Imagine the places that touch your heart. Is it your childhood home? The tree in your best friend's yard? A high school theater stage or performance hall? What gives you “a sense of place?” For me, it’s The Carolina Inn.
When I was 4 years old, I declared that one day I would live in a house with a black and white checkerboard floor just like the ballroom in The Carolina Inn. When I was 12, my sophisticated friend Sarah and I organized a trip by ourselves to the beauty parlor followed by lunch at The Carolina Inn. We ordered hot dogs, and then hastily added a side of carrots. Isn't that what grown-ups do? When I turned 40, and had just completed almost a year of cancer treatments, my dear parents hosted an amazing birthday party for me – yep, at The Carolina Inn.
Years later, as the parent of high school students, I traveled to visit colleges across the United States. I came home, time after time, grateful that in Chapel Hill and for our University, we have a beautiful and treasured place to stay right on campus.
It’s really no surprise that The Carolina Inn is called “the University’s living room.” Meetings, memorial services, weddings, celebrations, fundraisers, reunions, seminars and more happen at the Inn on a daily basis.
We have the experience and vision of John Sprunt Hill, UNC Class of 1889, and an extraordinary convergence of events to thank for the creation of The Carolina Inn.
• During Hill’s college years, the ﬁrst Carolina football game was played in 1888 against Wake Forest. Our biggest rival in those early years was the University of Virginia. Trainloads of alumni and supporters started filling the town on football Saturdays. Townsfolk festooned porch railings in their houses along Franklin Street with blue and white bunting for the football weekend. Hotel rooms in town were scarce.
• In 1889, to coincide with Hill’s graduation festivities, the University organized an invitation to alumni to return to campus for the Centennial Celebration.
• On University business in 1921, Hill spent the night at the Eagle Hotel (where Graham Memorial is now). He couldn’t sleep that night, as luck would have it. Supposedly, the racket of rats rustling in the corner of his room was the final straw. He dressed and walked out into the night across campus. A full moon lit the way. He stopped at Mrs. Graves Boarding House, on the corner of Cameron and (now known as) South Columbia Street.
Hill bought Mrs. Graves’ house. He hired Arthur Nash, the architect developing Polk Place, to design The Carolina Inn to blend into the style of the campus. Nash’s design for the Inn was inspired by Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.
Hill and his family gave The Carolina Inn to the University in 1935 with the stipulation that profits go to the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library, which continues today. An engraved brass plaque from 1941 now hangs at the front desk of The Carolina Inn: “This generous gift affords a cheerful inn for visitors, a town hall for the state and a home for returning sons and daughters of alma mater.”
Historian Kenneth Zogry writes in his book, The University’s Living Room: A History of the Carolina Inn, “…the story of this place is complex; sometimes joyful and sometimes sorrowful, sometimes proud and sometimes embarrassing. But these contradictions are just what make the place, and its history, so compelling.”
Oh my, if the Inn’s walls could talk! And, now, they almost do. Have you walked the halls lately? History has indeed been brought to life in photos and memorabilia, all lining the halls. Peek inside the new gym for guests. Of course, a guest can change the wrap on the punching bag to, shall we say, “neighboring schools.” This is Chapel Hill, after all!
“Fridays on the Front Porch,” gets into full swing in the month of May. Every Friday, 5 pm – 9 pm, a live bluegrass band plays on the front lawn of the Inn, with food and drinks available. Most special of all is the mix of folks sittin’ and enjoying the music, the start of the weekend, and each other. A true experience of this Southern Part of Heaven. See you there!