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.

The Winston Tower: 301 N. Main St.
Built in 1966
29 floors
Tallest building in the state until 1971

An entire block of low downtown buildings came down to make way for what is now the Winston Tower, which began construction in 1963, financed not by the gains of industry but by financiers themselves. This one was a Wachovia production.

The first Wachovia Bank was actually the First National Bank of Salem, begun in 1866 in the neighboring community by Israel Lash, a prominent businessman who that same year had been elected to Congress. The Civil War had just ended, though the issues were far from resolved, and Lash, a former slave owner, sat in sessions that presided over the purchase of Alaska, and the impeachment and subsequent acquittal of President Andrew Johnson.

Before it became the Winston Tower, this building was the second Wachovia Tower.
Before it became the Winston Tower, this building was the second Wachovia Tower. [PHOTO BY CALEB SMALLWOOD]

To start his bank, Lash relied on the National Bank Act, which in 1863 and 1864 established a national currency and built the framework for the country’s banking system. He remained its president until his death in 1878.

When the old man was gone, his cashier, William Lemly, moved the safe and desks to Winston, christened the place Wachovia in honor of the Moravian ethos of his former boss and set up shop with $100,000 in cash.

By 1888, the bank’s fortunes had risen enough to erect a high-rise — seven stories! — the first “skyscraper” in Winston. As the role of tobacco became more prominent in the city’s economy, the bank’s coffers swelled with deposits from both the Reynolds corporation and its workers. When the O’Hanlon Building, Winston’s second skyscraper, came in on West Fourth Street at eight stories, an additional floor was added to the bank building by 1918 just to keep up.

In 1966, the first wave of the downtown arms race was long over — the last tower built in what was now downtown Winston-Salem had been the Reynolds Building in ’29. But Wachovia had grown in wealth and stature, enough to necessitate a much bigger space.

The next Wachovia tower, benefiting from the technology of steel-beam construction, would rise 30 stories into the sky, dwarfing everything that came before it. Its architecture, heavy on function and less so on form, gives the impression of a staid rectangle overlaid by a sensible grid, a modern, conservative counterpoint to the art-deco masterpiece beside it.

It was the biggest building in the South for a historical minute, and the tallest in North Carolina until 1971, when it was surpassed by Charlotte’s 32-floor Jefferson First Union Tower — now a Wells Fargo joint. It was the tallest building in Winston-Salem until 1995, when it was surpassed by another Wachovia effort.

The second Wachovia Building became known as the Winston Tower in 1995, after a renovation brought tinted windows to the façade. Now it looks like it’s wearing sunglasses.

The Nissen Building: 310 W. Fourth St.
Built in 1927
18 floors (19th floor built in 1969)
Tallest building in the state for two years

There’s a lull, up in the Piedmont Club, between the power-lunch crowd and afternoon bar traffic, when the staff reconfigures the spaces for the evening, filling balloons, setting places, moving chairs. They’re putting out nametags and gift bags on long tables in the Cardinal Room while outside the windows a lowering winter sun lends drama to the hard angles of the cityscape.

To the northeast, looking like it came straight out of Gotham City, the Nissen Building holds its modest and dignified countenance.

Understand that the Nissen Building, resplendent with neoclassical touches like balustrades and marble urns on its cap, was born of a moment of serendipity that ultimately expressed itself in this monumental civic gesture. And it probably wouldn’t have happened without the fire.

William Madison Nissen was born to greatness: a third-generation wagonmaker with roots in Old Salem, and the second to preside over Nissen Wagon Works, a concern his father established in 1834 that had thrived through westward expansion and the Civil War. By 1919, he had moved the company from Waughtown Street to a factory in the southeast corner of downtown Winston, near the train tracks. The wheelworks was capable of producing 15,000 wagons a year, 50 a day.

But by 1919, mass production of the Model T brought automobiles to every city street in the country, including Winston-Salem, where the police had been driving a fleet of cars since 1915. Covered wagons were… covered wagons. And in the midst of this seismic economic shift, the plant caught fire on at 2 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1919.

The road outside the old Nissen Wagonworks is still made of cobblestone.
The road outside the old Nissen Wagonworks is still made of cobblestone. [PHOTO BY CALEB SMALLWOOD]

According to the Western Sentinel, “Only the brick walls of the main building and the original building of the company, surrounding smoking and blazing lumber and red hot iron and steel machinery, and the tall chimney of the factory remained standing this morning….”

Undaunted, Nissen had his wagonworks up and running again before the end of the year. But by the mid 1920s, decades of running the company had taken its toll on his health. In 1925 the wagon baron sold his company to FH Reamy for $1 million — which in 1925 was still a lot of money — and endeavored to play out his years as a prominent citizen.

Reamy kept the wagon business going until 1940. The building is still there, just across Third Street from Krankies.

And Nissen sunk his fortune into the tallest building in the South.

New York architect William L. Stoddart had been designing neoclassical hotels and apartment buildings for decades — he designed the old O Henry Hotel in Greensboro and the nine-story High Point Hotel, now a senior-living center — before Nissen came calling. He wanted something that would live on long after he had passed: limestone, granite, brick. A recess separates the upper floors, the topmost of which wear a loggia of classical architectural flourishes. When it opened in 1927, retail shops filled the first floor and there was a miniature golf course in the basement.

He and his wife Ida moved into a luxurious spread on the 18th floor, with office space in the western tower, and that’s where he lived until he died in 1934. Ida lived there until 1954. Renovations in the 1960s added a 19th floor with a rooftop pool, but other than that the building that now houses Camino Bakery and Local 27101 looks much the same as it did the year it went up.

The GMAC Tower: 500 W. Fifth St.
Built in 1980
30 floors

BB&T Building: 200 W. Second St.
Built in 1987
20 floors

In 1980, the country was still reeling from an energy crisis, something foremost in the minds of the architects of the GMAC Tower in the northwest of downtown. A singular, boxy structure belies the pinnacle of the day’s eco-design. The north side of the building, which stays in shadow most of the day, has a glass façade set in angles. Windows on the flat southern side tilt downwards to reduce glare and heat radiation. On the short eastern and western sides of the building, exposed to harsh sun all day, windows are small and sparse. Due to the asymmetric structure, the building looks entirely different from every angle.

The GMAC Tower was the building of the future in 1980, with an in-house computer system and fiber-active LED lighting along the top that can change colors.

That would be pretty cool, if someone were there to do it — the GMAC building has been vacant since 2013, when the behemoth insurance company sent the bulk of its workforce to Cleveland and moved the rest of its Winston-Salem operation out of the building with its name on the side of it. In advance of this, an Illinois-based owner walked on the mortgage. In 2014, a holding company picked it up for $9.5 million, and in December a Charlotte developer floated plans to turn the compound into apartments and office space, a scheme that depends on a nearby parking deck which another developer seems intent on buying. The subject is currently under discussion by city council.

The other building that grew in downtown Winston-Salem in the 1980s, the metallic blue BB&T Building that counts among its tenants the Piedmont Club on the 19th floor fared better than its generational counterpart.

A glass elevator runs along the south side, giving a graduated view of the lawns and fountain of Corpening Plaza below, fast enough to make your ears pop.

It was designed as One Triad Park, Cadillac office space for Piedmont Airlines, among other proposed tenants, a $24 million complex conceived as far back as 1977 by the man they named the plaza for.

Wayne Corpening was elected mayor of Winston-Salem in 1977 — the same year, incidentally, that a young Vivian Burke won her first Northeast Ward seat — on a platform of integrity and honesty, and served until 1989. Known for holding council meetings late into the night, he also championed the Super Block proposal to turn this corner of the city into a professional district of corporate and governmental buildings.

The postmodern spaceship of green glass and steel was a result of that plan, the giant waterfall at Corpening Plaza a gift from the building’s original tenant, Piedmont Airlines, a rising star in the aviation industry.

Piedmont merged with US Air in 1989, and the new entity pulled out of Winston-Salem, a contributing factor to One Piedmont Plaza’s slide into foreclosure, where it was picked up in 1991 by the Aetna insurance company for less than $10 million, after which the economy took another wild turn.

Fortune favored Southern National Bank, which was looking to expand its footprint in its home state by the early 1990s.

The Southern National Bank came to be in 1959, emerging from the Bank of Lumberton that dated back to 1897, and through acquisitions and mergers had amassed assets upwards of $5 billion by 1993, when it bought the First Federal Savings Bank in Winston-Salem and moved into town. A year later they entered a slow merger with BB&T, which now fills most of the building. It last sold in 2014 for $60 million.

The Piedmont Club has been here the whole time.

The Wells Fargo Center: 100 N. Main St.
Built in 1995
34 floors
Tallest building in the Triad

The boom years of the 1990s enabled homegrown Wachovia Bank to strengthen its position in an industry marked by consolidation and buyout.

By now, William Lemly’s efforts had grown into a mighty economic force. In the 1980s Wachovia bought the oldest bank in Atlanta, followed by the oldest bank in South Carolina in 1991. By then, they were the fourth largest bank in the world, and ready to make a statement.

The Wells Fargo Center began life as the third Wachovia Building in downtown Winston-Salem. It’s the tallest building in the Triad, and one of the most architecturally significant. [PHOTO BY CALEB SMALLWOOD]
The Wells Fargo Center began life as the third Wachovia Building in downtown Winston-Salem. It’s the tallest building in the Triad, and one of the most architecturally significant. [PHOTO BY CALEB SMALLWOOD]

Architect César Pelli, would go on to design the Petrona Twin Towers in Malaysia, the tallest twin towers in the world, and, a little closer to home, the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte. But in 1995 he called the building he designed for Wachovia his best work.

It was the tallest tower built in the United States that year, a perfect, multifaceted dome based on the Moravian star, constructed of white granite mined from a single quarry in Sardinia, Italy. From these headquarters in the Super Block, Wachovia gathered smaller banks under its weight like a fat raindrop rolling down the car windshield. It picked up banks in Virginia and Florida, and by 2001 had become a tasty-looking morsel for even bigger fish.

First Union announced a merger that year, naming itself the dominant party in a merger of equals for a $13 billion buyout. In the frenzy of the deal SunTrust attempted a hostile takeover, offering $14.7 billion in stock for Wachovia’s holdings — 650 branches in five states.

After a bidding war, a court battle and a shareholder vote, First Union got the prize. The Wachovia name and stock symbol survived, but its presence in Winston-Salem did not. Main operations moved to Wachovia Buildings in Charlotte and the company kept the white-granite rosebud as an asset.

For six more years Wachovia would do what it did best: Incorporate. It absorbed a credit-card division, a brokerage firm, large networks of branches. It sold off the building in 2004 and kept space for its wealth management division.

Then came the great banking disaster of 2007, putting the entire banking system at risk. Wells Fargo swallowed Wachovia whole a year later. Its lease for more than half of the office space in the Winston-Salem skyscraper is good through 2025.

The barroom of the Piedmont Club at dusk bears witness to the lights that illuminate every one of the dome’s facets daily at dusk. At the right time it would be possible to watch a banker at his desk from a club chair by the window.

The old Reynolds Building, visible from the Cardinal Room, has its lights going again in preparation for its rebirth as a hotel and retail destination, the Winston Tower a sturdy piece on continuity.

There’s not much else to see at eye level from the 19th floor. And from this lofty purchase, it doesn’t seem like anything else exists.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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