By Jonathan Scott
In 1970, William Benton carried a lit flashlight through dark, winding hallways of the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel, an abandoned 10-story building in downtown Raleigh. One of the dismal paths opened up to the once grand Virginia Dare Ballroom with dilapidated arched windows, dusty chandeliers and marble floors. A mural of Sir Walter Raleigh, in his iconic pose laying down his coat in the mud, kept vigil on the wall since the ballroom and hotel were built in 1924. Glimpses in the dark revealed the hotel’s elite past during the Roaring Twenties, when 80 percent of the state’s legislators – alongside lobbyists, aides, jurors, journalists and North Carolina power brokers – called the hotel “home.” With a historic and scandalous past, by the 1970s the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel was a forgotten relic that was about to get needed rehabilitation that would end up bringing it back to its original glory and help the local community.
Intrigued by the dimly lit walk, Benton and his business partner, David Weill, decided to buy the building in 1970. The partners had a choice. They could have removed of all traces of the 1920s and gone head-to-head against the ultra-modern hotels that were competing for the lucrative convention business. But there was one more interesting discovery that influenced their decision on how to rehabilitate the historic building.
There was another, albeit slightly scandalous, side to the hotel and it involves the area that ended up being untouched during the remodel. The dark, cavernous speakeasy downstairs, complete with a dance floor, private booths and a network of egresses were used in the event of uninvited law enforcement officers. A look at the speakeasy today appears that it is caught in time, left when the coppers were raiding late one night and politicians were drinking their vodka martinis in the face of Prohibition.
In discovering this treasure, Benton and Weill decided to go against common practice at the time and turn it into a night club for upscale clientele. Instead, they appreciated the history of the building and kept the speakeasy as it was left in the 1920s while converting the hotel into usable apartments.
Today, the lobby gleams as if it were still full of bellhops in red high-collar jackets and pillbox hats. The mail chute beside the elevators has been brought back to its original condition and still serves as a mailbox for the residents. The original bathroom fixtures were restored, even though the owners had to search overseas for parts. The service elevator is still in use, lacking only a full-time elevator boy from a bygone era. The Virginia Dare Ballroom, which displays the 90-year-old wallpaper, has as much grandeur as ever.
The building is now known as the Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments. It provides an affordable home-based lifestyle for men and women, age 62 and older. Subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, rent is based on a percentage of income. Down the street from the State Capitol, the residents, many of whom struggled all their lives, can live proudly in an apartment building that still displays much of the elegant ornateness of the Roaring Twenties.
It’s not only available to the public for weddings and special occasions, but the building owners and staff hold functions there for the residents. Service co-coordinator Donna Ebron looks after the residents who reside in the mostly one-bedroom and studio apartments.
“Not too long ago,” Ebron says, “we held a starlight ball we called our ‘Senior Prom.’ There were red carpets and period limos from the 1920s. It was completely free for the residents.”
Felise Knight, the building’s property manager, is quick to give credit for these unusual perks to the owners. Knight is sincere when mentioning that the owners of the building care for the building and its residents, and as a result the residents to care about the building too. She adds, “This is not the kind of place people think of when they hear about subsidized housing.”
Curtis Conyers has been a resident of the Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments for 10 years. Partially disabled, but intent on staying involved with the world, he’s taught himself to play piano in the Commons Room. He’s grateful for the life he now has.
“Back in the day,” he says, “I wouldn’t have been able to even come in.”
Ebron explains, “When this was a hotel, African-Americans weren’t allowed as guests. Now the apartments’ diverse population is slightly over 50 percent African-American.”
When Conyers thinks back to the first time he visited the apartments, he says, “It was a lot better than I expected. It’s an honor to be able to stay.”
The hotel, built during the heydays of the 1920s, offers history, architecture, scandal and a home to Raleigh residents. Upstairs, the dark, looming halls shrouded in years of neglect now gleam, while downstairs, law-breaking secrets remain hidden in the walls. With all of that history, the hotel now welcomes a new era where residents, owners and staff proudly maintain the beauty and dignity of their home while honoring the past.