. No photographs or etchings of the Palace remained, and in time, its beauty was nearly forgotten.

By the early twentieth century, however, interest in the old Palace had grown, and after numerous attempts to get a reconstruction off the ground, a group of five passionate women—among them Maude Moore Latham, a generous benefactor—made the project a reality in the 1950s. Using John Hawkes’s original architectural plans and an inventory list of Tryon’s belongings, the state got to work crafting as close a re-creation as possible, inside and out. When the Palace opened its gates in 1959, the result offered a breathtaking testament to its original glory. “The goal was to be a place where the history of the colony was remembered and celebrated,” Cummings says, “and that’s been our greatest touchstone ever since.”

In the decades since, Tryon Palace has left visitors both informed and awe-inspired, though the current team is always striving to uncover more about its origins. “The site has continued to change as our knowledge of the buildings and those who lived and worked in them evolves,” Cummings says. Now, during the Palace’s 250th anniversary year, the property offers numerous tours and events, many of which are led by guides in traditional colonial garb; “living history” experiences, for which the crafts and traditions of the era come to life; and exhibits such as A Lasting Monument…Creating North Carolina’s First Permanent Capitol, which opens in early 2021.

Photo: Courtesy of Tryon Palace

From left: The palace study; a view of the staircase.

For a fuller picture of the Palace’s history—and that of Eastern North Carolina’s as a whole—visitors need not travel far. An addition built in 2010, the LEED-certified North Carolina History Center—one of the most energy-efficient public spaces in the state—lies just steps away, overlooking the idyllic New Bern waterfront. Designed with the stewardship of the historic landscape in mind, the center offers dozens of exhibits, interactive activities such as the Pepsi Family Center’s hands-on river village, performances, and lectures that both highlight some of Tryon’s treasured relics and tell the region’s greater story.

Stretching across the property, thirteen meticulously kept gardens hold even more of the Palace’s wonders. Chief among them is the Latham Garden, known to younger patrons as “the maze.” With intricately clipped hedges and winding paths, the garden represents the formal style of eighteenth-century Britain, and like much of the flora on-site, its blooms change as the months progress, meaning something new is always in season.

Photo: Courtesy of Tryon Palace

Latham Garden at Tryon Palace.

Tryon Palace also features a working kitchen garden, where heirloom vegetables grow throughout the year. The site works with the culinary program at a nearby technical college, supplying students with local produce such as herbs, artichokes, tomatoes, and figs. For a closer look at all things green and growing, guests can embark on a behind-the-scenes garden tour with one of the Palace’s resident experts. Available throughout the fall and spring, the hour-long tour reveals the finer details behind the gardens and their upkeep. “We often have guests who visited Tryon as a child and have a clear memory of the way things looked,” says Hadley Cheris, the gardens and greenhouse manager, “but we’re always evolving, trying to tell bigger, broader stories.”

While many of Tryon Palace’s annual happenings have been adapted for 2020, the holiday season still promises singular delights. From mid-November on, the Palace is decked out in its holiday best. Decor-centric tours will run through December 19, revealing the ingenuity behind the designs—as well as the unique precautions taken when outfitting a historic space. The annual Candlelight celebration won’t take place until next year, but on the evening of December 19, the Palace will still be all aglow as a special fireworks display lights up the sky. Guests are invited to take in the spectacle from the surrounding streets, welcoming a new year to come.

Photo: Tryon Palace

The palace gate decorated for the holidays.

No matter the season, though, there’s bound to be a must-attend activity on the calendar. January through November, fans of Outlander can trace the footsteps of the fictional heroine Claire Fraser on special tours inspired by the book and television series. Come summer, annual events such as Lanterns on the Lawn and the Live and Local Beer Festival, both set to resume in 2021, invite folks to kick back and enjoy an evening on the expansive Palace green. And every fall, New Bern comes together to celebrate Mumfest, an annual festival and dining weekend in which bistro tables line the downtown streets boasting colorful mums, live music, arts and crafts, street vendors, and entertainment.

Tryon Palace is but one reason to visit the quaint coastal destination. “New Bern has a fantastic historic downtown,” Cummings says. “Especially if you’re on foot, there’s so much to see.” Along the Trent and Neuse Rivers, the city boasts a buzzing waterfront walk dotted with shops, green spaces, and restaurants. Persimmons, for instance, lays claim to some of the finest riverfront views in the city and a sustainably sourced menu featuring the likes of North Carolina crab cakes and local tomato pie. And at Cypress Hall, the chef Ashley Moser’s seasonal menu is driven by Eastern North Carolina’s freshest native ingredients, such as wild mushrooms, fennel, and muscadines, while at Morgan’s Tavern and Grill, a beloved haunt housed in the circa-1911 New Bern Garage Company Building, history abounds (as do specialty craft brews). The city transports visitors through time at every turn, in fact, from Civil War battlefields and colonial architecture to quaint bed-and-breakfasts such as the Aerie, Hanna House, or the Benjamin Ellis House. To cap off your trip, you might even raise a cool glass of the signature Tryon Royal Colony Ale, which will debut at Tryon Palace’s Holiday Cheer, at favorite local brewery Brütopia—a fitting end to the adventure.

Learn more about Tryon Palace at