By Laurie Paolicelli
The Carolina Inn, a colonial-revival-style structure on the western rim of the UNC campus in the heart of Chapel Hill, is the sort of place people go to celebrate the important milestones, the moments we tend to measure the rest of our lives by. One step onto those floors – with their signature black and white terrazzo surface – and you know you’ve entered a charmed and storied place.
It’s beautiful in a way that lifts your heart and has been for almost 100 years. This doesn’t happen by itself, of course. Hundreds of men and women pour their hearts and their talents into keeping the wheels turning here, and it’s a source of pride for them all.
Until the COVID 19 pandemic shuttered the hospitality industry, the Inn was fully staffed and in position to host hundreds of events in 2020.
“The hardest part of this pandemic was laying off and furloughing more than 100 employees, many of whom have been here most of their working life. It’s family, a home away from home for many of our staff,” says General Manager Mark Sherburne.
Sherburne is not sure what the rehire process will look like. He’s hopeful that one day soon there will be a green light that allows hotel and restaurant staff to come back to work.
Pheron Sledge is one of those employees who is hopeful that day will come soon. Sledge has been with the Inn as a cook for two decades. “I miss the camaraderie, and I often think of the Sunday brunch customers I got to know so well. It was like having family for dinner. And you could feel the excitement the entire building had right before a wedding.”
Sledge says just being in the prettiest building in Chapel Hill was fun. “I have always worked in historic buildings and the Carolina Inn has been my favorite. I feel a real pride at being part of the staff there because we’re a team. We share a love of working with people and making their event a memorable occasion.”
The Carolina Inn became the elegant destination it is today out of necessity.
John Sprunt Hill, UNC class of 1889, came back to visit Chapel Hill in the fall of 1921 for a meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees. With limited lodging options, he settled for a rundown hotel on Franklin Street, along the northern border of campus. The heat of a Southern autumn and the pitter-patter of little mice feet kept him awake all night.
He purchased the property where in the 1700s the town’s namesake “Chapel on the Hill” once stood. He hired architect Arthur Nash, who was in the process of designing UNC’s Wilson Library, Graham Memorial Building, and Spencer Dormitory, to design the new inn.
For almost one hundred years the Inn has attracted family, celebrity, sport’s stars, and travelers who want more than just a place to stay: they want an experience to remember.
Jackie Helvy, local Carrboro resident, loves her memories and cherishes the sweet connections she made there.
“My favorite customers ever were Marcel Marceau, who brought me down two signed photos and programs from his performance on campus for my kids that night, and Billy Preston, who gave me tickets to his concert after I made him a hot toddy for a sore throat.”
So many everyday joys have been postponed or stolen by COVID-19. One of them is the simple joy of enjoying dinner with friends, watching sports at a favorite pub with our buddies, having a chat with other party goers at a loved one’s wedding, or even simply going outside.
In 2024 the Carolina Inn will be 100 years old, a milestone that will be celebrated by the university, the town, and by the staff. But exactly how that will happen, no one knows just yet. That future seems far away. “But in the midst of all the fear and uncertainty, one thing shines through,” says Mark Sherburne, “The longing for interconnectedness and purpose and the resilience and solidarity of the human spirit in the time of crisis.”
In an odd way, a hotel – especially one like the Carolina Inn – can be a symbol for what awaits us on the other side: a freedom to celebrate, to mingle with strangers, to make new friends, to travel. And to do it with our families, the ones we were born into and the ones we forge on our own.
The restaurant is open on New Year’s Eve.
Pheron Sledge, longtime employee at The Carolina Inn, now on furlough, shares some insights into what makes the Inn a good neighbor.
- Nicest comments I hear: “The Inn’s charm to me is that it is both grand and like home.”
- The dining areas have seen a lot of change but guests always seem excited to be there — no matter what it looks like.
- Hurricane Fran is impossible to forget. Everyone pitched in, made guests comfortable, and cooked around the clock to keep up with room service. I remember handing ice out to neighbors. We were a hub. Guests came out the next morning and were so surprised at what had happened over night.
- ·There was a very big snow and ice storm back in the late 1990s. A bunch of us stayed overnight to be sure that we could be in the kitchen early enough to get breakfasts out and room service orders to the guests. The Red Cross came in and gave the staff handmade blankets. Management made sure people could get home safely and sent them with boxes of hot meals. We were a community. We have always been a community of all different kinds of people who pull together.
- It’s fun to meet someone while discussing what they like in their omelet. I’ll remember their requests the next time they come in and they love that.
- I’ve met people from my home town of Philly to people from the other side of the world — all while chatting over an omelet.
- Takes about 6 minutes to make an average sized omelet and you can answer a bunch of questions about Chapel Hill/Campus and the Inn in that amount of time.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.