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Four keys, Four Buildings, Four Stories in Four Blocks

Four keys, Four Buildings, Four Stories in Four Blocks

The News & Observer
February 15, 2004

Author: Mary E. Miller; Staff Writer

Four Keys, Four Buildings, Four stories in Four Blocks

RALEIGH -- The small brass key Raleigh builder Greg Paul pulls out of his pocket opens the door to a gutted, 42,000-square-foot conglomeration of four connected buildings that stretch a block from Fayetteville to Salisbury streets. It is a key that may make millionaires of him and his business partners.

Scott Snavely's key is old and worn. It opens the door to the Hallmark shop his father bought him more than 20 years ago, to his own family's past as shopkeepers. It is a key that will undoubtedly change his fortune as he considers another career path, but for the better or worse is yet to be seen.

Danzelle Stancil's key opens the door to the space that has been her home for 22 years, and before that opened to a room she cleaned as a maid at the Sir Walter Hotel. It is a key that may not be hers for much longer.

Greg Hatem's key opens the door to the old Raleigh Times Building, a space he will show to potential clients. It is a key that may unlock someone's new office. Or Hatem's dream home.

Four keys to four different buildings along or near the four-block stretch that is Fayetteville Street Mall, that was Fayetteville Street and will be again, once the city carries out its plan to rip out the mall and let the traffic roll. The four owners have four stories. Each unlocks Raleigh's past and its future.

On the second floor of the 20-foot-wide Mahler Building constructed in 1878, light pours through arched windows to the empty space that 100 years ago housed an optician's shop. The dusty floors have been cleared of the heating and cooling equipment and old store fixtures Greg Paul and his construction crew found when they first came up here. There is no working electricity, but the air crackles with the power of potential.

Paul navigates the darkness to the back of the building, toward a pair of imposing arched red metal doors. This is what sold him when he first climbed the narrow, crooked stairs. These doors unlock what makes him believe in the rebirth of downtown Raleigh.
He pries open the latch. The rush of cold air and sun are blinding and breath-stealing, but so is the view. It's an urban courtyard, a secret garden that looks straight out of New York or Seattle, but for the anchoring views of the First Union and Capital Club buildings on either side. Barren vines thrive in complicated swirls on brick walls that enclose the space. Paul scrambles out on the tarred rooftop.

"Wouldn't this make a perfect restaurant courtyard?" he says. "Can't you see people dining out here?
Paul specializes in renovating old houses. Old buildings are new terrain in one sense. But these, which Paul and his business partners Carter Worthy, a commercial real estate agent, and architect Meg McLaurin are trying to renovate and lease, also make up the landscape of his past. Paul's first job, in the early 1980s, was as a carpenter for Wake County. He had an office one block up on Fayetteville Street Mall, next door to the courthouse. Five days a week he walked past these buildings, never knowing what could be inside. The upper floors were already long vacant and sealed off.

For months, Paul and his builders have worked to remove walls and shore up the sagging beams. The front areas are the Mahler Building and the adjoining Carolina Trust Building, finished in 1902. Each one is four stories high. They abut two more buildings, each two stories high, that front Salisbury Street. The top floors of all the buildings have been sealed off like a time capsule since sometime in the 1950s.

Walking though the empty spaces, Paul imagines how life bustled within these brick walls. These buildings housed, among other businesses, a jewelry store and optical shop, McLellan's, and then McCrory's discount department store, a tailor's shop, an engineering firm. Paul and his partners hope to turn the space into a mixture of high-end condos, restaurants, office and gallery space. Already they have sold the Mahler Building space to Rory Parnell, the owner of Raleigh Contemporary Gallery.

A warren of doors and darkness leads to more space in the buildings. Steep ladders are the only way to reach the upper floors, where time has stopped. These parts of the buildings were living quarters. The ceilings are high, moldings eerily intact, down to the Art Deco detailing. You can see the holes where coal furnaces operated, the peeling floral wallpaper with signatures of past visitors.
On the third floor of the Carolina Trust Building, Paul wrestles open the window. Leaning out he can see the block in its entirety: the sturdy gray Liberty Exchange Plaza directly across the street that will soon house city of Raleigh employees, the storefront of the Christian Science Reading Room at the corner of Hargett, the fountains and sturdy holly tree directly below that will be demolished to make way for cars. It is a clear, cold morning and the brightest sight on the mall is an American flag rippling at Holly's Hallmark Shop just across the street and two buildings away. There, another of Fayetteville Street's dreamers waits for change and plots to weather it.

By the time Scott Snavely arrives at his card shop each morning about 10, his longtime clerk, Susie Weaver, has already opened shop and set out the flower display on the sidewalk. Music ranging from Elvis to Yanni wafts through the air, mingling with the scent of fresh flowers, chocolate candy, paper and freshly baked cookies. They wait for the foot traffic, the regular customers who have frequented his shop for the 21 years he has owned it, and for those who have shopped here even longer.

The past dictated Snavely's future when he was a young man, and it does so now in his middle age. He is a third-generation shopkeeper. His grandfather bought Salem Books in the heart of Old Salem before World War II. For more than 40 years, Snavely's father ran the Corner Bookshop in Greensboro, a business that his brother inherited.

And after Snavely graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill -- well, after teaching in Greensboro and Costa Rica for a couple of years -- his father talked him into the card shop business. Holly's Hallmark was for sale in 1983. His father bought the business, the son paid off the loan, and a decade later, Snavely and his wife, Susan, bought the 4,800-square-foot building. They bought it from Joe Lee Jr., the former president of Johnson's Jewelers, a well-known downtown character who walked Fayetteville Street wearing a Greek sailor's cap with a parrot named Poncho on his shoulder.

For many years, this building, constructed in 1915, housed the Vogue, an upscale department store that eventually became Arnold Jacob's Vogue Men's Clothing. By 1970, according to the Raleigh City Directory, this was the home of the Buddy Dale Hat Shop. For some years, Snavely says, the building was essentially a garage, housing Lee's Model-A cars. The second floor has been sealed off for decades, how long Snavely's not sure.

Snavely is a man who loves his job, who not only knows his customers by name, but takes some of them fishing. Most of his business comes from nearby office workers, the secretaries who buy flowers for their desks, the residents of the Sir Walter Apartments. But they have been leaving him like bluefish running.

Business has steadily decreased each year for the past six. For 19 years, he managed to run his business with the same two employees. But last spring, he couldn't afford to pay both of them anymore. He had to let Pam Barnes go. From his old desk in the back of the store, Snavely noodles on a calculator, checks the figure and sighs.
"It's gone down 43 percent in six years," he says.

At first, he didn't want to see the mall reopened. Now, he knows this is his only hope. He has leased space upstairs to a friend of his, a former customer who became a lawyer. The rent will help. But he needs more of a financial net. So last year, Snavely turned the store over to Susie while he took classes to work as a substitute teacher. That's how he'll survive financially while construction on the mall is completed.

He'll be OK, he knows. But he worries about his customers, especially the folks at the Sir Walter. Especially the older ladies who live there and come in to buy cards. They're so fragile in so many ways, he says. And if the mall is redeveloped it will be only a matter of time before the Sir Walter changes hands. Already St. Augustine's College is working on a plan to move residents to a $15 million retirement center it would build on its campus so that the Sir Walter could be sold and then refurbished as a hotel or condominiums.

While construction workers were digging trenches down Fayetteville Street to become a bricked walkway, Danzelle Stancil would call out to them, "If you find any gold, be sure to share it with me!"

She's lived at the Sir Walter for 22 years, making her one of the longest-tenured residents of this former grand hotel, built in 1929. The Sir Walter used to be called "The Third House," because so many legislators lived here and so much politicking took place in its lobby. Before Stancil called the fifth floor home, she called it work. For 16 years, during the late '40s and through the '50s, she thinks, she was a young widow employed as a maid at the Sir Walter.

She is 83, her sight is fading, and she can't remember dates too well, but she'll never forget cleaning rooms for grand visitors like Andy Griffith, Liberace and Minnie Pearl. Oh, how Stancil loved maintaining the beauty of the hotel, especially its sparkling chandeliers in the ballroom. All those years ago, she lived in a house off New Bern Avenue. After she got her four children off to school, she walked to work. When her bosses announced that the hotel was closing, she remembers, "I cried and cried and cried."

After sitting vacant for years, the hotel was converted to senior citizen housing in 1979. Danzelle Stancil applied for a room. She came home.

Nine months ago, while walking down Fayetteville Mall, she fell and broke her shoulder. Her bones are so fragile that the healing has taken extra long. Her doctor explained that she can't go strolling with her friends up to the card shop or the CVS pharmacy until the weather warms up. She knows by then that construction workers will be digging trenches. This time she doesn't hope for gold. Just a place to stay.

She is too sweet to say a cross word, to think a dark thought. She talks of how amazing it is that the very hallway she worked on for so many years now opens to her home. She knows that change is necessary. From her window she watched the pretty white concrete jail rise on Salisbury Street. She prayed for the workers every morning. Now she prays the mall will be restored to its glory, that she will live to see the change and be able to still live here in this room.

She knows people are watching her building, waiting for a chance.

One of them can see it from his building at the other end of the mall.

In the seven-story Alexander Building, which he bought in 2001, Greg Hatem stands at a sixth-floor window and imagines the future, his personal and professional five-year plan. The eight downtown buildings his company already owns are packed with tenants. In this daydream, perhaps he has purchased the Sir Walter and turned it into a high-scale boutique hotel. The mall teems with people working, playing, shopping, eating. It hops day and night. And he is in the midst of it, working and living.

The founder of Empire Properties, Hatem is not a developer, but a redeveloper. He draws the distinction like this: "If you gave me 1,000 acres of undeveloped land, I wouldn't know what to do except take a hike on it. I'd much rather have a cool old building."

Actually, his N.C. State University diploma says he is a chemical engineer. He has also worked abroad in economic development, but renovating small, historically significant "cool old buildings" is his heart's passion.

Empire Properties began in 1996 by converting an old Coca-Cola warehouse on West Street into Jillian's, a bar and restaurant. Now Empire is aptly named; Hatem's company owns more downtown buildings than any other business, including the Heilig-Levine furniture store on Wilmington Street, four buildings at Commerce Place, and this, the Alexander Building, once home to dozens of doctors', dentists' and lawyers' offices, a barber shop and, of course, the old Masonic Temple.

Less than an hour ago he walked some clients through the two-story Raleigh Times Building on Hargett Street, the bottom floor of which is being renovated for office space. Upstairs is finished out and rented to a group of graphic designers. The walls are exposed brick, the ceilings high to showcase the grand arched windows. The wood floors gleam, and in the back, near the kitchen, he has installed a glass case to display pieces of typesetting machines and old newspapers that were found during the renovation.
Hatem tries to master the history of each building he buys, researching to find out who worked or lived there, what the places looked like. After studying vintage photographs and getting on eBay, he was able to buy the same kinds of light fixtures that once hung from the ceilings. This is what he does, and why he loves it, peeling back stories like paint layers, returning the feel of the space while updating it for the future. All of the history and romance he tries to recapture, for his own interest, but also as a marketing technique.

"The whole point is that we're preserving this history, but that's what sells the building. People will pay good money to go back to what is already here," he says.

He will. Hatem confesses a secret. "Did you notice the upstairs has that great kitchen? I put that in because in five years, if it all goes well, I'm going to be living there."

He can see it all happening, clear as the view from the 100 block to the Sir Walter. Up here, from his vantage, the future of the past looks so bright.

Copyright 2004 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.

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