by Jordan Green
An architectural monument of the tobacco industry will get new life as a boutique hotel and apartment complex, while putting an exclamation point on downtown Winston-Salem’s rebirth.
There could hardly be a less suspenseful decision when the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission meets on Wednesday to consider a local historic landmark designation for the Reynolds Building.
After all, the iconic 1929 skyscraper, which served as a template for the Empire State Building in New York City, is already listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The application for the National Register, submitted by consultant Jen Hembree, rhapsodizes, “Designed by the world-famous, New York architectural firm of Shreve and Lamb (later Shreve, Lamb and Harmon) in 1928 to 1929, the Reynolds Building’s height — the tallest in North Carolina — and more importantly, its ‘exotically modern Art Deco style’ made it a Winston-Salem landmark upon completion.”
The architectural poetry of the building is captured in a description by Catherine W. Bishir in her 2009 volume, North Carolina Architecture: “The vividly vertical design lifts the eye from street to sky in soaring strips to the narrow observation tower. Art Deco ornament of carved stone and Benedict metalwork accents the setbacks and enriches the lobby floor. A tobacco-leaf theme, executed in copper and bronze hues, frames the deep-set street entrances and makes the elevator lobby into a gleaming treasury.”
From the time of its completion in 1929 through 1966, the Reynolds Building was the tallest in the state, surpassing the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, which held the distinction as the tallest in the South during the 1920s.
Designation as a local historic landmark makes the owner eligible for a tax deferral of up to 50 percent in perpetuity from the Forsyth County Tax Department. The owner would likely receive a smaller tax break because the application includes only the exterior, said Michelle McCullough, project planner for the City-County Planning Board.
The 22-story building was purchased by a partnership between Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group of San Francisco and PMC Property Group of Philadelphia for $7.8 million from the RJ Reynolds company in May.
Considering that the interior is irrelevant to the local historic landmark status sought by the owners, an opportunity for members of the historic resources commission to tour the building on Monday afternoon was more or less a treat. Winston-Salem City Councilman Jeff MacIntosh and his wife, Susan, leapt at the chance to join the tour.
“This is all for play,” MacIntosh said, noting that when the historic resources commission’s recommendation for local historic landmark status reaches council next month, approval is all but guaranteed.
MacIntosh admired several pieces of undulating wood paneling removed from a suite of offices on the 10th floor.
“That would go great in a bar,” he said.
Looking east from the third floor, he marveled at the changes that have transpired over the past 15 years in the old buildings that once comprised the industrial muscle of Reynolds Tobacco Co., now harboring BioTech Place, the jewel of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, and the nascent Bailey Park, along with other buildings that have been refashioned into loft apartments.
Across the intersection of Fourth and Main streets, another developer is rehabilitating the old Forsyth County Courthouse for apartments. The two distinguished neighbors are both equipped with chutes funneling debris into Dumpsters.
Hembree’s application to the National Register captures the Reynolds Building’s place in city’s unfolding pageant of redevelopment.
“With recognition of its historic architectural significance and its contribution to Winston-Salem’s early-to-mid-20th Century tobacco industry,” she wrote, “it is hoped it might continue to play an important role in the 21st Century growth and rebirth of the city’s downtown.”
Upper-floor elevator lobbies retain black-marble flooring and rose-colored marble walls, but the surrounding space has been largely gutted. Work is underway simultaneously on the first six floors designated for hotel rooms, and floors 7-19, which will house apartments.
Ron Davis with PMC Property Group said the owners aim to open the hotel and restaurant in September, and begin leasing apartments in mid 2016. Davis told members of the historic resources commission that while the owners have yet to settle on a price point, the apartments could rent from $1,200 to $1,500 per month.
Floor-length mirrors at each end of a short hallway on the third floor give the illusion of a finished corridor, and a small, furnished hotel room provides a model for the eventual product. Elsewhere on the floor, metal piecework fastened to the floor demarcates future hotel rooms.
On the sixth floor signage mimicking the stylized building’s ziggurat structure and Art Deco style announces the company’s Camel, Kool and Pall Mall business units, another for R&D Innovation, one for support brands and a suite of offices for “new growth initiatives.”
McCullough, the project planner, rushed MacIntosh to finish his inspection of the sixth floor so she could shepherd commission members to another property on Wednesday’s agenda. As she held the elevator for him, she chided, “You’re gonna be trapped in here overnight. You can tell us about the ghosts. It’s an Art Deco building. Every Art Deco building is haunted.”
Tobacco motifs and marble can be found in the elevator lobbies throughout the height of the building, but the grandest site is the first floor entry foyer, elevator bank and octagonal hall. The black marble floor and Ste. Genevieve Golden Vein marble walls pale in comparison to the grandeur of the mahogany wood ceiling, with an elaborate design described by Hebree as “swirling curled leaves, stylized sunbursts and tobacco flowers, accented with flat leaves and undulating lines.” The burnished gleam of the ceiling is thanks to “a few pounds of gold leaf,” Davis said.
Tobacco leaves are everywhere, including in the metalwork above the Main Street entrance.
“When you step outside, note the Art Deco stylized tobacco leaves,” McCullough said. “They used a lot of stylized tobacco images. That was important because this building represented the industry.”