The Walker Hotel sat vacant, deteriorating in downtown Cary for nearly five years. Its walls were coated with mold and graffiti, and its roof leaked during every rainstorm.
Hidden behind overgrown shrubbery, this historic building hardly resembled the grand French Second Empire style hotel that once housed passing railroad travelers. At its lowest point, the crumbling building was valued at $4,000, and for many, was beyond repair.
The building has since been transformed into the Page-Walker Arts & History Center, which attracts an average of 25,000 people per year for classes, events, concerts, historical and fine arts exhibitions.
While it took hundreds of people to restore the once dilapidated building, and Anne Kratzer is known for deflecting credit to others, many say this dream would not have become reality without her. She rallied dozens of people behind the goal of transforming the historic building.
“She is, as one of my friends said, the ‘matriarch of historic preservation’ in Cary,” said Brent Miller of Cary. “She always acknowledges the contributions of all the others, but 30 years ago, she was the one with the heart and the spirit and the courage to really take on this effort.”
About 30 years after the restoration began, Kratzer has been recognized for her efforts to preserve the building as well as other historic buildings in Cary. She was selected by the Town of Cary as the 2015 Hometown Spirit Award Winner – an annual recognition bestowed upon a Cary resident who has demonstrated leadership and integrity.
Miller, who was also a finalist for the award, and Cary resident Leesa Brinkley nominated Kratzer for the recognition.
Kratzer’s passion for preservering history goes beyond the Page-Walker Arts & History Center. She also has planted an education herb garden with friends around the Page-Walker’s smokehouse to preserve it; oversaw the restoration of the White Plains Cemetery; and helped create the Cary Heritage Museum. She continues to serve as an active board member of the Friends of the Page-Walker Hotel to sustain and bring recognition to the town’s history.
Keeping history alive
Kratzer, a New Jersey native, moved to Cary in 1971 after her husband, Jerod, retired from the U.S. Air Force. She taught art at Farmington Woods Elementary School for 20 years and at Briar Cliff Elementary for nearly 10 years, but began her efforts to preserve Cary’s history in the early 1970s.
“It’s the responsibility of a town to protect its heritage and identity,” Kratzer said. “If you lose your visual structure of the history of your town, you’ve lost the heart of your town, you could be any city, any town so restoration is extremely important just for the character of the town, and I think people are realizing that.”
Kratzer’s neighbor Rachel Dunham first alerted her to old school photos and papers from the 1800s being stored in cardboard boxes in the basement of Cary Elementary School. Kratzer, friends and neighbors formed the Cary Historical Society to save the papers. The group also formed committees, including one watchdog group, for Cary’s important buildings like the Walker Hotel.
Allison Francis “Frank” Page, Cary’s founder, built the structure that now houses the Page-Walker Arts & History Center in 1868 as a railroad hotel. It was sold in 1884 to Jacob Walker, who operated it as a way station for travelers. The building’s ownership changed several more times, but in 1980, Robert Strother put the building up for sale for the last time.
Over the next few years, the vacant building began to deteriorate quickly, and while there were some interested buyers, the building was not purchased. It was people like Kratzer, her husband and two daughters, Alicia and Suzanne, that kept the building from declining even further from damage caused by water flooding the building every time it rained.
“She and her family would go over and literally bail out the third floor of the Page-Walker after it rained,” Miller said.
At the request of Kratzer and others, the Town of Cary purchased the hotel and related land in 1985 for $250,000, and it was later leased to the Friends of the Page-Walker Hotel, which was formed from a sub-committee of the Cary Historical Society. The Friends, including Kratzer, raised about $500,000 through flea markets, bake sales, grants and a capital campaign, as well as additional donated services, to restore the hotel.
With further assistance from the Town of Cary, which matched community contributions up to $325,000, the Walker Hotel was restored as an arts and history center for the community.
“The most difficult part was just being faced with possible disappointment and then just looking at something from a different perspective,” Kratzer said. “Things were really kind of meant to be, thank goodness, for this project, but we had a lot of fun doing it, too.”
Kratzer said while she was surprised and humbled to receive the Hometown Spirit Award, she couldn’t have done any of it without the help of friends, including Pati Schetzina and Barb Brown, who both served as fundraising chairs.
But others say it’s people like Kratzer who are needed to keep local history alive.
“She’s an amazing, energetic, self-deprecating, funny person – a real treat to work with,” said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation N.C., who worked with Kratzer on preserving the Walker Hotel. “You wish every town had an Anne Kratzer ... She does not have to have the attention and the accolades. She does it because she loves it.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon