Smoking and tobacco have gone in America from common adult pastimes to habits seen as gravely dangerous to health, but like any product with a large market, there is also the business aspect of the industry behind smoking. For years, the seat of that industry in America has been Virginia and North Carolina where tobacco is grown and especially Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the RJ Reynolds Corporation manufactured many famous brands of cigarettes. Whatever one thinks of smoking, there is no doubt that Reynolds helped formulate the basis of the economy of Winston-Salem and contributed greatly to everything from its downtown’s architecture to the current campus of Wake Forest University. In the process, Winston-Salem evolved from an early pioneer settlement—Salem being founded in 1766 and Winston in 1849 with the cities joined as one in 1913—into a bustling city that is a regional center, leader in education, and powerhouse of banking.
Winston-Salem is a genuine Southern city and an authentic American one as well. Salem was founded by a bishop of the Moravian Church and like many communities in early America, was based in the belief of religious freedom and that the city could prosper on a firm foundation of agriculture and hard work. Tobacco from even the earliest of times was a key part of that basis in farming. Over time, the community expanded and the city of Winston was established. For years, only members of the Moravian Church were allowed to settle in Salem but by the Civil War this exclusive practice had ended. Following the war and Reconstruction, the economic base of both Winston and Salem expanded to include not only tobacco and other agriculture, but also textile mills and furniture factories which took advantage of the richness of the extensive cotton and timber production industries of North Carolina.
After the Civil War, many cities in the South asked themselves the weighty question of “how do we turn over a new leaf after such horror and loss?” Few were able to answer that question as readily and successfully as Winston and Salem, leading to the early twentieth-century consolidation of these two cities. To this day, much of the original Moravian community structures of Salem are retained as Old Salem Museums and Gardens. In addition, just north of Winston-Salem is the Bethabara Historic District which is also an open-air museum of early Moravian buildings and the Gemeinhaus, a traditional Moravian church where Easter services and other functions are still conducted. Bethabara was the early foothold of a Moravian settlement that came before Salem, but Salem was the actual city planned to be the enduring and key Moravian community, and luckily both Bethabara and Salem have retained these early historic communities.
As the economy grew, Winston-Salem became a haven also for education, with the historically black university Winston-Salem State University having been founded there in 1892 and Wake Forest University—one of the nation’s foremost faith-based private universities—relocating from Wake Forest, North Carolina to Winston-Salem in 1956. Wake Forest currently is on the well-respected US News and World Report listing of undergraduate universities ranked twenty-seventh in the nation and has in previous years been in the top twenty-five. Founded as a Baptist seminary and school for laymen in Wake Forest and as a “work school” where all students spent half of their days out of the classroom and working on the campus or its farm, Wake Forest University evolved out of a distinctly Southern model of what a modern university ought to be insofar as offering a classical liberal arts education but with a firm foundation of faith, morals, and hard work. While the half-day work requirement long ago was removed by Wake Forest, that tradition of toil and service has remained crucial to the ethos of both the student body and the greater university community. In that tradition of service, Wake Forest has hosted several presidential debates and other major events on its campus, especially in its historic Wait Chapel.
The campus of Wake Forest was given to the school by the Reynolds family in an effort to entice the respected university to move to the Winston-Salem area, and while much of the tract of land had simply been forest or farming land, the entire estate of RJ Reynolds, known as Reynolda, was also deeded to the school. The estate now houses one of the most impressive collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fine art and is open as a museum, devoted not only to the art collection but the period furnishings of the home itself.
At one point in the 1920’s Winston-Salem was not only the largest city in North Carolina but the largest between Atlanta and Washington, DC, in the entire South, a certain testament to the economic importance of the city’s industries in the post–Civil-War period of the Reconstruction. The Reynolds family benefited greatly from this wealth and desired to pass it back to their local community, with Wake Forest being a logical conduit for doing so. The university embodied the values of tradition, work, and success that the Reynolds family saw as essential. Reynolda and neighboring Reynolda Village, which is a collection of buildings designed to replicate a rural English village and now contains shops and restaurants, are an attraction for tourists but also crucial to Wake Forest’s own sense of identity.
The concept of arts being vital to a city and community isn’t only embodied in Wake Forest’s efforts, but also those of Winston-Salem State University where the performing arts have become key to this institution’s mission. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts operates its highly-respected Stevens Center for the performing arts in downtown Winston-Salem, also, offering a venue for everything from opera and ballet to bluegrass concerts.
Much of downtown Winston-Salem is, like many downtowns of Southern cities, grappling with a changing economic basis, but while some cities are not faring well after the 2008 recession and the move away from industries that had for generations been their key economic forces, Winston-Salem is making the necessary adaptations with great grace and success. The historic RJ Reynolds Building, one of the finest Art Deco structures in America and a building that was designed by the same architects as the Empire State Building in New York and indeed served as the template and inspiration for that renowned structure, served the Reynolds Corporation for decades but was eventually no longer needed by the tobacco giant. Now a group of investors is completing renovations towards adaptive reuse for a grand hotel in this historic building. The renovations are first-rate and retain the integrity of both the exterior façade and the public spaces of the interior in fine form and stand as a great example of how a massive building can be repurposed from offices to tourism with no loss of the historic and architectural importance of the original structure. Of special note is the metalwork above the main entry which portrays tobacco leaves and is an example of outstanding Art Deco design.
While the Art Deco Reynolds Building may be the real stand-out of downtown Winston-Salem, there are plenty of other impressive buildings both dating from the early twentieth century boom in tobacco and furniture economies here and the later twentieth century banking boom. Some older buildings are in need of renovation and sit vacant, but many house offices, bars, restaurants, and retail shops. As the seat of its county court and a center of business, downtown Winston-Salem swarms with people during the day and functions much the way we imagine an American city to function—not with business being done at far-flung suburban office parks or in airport hotels, but in the center of the city, with cafes and bars in easy walking distance from offices.
Local restaurants—many simple and inexpensive yet favorites for years for a quick and quality lunch, such as Kebobs on Fourth and Tokyo Shapiro—dot the streets, and nearby trendy bars have been crafted out of old retail spaces, taking the age and character of their properties to their advantage. There seems to be an acute awareness here that buildings able to furnish both history and usable space are worth saving and they contribute to the fabric of the greater downtown area. Perhaps it is the local heritage of furniture-making and textile mills that have bred this realization of worth of the human-hewn and the necessary goal of seeing property not as a stand-alone edifice, but part of something greater—a thread in a more complex weaving.
Despite the fact that Winston-Salem is one of the most-sprawling cities in the South I’ve ever visited—a trip from my hotel near Wake Forest’s campus to the local mall and then on to the downtown sector seemed like an endless journey—the city center is compact and has built upon its legacy instead of ignoring it. Wake Forest’s vast medical center, which is separate from its main academic campus, has also attracted a cluster of businesses, such as the Quiet Pint Tavern, which offers craft beers and quality food into the wee hours of the morning.
Sports also have helped shape the city, from Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons who have admirable successes in football, baseball, soccer, track, and other sports to the fact that on the northwestern outskirts of town one sees soccer field after soccer field and two soccer specialty shops in the metro area. The unspoken ethos—from the dedication to the arts to the push for adaptive reuse of historic properties to the emphasis on sports—seems to be one of providing something for everyone and having everyone involved in the community. The phrase “all in” is used a bit too much nowadays and sometimes with little thought to its real meaning and military origins, but “all in” seems to be a genuine motto for Winston-Salem, as everyone is asked to be involved and do their share for a better community.
Though Winston-Salem is no longer the largest city by population nor the greatest economic force in North Carolina, it still is a leader in many aspects, not the least in its understanding of the gravitas of history coupled with the need for future innovation. It’s also a fascinating area to visit with a surprising number of attractions for the visitor, from the sports events at Wake Forest to its museums dedicated to both art and history to the diverse array of performing arts offerings.
See More Winston-Salem Photos by Mike Walker Here