Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Church That Might Have Been

Design for a chapel, 1834, from Edward T. Davis and John L. Sanders,
A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina:
The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis

By John B. Green III

Judge William Gaston, lawyer, congressman, and state supreme court justice, was one of the founders and patrons of New Bern's fledgling Roman Catholic congregation in the early 19th Century.  The congregation met in private homes but Gaston soon sought to secure a permanent place of worship.  Through his son-in-law Robert Donaldson of New York, Gaston had become acquainted with the nationally-known architect Alexander Jackson Davis.  Davis was an energetic proponent of the various romantic-revival architectural styles then becoming popular.  Between 1834 and 1840 Davis supplied Gaston with at least two sets of plans and renderings for a Roman Catholic chapel in the Gothic style.  Buttressed and spired, with tracery windows, the chapel would be the purest expression of the Gothic-Revival style in New Bern and North Carolina and a dignified home for the town's Catholics.  But it was not to be.  Architectural exuberance and religious fervor soon ran head-long into a practical bishop with an eye on the bottom line.

Design for a chapel, 1840, from Mills Lane, Architecture in the Old South: North Carolina

The Right Reverend John England, Bishop of Charleston, had organised the parish of St. Paul in New Bern in 1824.  He had worked closely with William Gaston to promote the local congregation and to secure a place of worship.  But he balked at the cost and complexity of the proposed Gothic chapel.  Counseling Gaston to build a church at a cost and in a style which could easily be erected in New Bern, the Bishop supplied a sketch plan of a plain frame church.  With the plan in the hands of New Bern builder Hardy B. Lane, the result was the St. Paul's Catholic Church on Middle Street familiar to generations of New Bernians.  Completed in 1841, the wood-frame church combined late-Federal and Greek-Revival details.  Although significantly altered in appearance by the 1896 addition of an entrance tower, the church is still recognizable as the building which Bishop England approved.

St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, photo ca. 1862. U.S. Army Military History Institute

Although his grand Gothic chapel would never be constructed, Alexander Jackson Davis did leave one tangible reminder of his connection to William Gaston and New Bern.  Upon Gaston's death in 1844, his family asked Davis to design a suitable monument for his grave. The resulting classically styled sarcophagus, executed in Italian marble, marks Gaston's final resting place in Cedar Grove Cemetery to this day.

Grave of William Gaston, Cedar Grove Cemetery, New Bern, photo ca. 1910, from Mary Louise Waters, A Short Historical Sketch of New Bern, N.C.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Mermaids in New Bern!  or the day the Manatees came to town.

By John B. Green III

On Wednesday, October 22, 1890, the New Bern Daily Journal reported the following front-page news:

A Curiosity in Port.
    Yesterday afternoon the schooner yacht Manatee arrived in port from Washington, D.C., in charge of Mr. J.W. Zellers, who has aboard two wonderful and rare curiosities known as the Manatee, or Sea Cow.  They weigh upwards of seven hundred pounds apiece and inhabit both land and water.  In appearance the head is like that of a cow and the body is similar to the whale.  They were taken off the Florida coast and belong to that order of animals that is fast becoming extinct.  The scientific name of this odd creature, which will be on exhibition here a few days, is Trichechus Latirostris. That's right, pronunciation and all.

The next day the Journal announced that the sea cows would be available for viewing at the foot of Craven Street through October 28th, "Admission 10 cents."  Their keeper and exhibitor, Capt. John W. Zellers, also known as Manatee Zellers, was renowned along the East Coast for his skill in capturing and keeping alive these warm-water marine mammals.  Zeller, a resident of Titusville, Florida, made a living by hauling freight, guiding sport fishermen, and capturing and exhibiting manatees.  He is said to have exhibited a live manatee at the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 and to have supplied several manatees to P.T. Barnum for his circus and menagerie.

The manatees displayed in New Bern were Florida Manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris), a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee.  There are three living species of manatee - the West Indian, the Amazonian, and the West African.  Together with the similar dugong of Asia, they comprise the order Sirenia whose name hints at the folklore linking the manatees and dugongs to the mythological mermaids and sirens.  Although Captain Zellers' manatees arrived in New Bern by schooner in 1890, Florida manatees regularly wander as far north as North Carolina and beyond during the warm-water months of summer and early autumn.  They have occasionally been spotted in the Neuse River as far inland as New Bern.

What did 1890s New Bernians think of these unusual visitors?  The Daily Journal reported that the manatees were "attracting the attention of the citizens of New Berne and exciting wonder and admiration on account of their being such strange creatures, and of their intelligence and very gentle nature."  Zellers and his manatees left New Bern sometime after October 28th and, with exhibition stops along the way, proceeded south to the manatees' home in the warm waters of Florida.