Friday, October 11, 2019

Benson J. Lossing and the Palace

or, why generations of North Carolinians believed that Tryon Palace had been a three-story building

Engraved view of Tryon Palace from Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, volume II, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855.

by John B. Green III

By the time that Benson John Lossing published his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution in 1852, there were few people still living who could remember the long-gone governor's palace in New Bern.  Designed by English architect John Hawks and constructed in the 1760s by Royal Governor William Tryon, the Palace had served as the royal governor's residence and then as the first state capitol of North Carolina following the Revolution.  A late night fire had destroyed the main building of the Palace in 1798 and by Lossing's time only the West or stable wing survived on the site.

Title page from New Bern historian John D. Whitford's copy of The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution

Benson J. Lossing (1813-1891), illustrator and engraver, editor and publisher, was also one of America's most popular historians of the 19th century.  Lossing is today considered to have been one of the first Americans to utilize modern standards of historical research.  He traveled thousands of miles interviewing participants in, or eyewitnesses to, the events he chronicled.  His books made extensive use of original documents which were quoted within the text or within footnotes.

Elevation of Tryon Palace by John Hawks, 1766, Francis Lister Hawks Papers, New-York Historical Society, as published in Fiske Kimbal and Gertrude S. Carraway, "Tryon Palace," New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin, January 1940.

In the course of preparing the illustrations for the Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, Lossing sought out the Rev. Francis Lister Hawks of New York, grandson of John Hawks, the Palace architect. Rev. Hawks had in his possession a number of his grandfather's original plans for the Palace including the elevation seen above.  Lossing based his rendering of the Palace on this plan.  His engraving of Tryon Palace, showing a three-story central block, would serve as the definitive illustration of the legendary building for the next eighty years.  The image was copied and modified numerous times for use in books and pamphlets, postcards and souvenirs.  The original plans in the possession of Rev. Hawks were all but forgotten and the possibility that other, perhaps conflicting, plans for the Palace might exist was not considered. 

Postcard, Tryon Cotillon Club, M.E. Whitehurst, publisher, c. 1915

This all changed in 1939.  In that year New Bern historian Gertrude S. Carraway, in response to a growing interest in reconstructing Tryon Palace, began the search for John Hawk's plans for the building.  Using as a starting point Benson J. Lossing's statement that the drawings were "in the present possession of a grandson of the architect, the Reverend Francis L. Hawks, D.D., L.L.D., rector of Calvary Church in the city of New York" Miss Carraway contacted various members of the Hawks family.  None knew where Rev. Hawks' papers were.  Eventually, through contacts in the Episcopal Church, it was discovered that the papers were in the collections of the New-York Historical Society.  The Historical Society quickly confirmed that the Palace plans were still present in Rev. Hawks' collection.  The plans were published for the first time in January 1940 in a article written by Miss Carraway and noted architectural historian Fiske Kimball for the Bulletin of the New-York Historical Society.  

Elevation of Tryon Palace by John Hawks, c.1766-1767, Public Record Office, London, as published in Alonzo Thomas Dill, Jr., "Tryon Palace: a Neglected Niche of North Carolina History," North Carolina Historical Review, April 1942.

There was just one problem.  Although the New York plans showed Benson Lossing's three-story Palace, the dimensions of the two wings did not match the dimensions of the surviving West wing in New Bern.  Was the New York plan a preliminary and ultimately rejected version of the Palace?  Had there been a revised set of plans and could they possibly survive?   In an effort to answer these questions, Dr. Christopher Crittenden of the North Carolina Historical Commission, wrote to the British Public Record Office in London.  Might they possibly have plans for the governor's palace in North Carolina?  The answer was yes!  They had the plans which Royal Governor William Tryon had transmitted in 1767 to the Board of Trade for approval.  These plans had dimensions which matched the surviving stable wing and the still visible remains of the Palace foundations.  The accompanying elevation, however, showed a two-story building not a three-story building.  After much study, the two-story version was chosen as the version most likely to have actually been built in New Bern.  This is the version, with some modifications, that was reconstructed in the 1950s by the State of North Carolina and opened to the public in 1959.

Rendering of proposed reconstruction of Tryon Palace, postcard, c.1955