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.
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.