Christmas in July, A Raleigh Retrospective

During the festive Jane’s Walk weekend, I met the owner of one of the buildings featured on my walking tour. We became instant friends and chatted throughout the subsequent tour lead by Mitchell Silver. For weeks after Jane’s Walk, we exchanged emails. He has family ties dating back to before Raleigh’s founding so my quarter century of North Carolinahood seems infantile in comparison. Nevertheless, our email chain contained a treasure trove of Raleigh history as we traded anecdotes and expressed a shared affinity for our city. Our correspondence proves that it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’ve identified with a place for 250 years or 25 years – that place is home.

From these emails, I learned a very interesting story about an unassuming downtown building. I should save it for Christmastime, as it is a story about Christmas. But I just couldn’t wait that long and why would I withhold a fascinating Raleigh story from you? Patience is a virtue that I don’t have.

This story begins in 1964 when the BB&T Building (today it is called Capital Bank Plaza) was erected at 333 Fayetteville Street. Designed by Emory Roth in association with local architect, Milton Small, the sleek grid of granite, steel, and glass exemplifies a very Mies Van der Rohe-inspired style. At the time it was built, this modernist look was very appealing and well, modern.

Aerial View of Downtown Raleigh 1966
Aerial View of Downtown Raleigh 1966, State Archives

Quickly gaining critical acclaim and national attention, something big had to happen in order to celebrate the grandeur of Raleigh’s newest and tallest skyscraper. What better time to do some celebrating than at Christmastime? Building owners, Albert G. McCarthy Jr. and Albert G. McCarthy III decided that a lavish party was in order.

And lavish it was.

On November 13th, 1967, children from one to 92 to were invited to see a 50-foot North Carolina Fraser fir be gingerly dropped on top of the BB&T building. The block from Cabarrus to Lenoir Streets was reserved for public spectators and furnished with Pepsi Cola and Jessie Jones Hot Dogs on Holsum Rolls for refreshment. According to the children’s book The Christmas Tree that Flew to Fayetteville Street by Irene Chesire (c. 1971), the giant Christmas tree “flew there just as a cardinal flies to a favorite perch.” But in the eyes of adults, it was a helicopter that delivered the tree.

For the Christmas tree lighting, Raleigh’s finest were invited to the BB&T Building’s magnificent lobby to enjoy a ritzy affair on November 15th. The party was catered by Raleigh City Club and attended by the governor, Dan Moore and of course Santa Claus. Party-goers gathered round closed circuit television to watch the lighting that was happening 15 floors above. If that wasn’t enough of a spectacle, guests ogled at the ice sculpture replica of the BB&T Building complete with a Christmas tree on top made out of strawberries.

Downtown Raleigh Christmas 1967
Photo Courtesy of Don Carter

I for one, developed a strong case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when I read The Raleigh Times article recapping the event.

“The cocktail buffet was gorgeous. Anyone who loves seafood got a glimpse of heaven…hot trays of barbecued shrimp, chicken drumettes, oysters casino, deviled crab and lobster thermidor.

The dinner buffet…featured roast standing rib, peppercorn round roast, stuffed cabbage, lobster thermidor, ham, turkey, ox tongue, roast pheasant, salami cones, smoked whitefish, chicken liver pate, pommes Parisienne, corn on the cob, salads, fruits and cheeses, all beautifully decorated with fruits, flowers and relishes.

A delectable anjou rose was poured during dinner, followed by the king of champagnes Don Perignon…The evening was topped off with Irish coffee prepared in flaming brilliance.” 

-“It was a Smash of a Tree Lighting Party” by Lucy Coulbourn, Times Woman’s Editor, November 16th 1967

There hadn’t been a party as exquisite as this one since the early days of the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel.

Now, what do you think about airdropping a giant Christmas tree on top of the PNC Building this year? Wouldn’t that be something to see!

BB&T Building Christmas 1967 Raleigh, NC
Photo Courtesy of Don Carter