A New Bern Oddity
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
The basement kitchen is a New Bern oddity well worth checking out. Not every house here had a basement kitchen. Most were built in before 1815, and the grandest homes on the largest lots had full buildings dedicated to food preparation. Many homes with basement kitchens also had outbuildings as summer kitchens, however, to keep heat from being added to the main house in the hottest weather. But in milder weather, the basement kitchen kept food preparation conveniently inside the home yet discretely out of view. Basement kitchens were often found in England during the same period, and we sometimes followed that practice here, until shortly after our independence. Later Federal period homes here integrated the kitchen into the first floor plan, so the kitchen basement was but a brief oddity here in New Bern.
A number of our Georgian homes and early Federal houses still have intact basement kitchens. They feature a broad fireplace for cooking, a beehive or shelf oven, and warming shelves at the side. Shelves held pots, and herbs were hung for easy access. Wrought iron cranes with swing arms allowed stirring without removing the pot.
The basement kitchen you’re most likely to be able to tour is at the Palmer-Tisdale house on New Street, built circa 1767. The Palmer Tisdale House is privately owned, but it has been on Homes Tours a number of times. Hopefully the generous owners may do so again in a year or two. Their Georgian basement kitchen is fully restored and in beautiful condition.
Another privately-owned home with an early Georgian basement kitchen is the Patrick Gordon House, built in 1771. The house originally had two basement-work fireplaces, though one was lost in the 1950s. The lost fireplace is thought to have been in the kitchen portion of the basement, with the existing fireplace a part of the laundry facility.
There were basement kitchens in thirteen other residences here as well, and probably many more in the houses destroyed by lack of preservation in previous decades. But many remain. An early Federal on East Front Street, called Gull Harbor, was built in 1815 with a full basement and cooking kitchen. The Robert Hay House on Eden Street, owned by the Tryon Palace, also has a basement kitchen. The Hay House is not presently open for tours, though as a Tryon Palace property it may be available at a future date.
But if you’d like a glimpse of eighteenth century kitchen technology, you can see it today. Though not a basement kitchen, the Tryon Palace kitchen building is very worth the tour. There you’ll find all the technology of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century kitchen: the huge fireplace, large work table, wrought iron crane, and utensils typical of the age. Enjoy!
Tryon Palace Kitchen photo courtesy TripAdvisor