Past Times

Raleigh hotels had a colorful history

The Hotel Sir Walter stood tall on Raleigh’s skyline in 1928.
The Hotel Sir Walter stood tall on Raleigh’s skyline in 1928. State Archives of North Carolina

Raleigh was not immune to the urban decay of the 1970s. In 1976, N&O writer Rob Christensen wrote about some of the city’s grand hotels that had seen better days.

They were places where presidents and statesmen laid their heads at night; where the state’s social elite sent their daughters to be “presented” to proper society; and where much of North Carolina’s 20th Century history was shaped in backroom political wheeling and dealing.

Now they are merely relics of an ancient era.

The Park Central hotel is being torn down brick by brick. The Andrew Johnson is an empty shell that is likely to be demolished soon. Mayor Jyles J. Coggins wants to have the Carolina converted into an office building this fall. And there has been talk of building a new hotel downtown using the shell of the Sir Walter, gutting its interior and constructing a new facade.

The Sir Walter inherited its role as premiere political hotel from the Yarborough House, Raleigh’s most important 19th century palace. Because the pre-Civil War era Capitol was so small and cramped, legislators were forced to do much of their lobbying, negotiating and arm-twisting elsewhere.

The Yarborough House… was built in 1852 and served that function until it burned down on the eve of the Fourth of July in 1928, four years after the Sir Walter was built.

For the next several decades, from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s, the Sir Walter was where state political parties and gubernatorial campaigns were headquartered.

Located just three blocks from the Capitol, the Sir Walter was nicknamed the “Third House” of state because so many important decisions were made there, presumably over a bottle of bourbon. And it was where such colorful and influential legislators as “Cousin Wayland” Spruill of Bertie County and “Uncle Bruce” Etheridge, the self-proclaimed “Duke of Dare,” held court.

“The saying is that there were more bills passed at the Sir Walter than in the Capitol,” Arthur E. Buddenhagen, manager of the Sir Walter from 1947 to 1967, said….

But the Sir Walter was more than just a hangout for politicians.

During the Thirties and Forties, the hotel catered to rich Northerners who were traveling to Florida for the winter months. Dinner at the Sir Walter then was served by black waiters with white gloves and black ties, and was accompanied by live music, Buddenhagen said.

After World War II, the tourist trade declined and the Sir Walter became a convention center.

Most of Raleigh’s and North Carolina’s social elite were intimately familiar with the Sir Walter. The hotel was where the eager young daughters of the state’s rich gathered every fall to be presented to society in the North Carolina Debutante Ball. And the Sir Walter was the home of many of Raleigh’s socially prominent clubs, including the City Club, the Sphinx Club and the Sir Walter Cabinet.

One year, however, the debutantes’ escorts, mainly Carolina fraternity boys, did considerable damage to the Sir Walter with fire extinguishers during some late night revelries. The next year the debutantes were forced to stay at the Carolina.

But the fraternity boys couldn’t hold a candle to the legislature when it came to nocturnal shenanigans, veteran hotel-men say.…

With the Sir Walter being home away from home for North Carolina Democrats, it would have been considered nearly treasonous for a Democratic President to sleep anywhere else while in Raleigh.

President Harry S. Truman staged a surprise overnight visit on his way back from an AFL-CIO convention in Miami, causing the hotel’s management to throw out 26 patrons on the day the 1948 state fair opened.

On a 1964 visit, President Lyndon B. Johnson kept the high and mighty of the state Democratic Party waiting in the lobby while he went into the hotel’s closed coffee shop and shook hands and chatted with waitresses and bus boys who were cleaning up after hours. Johnson later insisted that hotel management provide green linen on his bed that night.…

The Carolina Hotel was to the Sir Walter what Ed McMahon is to Johnny Carson – second banana. The Carolina got the legislators and the parties that couldn’t get into the Sir Walter.…

But like Ed McMahon, the Carolina occasionally had its day in the sun.

Kerr Scott became the first gubernatorial candidate to choose the Carolina for his campaign in 1948 precisely because of its second banana image….

The hotel was the subject of many risque jokes during the 1930’s, when a giant red spot light was located on the roof to warn aviators landing at the old Raleigh Airport south of the city. By the 1970’s, however, the jokes were no longer funny as prostitution became a problem in the hotel.

City employes, who have offices on one floor, dubbed the building Hot L Carolina, after the play and television series that depicted life in a hotel with an unusual clientele. The N&O Aug. 8, 1976

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

  Comments