These days, John likes to sit by himself. His legs bother him when spending too much time on his feet. Sitting, he says, gives him time to think. He’s lived in or near Raleigh for nearly 80 years, and his most recent address is the Sir Walter Apartments for senior living. Settled comfortably in a metal patio chair on the sidewalk near the apartment’s entrance, John surveys Fayetteville Street. His face is dark and weathered, but his eyes are alert and playful. He laughs easily. He cranes his neck to watch a bicyclist in a neon green helmet glide past. John recalls the first time he visited the Sir Walter. The building is handsome today. It was magnificent 60 years ago.
The Sir Walter was bustling – a successful business open for more than 20 years – when John accompanied his father on an appointment. Raleigh’s oldest surviving hotel, it opened in 1924. John remembers his father guiding him from the noise and glare of Fayetteville Street into the relative calm of the Hotel’s expansive lobby. The building had undergone a major renovation in 1935 and the room was a pleasing mix of sleek modern furniture and classical elements. Crystal chandeliers dangled from coffered ceilings high above. He recalls waiting on one of several large couches and the sense of purpose in the hotel – valets darted in and out through glass doors, and men with suits and hats buzzed about. The Sir Walter Hotel was the largest in the state and lodged the capital’s many transitory residents in town for business and politics. North Carolina hadn’t put a Republican governor in Raleigh since 1897, and the Sir Walter was the unofficial home of the state’s all-powerful Democratic Party.
Reaching ten stories above Raleigh, the Sir Walter is hard to miss, with its great anchored awning and high rounded ballroom windows. Even with the street-level fast food franchise and bail bond agents, the building still retains a sense of its original form, if not its function. Walls have been muted by coats of beige paint. Linoleum rests where rich carpets once did. The hotel thrived for a time, drawing the powerful and influential. In the sixties, as economy motels sprouted up near airports and freeways, the Sir Walter faded, as did downtown. Ownership of the property passed to a foundation supporting North Carolina State University scholarships and financial aid. The rooms were converted into apartments for seniors in the late seventies.
John likes it here at the Sir Walter Apartments. He cooks. His grandchildren visit him most weeks. He’s thankful he gets to live in his home town. When reminded that the Sir Walter isn’t what it once was, John scans the ornamental stone façade above the leasing office. “It still has its bones.”