A history of the Hotel Sir Walter in Raleigh, NC

Roadside billboard | Photo via NC State Archives

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If you’ve ever taken a stroll down Fayetteville Street you’ve probably come across a local landmark building, which currently houses the Sir Walter Apartments. Located in the heart of downtown at the corner of W. Davie Street, this building was designed by Raleigh architect James A. Salter and is characterized by its 10-story stature, brick facade, stone ornamentation, and classic 1920s look.

And while it may look like just another old-school building, 400 Fayetteville Street has quite a long, important history in Raleigh — and even some recently discovered mysteries.

Hotel Sir Walter, 1928 | Photo via NC State Archives

Built in 1923, Hotel Sir Walter was known as the “third house of state government” or “third house of the legislature” through the 1950s, because it was the hub of political activity in North Carolina before the Legislative Building was constructed in 1963.

Politicians, journalists, and lobbyists conducted much of their work in the hotel — and the late Rep. William “Billy” Watkins once said more laws were passed at the Sir Walter than at the Capitol itself.

Wives, daughters, and secretaries of politicians — as well as women officials themselves — also met together at the Sir Walter Hotel for more than 50 years in what was called the Sir Walter Cabinet.

Members of the cabinet committed themselves to political work such as endorsing the women’s suffrage movement, aiding the North Carolina Symphony, bettering prison conditions + calling for improvements to roads and highways. It was the only organization of its kind in the nation for decades.

A gentleman’s space called the Sphinx Club also operated in the basement under the street sidewalk during the hotel’s existence. The club was reportedly a retreat for the men to get away from their wives, so we’ll leave it to your imagination what exactly went on down there.

Kitty Hawk Tavern, 1940 | Photo via NC State Archives

Nowadays, the Sir Walter building is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, and is home to 140 apartments — the only designated affordable housing for seniors in downtown Raleigh. The historic Virginia Dare Ballroom is a longstanding event space located within the building and is still in use today, despite the building’s conversion from a hotel into an apartment complex. The ballroom has played host to thousands of events over its century-long existence and is now a popular wedding and party venue.

ICYMI: Legends of an underground speakeasy in downtown Raleigh recently proved true when contractors uncovered a hidden tavern, sealed behind drywall in the old hotel basement. Keep scrolling to see a complete timeline of the Hotel Sir Walter building.

1923

Raleigh officials wanted to attract convention traffic away from Greensboro and Durham, so they formed Capital Construction Company to build a large hotel.

1924

Hotel Sir Walter opened for business and would continue to thrive over the next couple of years. A year after its opening it was home to more than 80% of the state legislature and was a hot-spot for visiting dignitaries, businessmen, lobbyists, and economic elites.

1934

The building’s owners filed bankruptcy due to the effects of the Great Depression.

1935

North State Hotel Company leased the hotel and began a complete renovation.

1938

Hotel lobby | Photo via NC State Archives

Sir Walter became the largest hotel and top convention spot in the state with an additional 50 rooms added. The “third house of state government” or “third house of the legislature” would become the hotel’s colloquial names through the 1950s because it was a hub of political activity in North Carolina.

1967

Owner John A. Williams — the third owner since 1938 — donated the hotel to the North Carolina State University Foundation. The establishment continued to operate for two years under the university--before it was sold again--with profits going to the foundation’s Continued Education Program and student financial aid.

1978

After some additional ownership changes, the building was finally sold to David Weil and Sir Walter Hotel became Sir Walter Apartments. This created 140 apartments for seniors in the city + the building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The conversion of the hotel into apartments was deemed essential to the survival of the building after the construction of the Legislative Building in 1963 and the increased development of motels in the area.

2017

The building was sold again to an Ohio developer who had multiple ideas for the space — including converting it to offices or apartments, or making it a hotel again. At the time, tenants were told they would need to be out by 2020, but the contract expired and none of the plans came to fruition.

Virginia Dare ballroom | Photo via NC State Archives

2019

Capital Realty Group purchased the apartments for $16.8 million with plans to renovate and re-tenant for commercial space. Director of the Housing and Neighborhood’s Department Larry M. Jarvis has assured the community that the building’s affordable housing status will be preserved. A $3 million investment of local funds was approved by the Raleigh City Council in the previous year to preserve the apartments for affordable housing and senior living, plus renovations.

2020

Legends of an underground speakeasy in Raleigh recently proved true when contractors uncovered a hidden tavern beneath the apartment complex sealed behind drywall. It is still unclear if this bar has definitive recorded or pictured history considering the number of owners and renovations the building has seen.

This article was contributed by Xenna Smith.

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