Repurposed YWCA saves local history

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Evelyn Terry

by Eric Ginsburg

A former YWCA in Winston-Salem’s West End Historic District, built with famous brick-maker George Black’s craftsmanship, will find a new home as high-end condos.

The last time Bill Benton moved, he said he would never do it again. But one element of a former YWCA building he is rehabbing into residential property convinced him to move in.

“The floors in here are the same as the old apartments in Paris,” said Benton, who used to frequent an apartment in the City of Lights. “I’m convinced they copied the parquet flooring.”

Peering through the window of what will be his apartment, Benton looked on as two men coated the oak floors. It is the only unit of the eventual seven in the building that already has a doggie door.

“The only problem is when I decided to do this instead of building a house, I had two dogs and now I have four,” he said.

And Benton has two geriatric cats at home. He’s lost count of exactly how many populate his real estate office a few blocks from the YWCA building — somewhere around seven cats stroll platforms near the ceiling in the front room and an expansive, fenced-in play place outside.

Benton joked that he should’ve quit real estate after constructing a cat castle of sorts in his office. He’s been in the industry for about 40 years, since getting out of the Army, and looking at the cat complex or the YWCA, it’s easy to see why.

The level of detail and consideration for his feline friends mirrors the Glade Street YWCA, where restoration is winding down. Benton said he expects the project to be completed by the end of the month or in the first week of August.

Three units on the top floor, including his, and four below now fill the once-vacant property.The largest, at 2,700 square feet, used to be the building’s auditorium. Somewhere there is an 8mm film of Benton as a boy, acting in a Cub Scouts play on the auditorium stage, and if his memory serves he filled the role of King Arthur.

The adjacent unit formerly served as the cafeteria, and like the others, interior walls and staircases needed to be gutted and rebuilt to function properly as housing, though columns inside remain.

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Benton grew up nearby, on the other side of Reynolds High School.

“My mother loved to come here for Sunday lunch when I was 10, 11 years old,” he recalled.

The building and the neighborhood around it has long held significance for Benton, who suggested turning the property into residential units more than 10 years ago but was turned down by the Y, he said. He worried once it went on the market that the building would be razed and replaced with commercial development and a parking lot.

“I’ve done several substantial rehabs, but this one… I just like this neighborhood a lot,” he said, adding that he has had an office or home in the community for decades.

To create the Glade, as it will be called, Benton tore down an addition on the building and a freestanding gymnasium. Where the gym once stood, Benton intends to build about a dozen single-family homes, at least one of which will be LEED certified.

The certification is a necessary part of the plan to obtain LEED certification for the project as a whole — technically called LEED-ND for neighborhood development. Marty Marion, a partner at Metropolis Architecture in Winston-Salem who is working with Benton on the certification, said it would be one of the only projects in the Southeast to achieve the rare designation if they are successful.

“If we accomplish this it will be somewhat of an exceptional case,” Marion said. “The process has been initiated but I think to get a LEED-ND takes five years.”

Marion said they will encourage the single-family homebuyers to pursue LEED certification on their homes, adding that preserving the YWCA alone is a “very sustainable act in itself.”

“It deserved a second life, so to speak,” he said.

There were several challenges associated with transforming the Glade Street YWCA, Benton said, chief among them determining where to put trash and recycling. But at least one decision came easily: keep all of George Henry Black’s bricks.

Black, who hand made bricks in Winston-Salem, left his mark on numerous significant buildings in the city, and his craftsmanship is evident at the Glade. Coupled with the sharp, detail-oriented eye of the original architect, Black’s bricks provide a stately and custom-built edge to the structure.

All of Black’s relatives, including his granddaughter Evelyn Terry, helped him craft the bricks at some time or another, Terry said. Now a state representative, Terry has fought for the preservation of her grandfather’s work and memory.

“He’s well known and the whole 9 yards but it’s just a story that I have to tell and that needs to be told right,” she said.

In 2009 a historical marker was erected in the city to the African-American brickmaker, and a statue of Black stands outside the Forsyth County Government Center downtown on Chestnut Street. There’s even a portrait of him, painted in 1972 by Elsie D. Popkin, hanging on the second floor of the Milton Rhodes Arts Center.

The colorful painting of Black resting on a porch suggests a kindhearted demeanor and an obvious dignity to the man who Terry said walked here from Randolph County with his father and brother seeking a better life. He was born in 1879.

Popkin painted a second portrait of Black, but Terry laments that it’s with another relative at a retirement home in Guilford County.

Though the painting may be out of Terry’s control, she’s still doing all she can to preserve her grandfather’s legacy. That includes keeping numerous binders with photos and documents, rescuing bricks from his former kiln and trying to save any remaining structures.

While Benton may not have family ties to Black, he expressed a similarly strong admiration for the man’s skill. All of Black’s bricks at the Glade — including custom-made, curved bricks — were preserved and used during construction.

It is that element of historic preservation, from the bricks to the parquet floors, that drew Benton to the restoration project in the first place, because they just don’t make them like they used to, he said.