Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Searching for the Palace Gardens

or, how a Spanish revolutionary, a French map-maker, and an English architect provide clues to the original Tryon Palace gardens.

Portrait of Francisco de Miranda, 1788, as published in Judson P. Wood and John S. Ezell, The New Democracy in America: Travels of Francisco de Miranda in the United States, 1783-84, Norman:University of Oklahoma Press, 1963

by John B. Green III

Francisco de Miranda, Spanish soldier and revolutionary, visited New Bern in June 1783. While here he viewed Tryon Palace, formerly the royal governor's residence, and met the  building's architect John Hawks. Hawks later sent Miranda a plan of the Palace grounds.  Miranda tucked the drawing in his diary and traveled on. Miranda would later be heavily involved in the effort to free much of South America from Spanish colonial rule and would serve as one of the early leaders of the newly-formed nation of Venezuela.  Eventually falling afoul of Spanish royal authorities, Francisco de Miranda would spend the rest of his life in a Spanish prison, dying there in 1816. Shortly before his imprisonment, Miranda arranged for an English sea captain to spirit his diaries and other papers out of the country. Miranda's papers disappeared from view for the next century, only surfacing in England in 1920s. The Venezuelan government would purchase the sixty-three bound volumes of diaries and correspondence in 1926 and place them in their national library in Caracas.

The sixty-three volumes of Francisco de Miranda's papers as they appeared in England before their purchase by the Venezuelan government. From William Spence Robertson, The Diary of Francisco de Miranda: Tour of the United States 1783-1784, New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1928

Those in charge of the reconstruction and restoration of Tryon Palace in the 1950s were aware of Francisco Miranda's visit to New Bern. They had seen a published Spanish language edition of the Miranda diary and his reference to Hawks and the garden plan and knew that Miranda's papers were now in Caracas. In his diary Miranda states:

The best building of all, and which truly merits the learned traveler's attention is the so-called Palace, built 18 years ago by an able English architect (Mr. Hawks) who came for this purpose from England with Governor Tryon and is still in the City: I have personally dealt with him and found him of admirable character: he sent me an exact plan of said building and gardens, which gives a thorough understanding of the whole.

An attempt was made to locate the garden plan. An American in the oil industry traveling to Venezuela was enlisted to visit the library in Caracas and search for the plan. He was shown the diaries and found the entry pertaining to Miranda's visit to New Bern but could not find the plan. Without the Miranda/Hawks plan the Palace reconstruction was left with only one document which might give some idea as to the placement and appearance of the Palace gardens - Claude Joseph Sauthier's 1769 manuscript map of New Bern.

Title and descriptive key of Claude Joseph Sauthier's 1769 map of New Bern. North Carolina State Archives
Sauthier, French surveyor, map maker, and landscape architect, had been brought to North Carolina by Royal Governor William Tryon to survey and prepare maps of the principal towns of the colony. It is possible that he may also have been employed by Tryon or Palace architect John Hawks in laying out appropriate gardens for the governor's residence. Sauthier's map of New Bern shows elaborate gardens between the north front of the Palace and Pollock Street and a lawn leading from the south front of the building to the river. Could this map be used to reconstruct the Palace gardens?

Detail of the 1769 Sauthier Map of New Bern showing the Governor's Palace and gardens. North Carolina State Archives

There were two problems.  The first was doubt about the accuracy of Sauthier's depiction of the garden.  Sauthier had actually prepared two versions of his map of New Bern each showing elaborate gardens at the Palace but also in virtually every other house lot in the town and the designs of the gardens varied from one map to the next.  Did any of the gardens drawn by Sauthier actually exist the way he drew them or were they just a kind of drafting convention to indicate that those lots were occupied or otherwise in use?

Archaeological trenching to the east of the Palace foundations, ca. 1953-1954. From Thomas E. Beaman, Jr., "Fables of the Reconstruction: Morley Jeffers Williams and the Excavation of Tryon Palace, 1952-1962," North Carolina Archaeology, October 2000.

The second problem arose once the clearing of the site for the reconstruction had begun.  The older type of archaeological excavations carried out- parallel trenching - was more or less effective in locating building foundations and other substantial remains, but not refined enough to locate the fragile remains of the garden walks and beds shown on the Sauthier map.  In the end, lacking conclusive evidence, it was decided to have landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams design a complex of gardens representing the major garden styles of 18th century England. These gardens, along with the completed Tryon Palace reconstruction, opened to the public in 1959.

Tryon Palace Restoration garden brochure, c. 1960.

Thirty-two years later a renewed effort was made by Tryon Palace staff members to locate the Miranda garden plan.  An American researcher in Venezuela was asked to visit the library in Caracas and locate the garden plan. This effort failed when the researcher was unable to reach the library because of an attempted military coup blocking the streets of Caracas. Success was finally achieved when a letter, translated into Spanish by a bilingual Tryon Palace staff member, was answered by the library's staff and a photocopy of the long-lost map was sent to New Bern.

Plan of the Governor's Palace and grounds from the Francisco de Miranda Papers, Academia Nacional de la Historia, Caracas, Venezuela
The garden plan seems to be in the drafting style of Claude Joseph Sauthier who had prepared the two maps of New Bern in 1769. But this plan, given to Miranda by John Hawks, varies considerably from the garden layouts shown on the town plans. Elaborate symmetrical gardens are now laid out between the Palace and the Trent River, not between the house and Pollock Street, where a tree-lined avenue flanked by lawns is now shown. Miranda says that this rendering is "an exact plan of said building and gardens," but is it really? Might there be any other evidence among Miranda's papers in Caracas?

In poring over the photocopy of the Miranda plan of the gardens, a sharp-eyed staffer notices that part of the previous page in the volume of documents can be seen and the words and parts of words are in English Feverish correspondence with Caracas results in the receipt of photocopies of the barely visible document - a four-page letter from John Hawks, Palace architect to Francisco de Miranda.  This previously unknown letter was written by Hawks to accompany and explain the garden drawing and describe the architectural details of the Palace buildings. Writing from New Bern on July 12, 1783 Hawks states that:

The inclos'd is an original sketch of the situation of the House and Gardens for the residence of the Governor or Commander in chief for the Province of North Carolina.  It was agreed for the advantage of a prospect down the river, that the south front should be thrown more to the Eastward which leaves the Gardens not quite so regular as appears in the sketch.  The opening or entrance from Pollok street is likewise much wider than here described, the present fence now ranges with the inside fronts of the two Offices, And the circular fence to form a Court yard which was to be china or Iron railing with a pair of Iron gates is now totally abolished.

So here we have it. John Hawks, Palace architect, seems to indicate that the garden plan is accurate except for the changes he notes.  Archaeological test excavations both to the north and south of the Palace in the 1990s will reveal intact 18th century soil layers but no firm evidence for the garden features shown on the Miranda plan.

1993 test excavations, Tryon Palace, Sun Journal, May 9, 1993

Twenty-five years later, the Palace gardens still await the more extensive archaeological excavations which might confirm what the Revolutionary, the Map-maker, and the Architect are trying to tell us.