Stories — Winston-Salem’s race to the sky

Winston-Salem is like a small town with skyscrapers. [PHOTO BY CALEB SMALLWOOD]

by Brian Clarey

photos by Caleb Smallwood

The lights are on again at Reynolds Tower, strong spots marking the outlines and crenellations that bring to life what had been the blackened tooth of the nighttime skyline. It’s good to have her back. It means something to the city, something spiritual, and it’s a living reminder of how the whole thing got started.

Sometimes locals call Winston-Salem a “small town with skyscrapers.” There’s something to it.

From the rarified air of the Piedmont Club, on the 19th floor of the glossy BB&T Building in downtown Winston-Salem, the whole city looks like a brief interruption from the trees.

On the north and west sides the canopy begins at the end of the concrete border just a few blocks away and extends to the horizon, where a suggestion of mountains breaks the plane.

From up here the city is all rooftops and parking lots, with clipped glimpses of street life in between. The only things that make sense are the other tall buildings that share this heightened existence. Like giraffes among zebras, they alone regard each other at eye level.

Just to the northeast, the old Reynolds Building hides her faded beauty behind her taller and shinier offspring, the Winston Tower, which came along 40 years after the grande dame was built, the front edge of an age of glass and steel. Together they comprise almost half of Winston-Salem’s distinct skyline, anchoring the balance between the old and the new.

The arms race that is the downtown Winston-Salem cityscape is a history lesson writ large in the sky.
The arms race that is the downtown Winston-Salem cityscape is a history lesson writ large in the sky. [PHOTO BY CALEB SMALLWOOD]

Everybody knows the story of the old Reynolds Building, which when it came up in 1929 was the tallest building south of Baltimore: 21 stories of marble and granite, built largely on proceeds from Camel cigarettes, put out by Reynolds in 1913, which were by ’29 the most popular brand in the country.

For a sweet moment in the early part of the last century, tobacco had made Winston-Salem the economic capitol of the South, made manifest in a building boom through the ’10s and ’20s that resembled, at times, an arms race. This aerial battle would come to define the skyline as we know it today.

Architects Shreve & Lamb built the Reynolds Building as a prototype of the Empire State Building in New York City, which would go up just a few years later — for decades its staff would send Father’s Day cards down from Manhattan every year. But the building emptied out in 2010 when the last Reynolds American employees moved into the Plaza Building next door and it went on the market.

It’s currently being renovated into hotel, office, residence and restaurant space. The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel and the restaurant, the Katherine, should be open by spring. The exterior lights came on just in time for the holidays.

But before the Reynolds Building went into hibernation, and certainly after, it was literally overshadowed by the Winston Tower, which locals of a certain age refer to as the box the Reynolds Tower came in. Through the northeast windows of the Piedmont Club, the monolithic Winston Tower dominates the view.

  • George K Dukes III

    Great piece but it would have been nice to reference Integon Insurance as the company who built the GMAC Tower. They were later purchased by GM and turned into GMAC Insurance. I still call it the Integon tower and I’m sure other locals might as well.

  • Winston Watchman

    Great long read on Winston’s skyscrapers. It was appreciate the fact that you focused some attention on the Winston Tower and the GMAC building. Two buildings that often get overshadowed by the iconic RJR building and the more modern BB&T building and Wells Fargo building. I look forward to rereading this story and taking some notes. I would recommend folks in Winston read this article and then taking a long walk through downtown Winston and absorb the history of Winston’s skyline. The skyline has a story to tell.