Small-Town Luxury at The O'Neil in Kinston
photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

You cannot call a cab in Kinston, and even back in the day, when you could, the taxi wouldn’t pick you up after 5 p.m.

This is a small but important detail, should you visit downtown for appetizers at the Boiler Room, a big dinner at Chef & The Farmer, and a nightcap at The Red Room. Or, say, if you want to stroll down to dinner at Ginger 108, have a beer or two at Mother Earth Brewing’s taproom, or wolf down some tacos at Olvera Street Taqueria. The chain hotels are on the outskirts. But to be two blocks away from everything, and to be able to walk right back to a comfy bed at night, you have only one option. And it’s glorious.

The O’Neil opened in April 2015 to put the increasing number of tourists in a hotel that’s close to the things they came to see. This place was once the old Farmers & Merchants Bank, a five-story building that opened in 1924, built from imposing limestone with big ornate pillars out front and an analog clock on the corner. This was the home of the first registered elevator in North Carolina. (Exhale: It’s been modernized.) A 16-ton vault, door swung open, contains a coffeemaker and free bottles of Mother Earth beer inside a retro refrigerator. The high ceiling is made up of ornate green, blue, and gold octagons, vibrantly painted and intricately detailed. The tellers’ windows and alarm buzzers are still there. Go ahead. Pretend to be Bonnie or Clyde. It’s a great photo op.

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Stephen Hill, the guy who fixed this place up, also started Mother Earth Brewing (hence the beer here). This is what he’s been up to lately: restoring homes, warehouses, and other buildings around downtown Kinston to something better than their former glory. O’Neil was Hill’s late father’s middle name. Seemed fitting. Plus: “I’ve always loved this old bank,” he says.

The building sat vacant for 30 years before Hill had the old offices upstairs turned into guest rooms, seven in all. Each one has a different character, with handpicked furniture, modern bathrooms, and big, fluffy beds. There’s a second-floor room with bright red walls and Chinese flair that includes bunk beds in a small vault, just in case you need a more convincing time-out spot for your kids.

There are more personal touches. Hill lives out in the country, but reserved the top two floors for his own personal townhome. The paintings of three young women hanging downstairs in the lobby? Those are Hill’s daughters, to answer your inevitable question.

As luxurious as the hotel aims to be, no, you didn’t come here to hang out in your room, or the lobby, even though there are plenty of chairs and charm. It’s time to walk up the street, maybe to the spa, or the art gallery, or something else you saw on an episode of A Chef’s Life; grab lunch, dinner, and a drink; and make a weekend of it. And when your belly’s full and you’re feeling all right, remember: You can’t call a cab. You’d better hope you called The O’Neil.

The O’Neil
200 North Queen Street
Kinston, NC 28501
(252) 208-1130

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Jeremy Markovich is a digital manager, writer, and podcast host at Our State.