by Jessie Ammons
photograph by Travis Long
Pota Vallas, 107, took a 16-day Atlantic voyage to reach America in 1924. “I came from a little Greek town caled Chrysafa. It was like Garner or Cary, outside of Sparta,” she says. “I was a little country girl.” She was 16, coming to work in her father’s candy and ice cream shop on Fayetteville Street.
Within a year, she’d met and married her late husband, George Vallas, and within two they had their first child. Roxanne, now 89, is the eldest of four children: Harriet and Victoria have passed, and Ted is 84.
In addition to raising her family, Pota Vallas attended part-time night classes to perfect her English, working toward her version of the American dream: “I wanted to open a store.” The name of the Hillsborough Street interior design and furniture shop she opened in 1962, National Art Interiors, was inspired by the National brand sewing machines she loved as a child in Greece, and a nod to the American dream she was realizing. “I worked hard,” she says proudly. George Vallas was supportive, but it was Pota’s moxie that kept the business going. “I worked every day. I was at the store at 5 a.m., and at 5 that night I was still at the store.”
National Art Interiors became a beloved Raleigh institution and didn’t close until the mid-1990s, when Vallas was in her 80s. Vallas dismisses her work ethic as necessary and credits someone else for her success: “I prayed to my Lord every day, every night, every step I took. You walk in His line and find everything beautiful.”
If it took Vallas until her mid-80s to retire, it’s taken her until 107 to officially proclaim herself off-duty. She still lives at home – a modernist house architect Fred Carter Williams helped design. It’s next-door to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, which she and George Vallas were instrumental in founding.
“My house was my true dream,” she says. And she relishes it, spending her days in the sunroom, often visiting with her two children, 12 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren. Including spouses, Pota Vallas’s immediate family is 46-people strong – a village of her own right off of Lead Mine Road.