“The Raleigh Building, the Raleigh Building, that’s all he talks about.” My mother rolled her eyes as she lamented my father’s closing moments. She was right: until he bid his final good night to Raleigh, Bob Wollman was synonymous with the Raleigh Building. It was his dominion, just as it had been his father’s. From leaseholder to secretary, everyone in that building could count on him to cater to their needs and provide for their comfort in every season.
The whole business started on July 30, 1945, in the era of crank-operated adding machines and black rotary phones, when the partnership Wollman, Heyman and Katz bought the Raleigh Building for $350,000. My grandfather, Sidney Wollman (who built Grosvenor Gardens Apartments in Raleigh) managed the building, and word was that he also frequently managed to upset just about everybody in it. Nevertheless, he presided in grand style.
He hired two of the best-looking black women in Raleigh, Leola E. Lee and Mabel Smith, to drive the stick-shift elevators, and outfitted them in well-tailored, brass-buttoned navy uniforms. Bernard Rogers polished the brass elevator doors in the lobby every night
and kept the terrazzo floor shining. A few fingerprints on anything were reason enough for my grandfather to summon the painters. His partners Lazarus Heyman and Perry Katz, developers in Danbury, CT, were always alert to every item on the monthly reports from their Raleigh investment. A $35 expense for the 1945 office Christmas party brought this terse inquiry from Mr. Heyman: “We note a $35 expense for the office party. Did you have Jayne Mansfield appearing in person, or just what was the pitch?”
The site of the Raleigh Building, the southwest corner of Hargett and Fayetteville Streets, held the first permanent home of the Raleigh Banking and Trust Company, which was founded on September 12, 1865 just months after the Civil War ended. Nicknamed the “Round Steps Bank”,
that structure was replaced in 1913 by a 3-story Neo-classical Revival structure (below) designed by Atlanta architect Philip Thornton Marye.
The building was engineered for the additional stories: you can feel the structure’s substance in the unshakeable solidity and silence of the lobby. The marble stairs and wrought iron balustrade leading from the lobby up to the third floor are the only elements remaining from the 1913 structure.
In 1928 Raleigh was growing substantially, and the Bank’s officers decided to add those eight floors, creating a Chicago-style office tower of steel-frame design, its engineering an affair vastly different from the original 3-story structure.
A portion of its south face was inset (think of the letter “E” with an abbreviated center element), yielding a light well which allows light to enter in case another tall building were erected immediately to the south.
While the early autumn sun shone on September 15, 1930, The Raleigh Banking and Trust Company failed (along with at least 100 other NC banks), exactly a year after the completion of the additional 8 floors. The building went into receivership, remaining in limbo until 1934 when the Massachusetts Life Insurance Company purchased it. A year later, MLIC began more renovations. The limestone columns guarding the first three stories were removed and replaced with simple brick piers.
I’ve seen many people wonder with pained expressions why those stately, classy columns were removed. My guess is this: a new age had begun in the US, and the building’s new owners chose to remove the more prominent reminders of both the failed bank and the Great Depression. Perhaps those columns, once symbols of stability and permanence, had become pretentious impostors. Whatever the case, the Raleigh Building shed its Neo-classical garb and took on the more informal, more dynamic Moderne style, the only tall building in Raleigh which made such a stylistic shift.
In the 1960s, my grandfather gradually let go of the reins and passed the management duties to my father, Bob Wollman. With a small but mighty staff who built many feet of walls, hung acres of vinyl wallcovering, replaced nearly every window, added the “missing” bathrooms (originally there was only one per floor) and dropped the ceilings, my dad ran the place in the classic Mom & Pop fashion. Our own night crew did all the cleaning and kept those brass elevator doors shining. Dad yelled at, cajoled, and made fast friends with the elevator mechanics who wrestled with the ups, downs and stickies of the automatic elevators installed in 1961. And with a pencil, his favorite office tool, he spent Saturdays keeping the payroll records on paper. Everyone loved the building. My father’s unceasing, insistent diligence and the building’s easy, relaxed atmosphere—strange bedfellows indeed—meant that tenants stuck around.
We built offices essentially to order. The head man on the job, Jesse Bean, was a master carpenter who overbuilt everything. His was a world of hammers, hand saws, and nails—pounds and pounds of nails. You could dance on the shelves he built. He joined pieces of wood with a precision few men ever achieve. Whatever he built was there to stay and could be demolished only with heroic efforts, yielding lots of little pieces of wood. Jesse was a large and strong man who worked his way, without compromise. My father gave Jesse the plans and then steered clear of him. The nail industry surely went into a tailspin when Jesse retired.
Southern accents and cigarette smoke ruled the air inside. Man, that was one smoky building. Ashtrays were mounted inside the elevators and even on the bathroom partitions. No one thought twice about it. In some offices, most notably a law office that specialized in saving the souls and licenses of people who liked to drink and drive, everything was yellow and sticky. Fortunately, the windows in the building are proper windows and can be opened for fresh air just like the windows in your house (but unlike the sealed, fixed glazing systems in modern office towers).
In 1990, on the heels of bad news from my father’s doctor, an order taller than the building itself came one spring morning when a pleasant woman from the City of Raleigh breezed into his office and summarily informed him that he had to bring the Raleigh Building up to the current high-rise code. That meant installing fire sprinklers, an alarm system, and perhaps a second stairwell—the last an impossible undertaking which would have meant the end of the structure as a viable business. As was his wont, he got to work immediately. With a lobbyist’s help, my dad’s efforts moved the NC State Legislature to pass a law protecting the few older high-rise buildings in North Carolina from what they saw as the capricious application of building codes. They called it the “Bob Wollman Law.”
My favorite hangouts in the building were at the top, where I could contemplate the mysterious hollow in the center of the stairwell
and see all the way to the bottom as I wondered whether my spittle would land there; or see the whole of Raleigh from the rooftop with a mere 360- degree turn of my body.
And in the penthouse, high above it all, mine was the thrill of seeing and hearing the elevator machinery at work. The electro-mechanical controllers clicked and clacked as the elevator cars, tied to six steel cables moved by huge rotating drums, rose and fell within the shaft on sturdy rails.
When I played there on Saturdays with friends, we’d stage elevator drag races. Owing to this early exposure to elevators, I have no fear of them whatsoever. They still fascinate me, and I love to ride in them. The safety elevator, the brainchild of Elisha Graves Otis, is the sine qua non of high-rise buildings, making them far less “breath-taking” to scale.
Though the indestructible original elevator hoisting machines remain on duty (they don’t make them like they used to),
the building is now in the capable hands of Steve and Justin Lewis of The Raleigh Building, LLC. They’ve replaced the clickety-clack elevator controllers with silent, sophisticated Otis computer modules, refinished the heart-of-pine flooring buried beneath the carpeting on some floors, and brought the building up to the high-rise code. In the process, they’re keeping a significant part of Raleigh’s history flourishing. The love of the job, and the building, is in their blood.
Were he around today, my grandfather would undoubtedly find work for the painters. But both he and my father would be very pleased with the Lewises’ herculean efforts.
The Raleigh Building has been designated a Raleigh Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is this year celebrating the centenary of the original three stories.
Except as noted, all photos are the author’s.