I think I was generally aware that some buildings would be demolished as
construction of new buildings on campus takes place. My general awareness
transformed into concrete reality when I read in the most recent issue of the
Alumni Review that the Porthole Building is definitely going to be demolished.
No timetable was included, but many UNC alums will certainly feel a loss when
the old building located in Porthole Alley bids this world goodbye. Some people
call it progress.
Several times recently, one of the message boards has had threads on nostalgia for UNC and Chapel Hill. The threads have been unbelievably long and some of the posts are touching. One of the things that has surprised me is the number of viewers who comment on the good rolls they served at the Porthole Restaurant when they were students. Yes, you heard me right. I said rolls.
Surprisingly, I never ate at the Porthole Restaurant. I commuted from Raleigh to Chapel Hill each day when I was a student and, for some reason, never had an occasion to visit the Porthole even though I was very much aware of its existence. I did visit other Chapel Hill fixtures such as the Zoom Zoom, the Rathskellar, Goody's, the Ranch House and an old house behind the church at Franklin and Rosemary that housed an Italian/diner type restaurant and was operated by a gentleman who returned to Greece when he decided it was time to retire. It's amazing how little I know about the names of streets in Chapel Hill and my lack of knowledge in this regard undoubtedly springs from the fact that very little of my out of class time was spent in Chapel Hill. I may even be wrong on the names of the streets at the main intersection in downtown Chapel Hill referred to earlier.
Back to the Porthole. I gave much thought to the fact that alums remembered the rolls at the Porthole and tried to decide whether it was because the rolls were so good or if it was that there was something about food and nostalgia. I find myself frequently trying to find food items that I enjoyed in my younger years and I wondered if this kind of thing could be an explanation for the fond memories of the rolls.
Since I now have the time to pursue things of this sort, I set out to see if I could determine what it was about the Porthole rolls that caused them to remain in the minds of many after so long a time lapse.
I began my research by informing several people who still reside in Chapel Hill what I was doing. After they gave me a strange look, they agreed to ask around to see if anyone knew of the whereabouts of the people who ran the Porthole when it was operational.
I then remembered that a high school buddy of mine from Raleigh owned and operated the Carolina Coffee Shop for many years, and I decided to see if he could help me in my search. Bingo. He could and he did.
According my friend, the Porthole was owned by a gentleman from Durham who also owned a book store in Durham. When he died, his wife tried to operate the restaurant for a while, but she encountered some difficulties in doing so, and she decided to close the place. She then sold the building to the University and that brings us to the point that it will be demolished to make way for other structures and entrance ways.
I asked my friend what was so special about the Porthole rolls and his response was surprising. He said that the same type of rolls were served at both the Porthole and the Carolina Coffee Shop. It was a basic yeast roll that can be found in any cook book. Sometimes, the rolls have other names such as Parker House rolls but, but the basic recipe is a yeast roll recipe. He says the secret to the rolls is to serve them straight out of the oven , preferably while they are still warm.
My friend, who no longer owns the Carolina Coffee Shop, says he missed and still misses the Porthole when it closed since the two restaurants complimented each other. He didn't specify exactly how this was, but I would imagine a spill over of diners from one place would automatically go to the other since they were only a few yards apart.
So there you have it. You now know the secret of the Porthole Restaurant rolls. It may be fitting, if I can find out exactly when the Porthole building will be demolished, to see if I can prevail upon the management of the Carolina Coffee Shop to bake up a batch and serve them to onlookers when the final deed is to be done. If so, you will be the first ones to receive an invitation to watch a Chapel Hill institution disappear forever. The memories may take a little longer.
" Our first duty is to enable the students to catch the spirit of the great masters of thought: our next is to the people, to aid in developing our resources. We owe a duty too to our women, and should open our postgraduate courses to them."
Edwin Anderson Alderman, President of the University of North Carolina, 1897.