Friday, October 10, 2014

The Three Bears

or how King William I, King William II, and Prince Albert came to grace the front of City Hall

By John B. Green III

Before New Bern was blanketed by fifty fiberglass bears during its tricentennial year of 2010, and before New Bern High School acquired its concrete Bruno the Bear mascot in 1957, New Bern could boast of three snarling, black-painted copper bears arrayed across the front of its city hall.  The story of how these bears became architectural ornaments and of how the bear became the symbol of the City of New Bern follows.

Bear above east entrance, second City Hall, photo from Die Berner Woche, 28 Oct 1939.
New Bern was founded in 1710 by Christoph von Graffenreid, a native of Berne, Switzerland, as a settlement for refugees from the German Palatinate as well as a smaller number of Swiss citizens.  He named the town which centered the colony after Berne, Switzerland.  When Berne celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1891, the mayor of New Bern traveled to Switzerland to represent the city.  The mutual good feeling engendered by this visit to Berne resulted in New Bern adopting the armorial bearings and colors of Berne in 1894 and the city of Berne presenting a handsome silk banner in 1896 which prominently featured a bear, the symbol of the ancient city.  The banner was framed and proudly displayed above the mayor's desk in the city hall on Craven Street.  The snarling Swiss bear soon became the popular symbol of New Bern.

The Craven Street city hall was remodeled in 1914 and at that time it was decided to give New Bern's symbol a more three dimensional representation.  Accordingly, three copper bear figures, modeled on the bear on the Swiss banner, were ordered through the S.B. Parker Company of New Bern, from a firm in New York.

Old City Hall with bears installed at second floor level, from a c. 1920 postcard.
Shortly after being installed on the façade of the city hall in the spring of 1914, the bears were dubbed King William the First, King William the Second, and Prince Albert, in honor of Mayor William Ellis, Alderman William B. Blades, and Alderman Albert H. Bangert, all of whom had promoted the acquisition of the figures.

In 1934 the U.S. Court House and Post Office at the corner of Pollock and Craven streets was replaced by the new Federal Building constructed at 415 Middle Street.  By 1935 the old court house had been acquired by the city of New Bern and refurbished as its new city hall.  The three bears were removed from the façade of the Craven Street city hall and two were installed above the entrances of the new city offices.

Second City Hall, with bears above south and east entrances, photo from Die Berner Woche, 28 Oct 1939.
The third bear was installed high in the pediment of the central fire station on Broad Street.

City fire station showing bear in pediment, photo from Die Berner Woche, 28 Oct 1939.
The Three Bears remain in those locations today, but some confusion now exists as to which bear is which!  A 1960 newspaper article states that King William I and King William II grace the entrances to City Hall while the bear at the fire station is Prince Albert.  A 1974 article and later articles claim that the fire house bear is King William I, while King William the II guards the Pollock Street entrance of City Hall and Prince Albert defends the Craven Street doorway.  As the Three Bears greatly resemble one another and as all three declined to be interviewed for this article, we may never know the truth.

Bear in pediment of city fire station, photo from Die Berner Woche, 28 Oct 1939.