A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

The bell tower tolls, reminding me to take a break from grading papers. I scan the lobby of The Carolina Inn, where I’ve escaped to find quiet between my morning

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The bell tower tolls, reminding me to take a break from grading papers. I scan the lobby of The Carolina Inn, where I’ve escaped to find quiet between my morning

100 Years of The Carolina Inn

The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, NC

The bell tower tolls, reminding me to take a break from grading papers. I scan the lobby of The Carolina Inn, where I’ve escaped to find quiet between my morning classes. Sunlight skips across sturdy magnolia branches and spills through gracefully draped windows. Dozens of panes bend the light, spattering sofas and potted plants with a thousand little rainbows. Outside, rivers of students flow across the intersection of Columbia Street and Cameron Avenue, going to and from classes through the red-bricked west entrance of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The sign at the corner sparkles in the sun: THE CAROLINA INN EST. 1924. In late November of that year, the first guests arrived at “the university’s living room,” a term of endearment later given to the inn by former UNC President William Friday. They stayed in the unfinished passion project of John Sprunt Hill, an 1889 alumnus who, several years earlier, had proposed a plan for a new inn that would be supported by Carolina alumni donations. A decade after it opened, the Hill family donated the inn itself to the university, stipulating that net profits, after the care and upkeep of the inn, would go to the Louis Round Wilson Library, particularly to the North Carolina Collection.

Old photo of the Carolina Inn in 1924

Since 1924, The Carolina Inn has offered a grand setting for all — alumni, professors, students, celebrities, and community members — to come together. Photography courtesy of The Carolina Inn

The aroma of bacon and the clink of coffee cups carry me back to an earlier era, when this sprawling town was a quiet village on a hill and this lobby was a simple cafeteria. Students, professors, and local legends gathered here and filled their trays with fried chicken, sweet tea, and chocolate éclairs.

When I look around the lobby today, I see a wide-eyed bride-to-be and her fiancé talking in giddy, hushed tones with a wedding planner; a boisterous pre-game gaggle of guests clad in Carolina blue; students cramming for an exam. But in my mind’s eye, I see a younger me skipping between the mid-century pillars and porches of a younger inn. My earliest memories spring back to life, the scenes colliding like grainy eight-millimeter home movies, twice as priceless now in the autumn of my life.

• • •

It was at The Carolina Inn that I learned to sit and eat at the table at 10 months old. For most of my childhood, with the occasional exception of Rathskeller lasagna or a Brady’s burger, my parents and I ate supper at The Carolina Inn’s cafeteria Monday through Friday. My mother didn’t have time or energy to cook after long days in high heels teaching 11th graders. On her way home, she picked me up from the University Baptist Church nursery, a block away, and we met my dad, a UNC medical student, at the inn, along with about 150 members of our extended “family” who ate here nightly.

While my parents talked with others in line, I made my way down the cafeteria queue greeting all the regulars, unaware that many were Pulitzer Prize recipients, Nobel laureates, renowned authors, actors, musicians, and national champion athletes. I was headed to the front of the line of hungry guests, where every evening I scrambled up a worn, wooden stool to perch myself beside Danny, the evening cashier at the cafeteria in 1963. Daniel Miller, a UNC pharmacy and business student, patiently put up with me as he tallied the items on customers’ trays.

The interior of the Carolina Inn, with columns, lush carpets, fresh flowers, and seating areas.

In 2023, about 250,000 visitors passed through The Carolina Inn’s lobby on their way to attend events, dine at Crossroads Chapel Hill, or stay in one of the 185 guest rooms. Photography courtesy of The Carolina Inn

“We had a good time together,” says Miller, now a retired accountant and one of the inn’s few surviving staff members from that time period. “The employees and the student workers were like one big family. We looked after everyone’s interests. And we treated the customers special, for we never knew if he or she would be one of our professors.”

Miller’s first job at the inn was cleaning tables and filling ketchup, salt, and pepper containers. He was the spokesperson for the student cafeteria employees and met several times with Carl Moser, the legendary 18-year manager who regular patrons said always dressed smartly and ran a tight ship.

Mildred Sparrow, who tag-teamed with Miller, was the cafeteria’s daytime cashier from 1962 to 1988. Her son, Lee Sparrow, a retired Chapel Hill police officer, treasures The Carolina Inn stories that his late mom shared with him. “It was behind the scenes that made The Carolina Inn great,” he says. “Celebrities came through and talked with her, but my mom didn’t think nothing of it. It made no difference if it was Dean Smith or Dean Jones or Danny Miller coming through.”

• • •

As I grew, so did the university. Discussions of adding to the inn to keep up with UNC’s growth peppered many dinner conversations in the early ’60s. I was more interested in slurping up that last spoonful of red Jell-O and stretching my legs. I moved from table to table through a tall forest of genius professors and yawning graduate students. I weaved through the wood-paneled pillars, galloping across the dining room the way I had seen a blue-horned Rameses charge across the field at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

The inn’s second cafeteria closed when I was in the second grade and was converted into today’s lobby. That same year, the inn’s original 1924 chairs and sofas (with scuff marks, for sure, from my first shoes) were sold off at state surplus property sales. When my dad finished his medical residency, he was drafted into the Vietnam War, but not until we celebrated his achievement on the shady, spring-green grass of The Carolina Inn’s courtyard. Dad pinned on his U.S. Air Force insignia and rank as renovations of the inn were completed in 1972.

The Carolina Inn cafeteria in the 1950s

After many years, the cafeteria at The Carolina Inn (pictured circa 1950s) closed in 1994. Photography courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill

A new hallway was built that paralleled the Pittsboro Street entrance and led to the “new cafeteria,” complete with carpet and a giant wooden circus parade. Carved from California redwood by a German craftsman in 1948, the 25-foot-long procession was moved from the Monogram Club Building in the mid ’70s to entertain us as we waited in line.

As with most living rooms in their seventh decade, The Carolina Inn was believed to be beyond repair by the early ’90s. In 1993, the decision was made to lease the management and give oversight of an extensive renovation to the DoubleTree Hotels Corporation. The third and final cafeteria closed the following year. One last lunch was served to more than 300 cafeteria regulars, bringing to an end the nearly 70-year Chapel Hill treasure. The inn then closed for the first time in its history for a nine-month overhaul.

Staff at the time of the cafeteria's closing

Staff and guests at the time of the cafeteria closing. Photography courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill

A commemorative cafeteria tray from the Carolina Inn, signed with the names of the staff and guests

Staff and guests signed a commemorative tray that’s now on display near the gift shop. Photography courtesy of The Carolina Inn

When the hotel reopened in 1995, the last cafeteria had been converted into the John Sprunt Hill Ballroom. The tired, carpeted corridor to the cafeteria had been refreshed with shiny black-and-white tiles that echoed the checkerboard floor of the Old Well Room.

At 100 years old, the nonprofit hotel — still owned by the university and now managed by Destination by Hyatt — hosts thousands of guests from around the world each year. Hill would be glad to know that the inn still gives generously to the North Carolina Collection at the Wilson Library.

Today, the halls of the inn read like a family scrapbook. Photos of North Carolina greats who gathered here feature scientist John Motley Morehead III, who commissioned the university’s planetarium, and explorer and UNC professor Elisha Mitchell, after whom the highest peak of the Appalachians is named. Framed photographs with detailed captions tell of U.S. and university presidents, Hollywood performers, professional athletes, and many others who have visited the inn.

Perhaps more important than the photos of the eminent and esteemed are those of the inn’s employees. The Mildred Sparrows, the Carl Mosers, and the Danny Millers of the past 100 years — they are the ones who most demonstrate the inn’s hospitality. They are the ones who embody the timeless spirit of this place, welcoming guests here as they would to their own homes.

• • •

The bell tower tolls again, interrupting my hallway time travel, and I head to Crossroads Chapel Hill, the inn’s restaurant. I order my usual, the “Inn Tray,” a throwback to the countless cafeteria trays that we regulars pushed down the line through the decades. The lunch crowd today isn’t much different from that of the inn’s past cafeterias. Professors and international scholars discuss their research. Local ladies celebrate a girlfriend’s engagement. Prospective students and their parents refuel before a campus tour.

Guests stroll the halls of The Carolina Inn

Guests who stroll The Carolina Inn’s historic hallways follow in the footsteps of the famous visitors and dedicated staff members whose photos line the walls. Photography courtesy of The Carolina Inn

Every building at UNC delivers an education; The Carolina Inn is no exception. Like any wise centenarian, she has taught us much: To remember the pillars in our lives, the people who believed in us, invested in us, and stood by us. To never give up when we are weary. That we can be a joyful place where friends celebrate happy occasions, but that we must also be a place where friends find comfort amid loss. During challenges and changes, she has modeled style and grace.

The Carolina Inn
211 Pittsboro Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27516
(919) 933-2001

100 Years of The Carolina Inn

In celebration of its centennial, The Carolina Inn is hosting a number of public events this year, including historic tours on graduation weekend, May 10 through 12, and a Centennial Tea on May 19. For more information, visit destinationhotels.com/carolina-inn/100th-anniversary-celebration.

This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Marshéle Carter

Marshéle Carter helps nonprofits with communication strategy, teaches writing and journalism at several universities, and enjoys being a contributing writer for Our State.