Past Times

July 11, 2014

Legislators come to town

Now the Sir Walter is no longer a hotel. And the club slowly is disbanding. ... Old-timers sometimes complain that it takes the legislature an extra week to do its work because members are scattered all over town.

In its glory days, the Sir Walter Hotel on Fayetteville Street was often called the “third house of the legislature,” as state business overflowed into after-hours wheeling and dealing. But as the state moved into a more modern era, the Sir Walter and its prominence began to fade. In 1989, when former Gov. Bev Perdue was a young legislator, N&O reporter Sharon Overton took a look a how housing for the state’s lawmakers had changed.

If the General Assembly were a club, Mrs. Perdue probably wouldn’t have been accepted 20 years ago. Most members were male, middle-aged, white, well-to-do Democrats. When they came to Raleigh, they rented rooms at the Sir Walter Hotel, which was known unofficially as the Capitol annex. The Sir Walter was where the real work of the legislature was done, behind closed doors and over fat cigars.

Now the Sir Walter is no longer a hotel. And the club slowly is disbanding. ... Old-timers sometimes complain that it takes the legislature an extra week to do its work because members are scattered all over town.

As the only woman representative from east of Raleigh, Mrs. Perdue remains in the minority. But as a whole, legislators are becoming a more diverse group, demographically and politically.

Where and how they live when they come to Raleigh is no longer a foregone conclusion. It’s a matter of convenience. It’s a matter of cost. And it’s a matter of divergent lifestyles.

Many people still choose hotels for convenience. The accommodations vary from luxury suites to no-frills motel rooms. A few even invest in homes and condominiums, on the odds that their political mandate will last more than a few years. But more and more legislators are renting apartments because of the lower cost and because they provide room for their families.

Rep. Vernon G. James of Weeksville was first elected to the House in 1945. He moved into the Sir Walter and stayed there for two terms. He recalls how the corner rooms all ended in 17 and were reserved for senators. They provided an ideal place for caucusing.

“We’d gather around and discuss the happenings of the day and plan strategy,” he says.

The Sir Walter’s era ended about 1963, when the Legislative Building was constructed on Jones Street and the legislators no longer needed to use their hotel rooms as offices.

When legislators gather these days, the Brownestone on Hillsborough Street tends to be the hotel of choice. Many freshmen choose to live there so they can make important contacts with more experienced members. The coffee shop is a good place to find them in the morning going over the day’s schedule. There are other advantages to hotel life as well, including maid service, room service, laundry service and someone to take messages 24 hours a day. …

Other legislators save pennies and shoe leather by bunking at the Journey’s End, two blocks northwest of the Legislative building. The price is right – $30 a day for a single; $40 double. ... Breakfast at the Journey’s End is complimentary and so is a chat with Sunny, the opinionated parrot in the lobby. Certain senators became so fond of the place that their rooms were named for them. Former Sen. Ralph H. Scott occupied Room 110 for many years.

For the most part, the legislators are a quiet bunch as motel guests go, says Ione Simpson, the general manager. However, she does recall one incident when the girlfriend of a certain legislator confronted the legislator’s wife in his hotel room.

“We won’t call any names,” she says.

But that is the exception rather than the rule. “I guess maybe as a group they’re kind of boring,” said desk clerk Franklin Hawkins. “That’s meant in a good way, of course.”

In the days when most legislators hailed from rural farming communities, coming to Raleigh was considered somewhat glamorous and the atmosphere often resembled that of a fraternity party. But now an increasing number of legislators come from urban areas. They are less eager to party and more interested in getting down to the serious work of the General Assembly.

Also, on an expense budget of $81 a day – and salaries of $11,124 a year – there is only so much partying they can do.

Increasingly, legislators are finding that it makes more sense to rent an apartment or condominium during their stay in Raleigh. Buying can be risky, since their jobs are not guaranteed beyond two years.

After losing to Gov. James G. Martin in the November election, former Lt. Gov. Robert B. Jordan III is selling the house he has owned for the last four years. The house … probably would have gone on the market even if Mr. Jordan had won, since the state would have provided more than adequate quarters on Blount Street. –The N&O, Jan. 16, 1989

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About Past Times

History fascinates us. We love to linger over old photographs or accounts of years long gone. Discovering our own personal histories can become an enjoyable pastime. This blog will provide some looks into that past. We'll look at NC history in general, and Triangle history in particular. We'll also try to give you the tips and tools (and connections) for looking at your own history.

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