The first skyscraper in the Southeast

by Brian Clarey

If you cup your hands against the panoramic picture windows on the ground floor of the RJ Reynolds Building in downtown Winston-Salem, you can still see the lobby: three kinds of marble; flourishes of Benedict metal, an alloy no longer manufactured; the mural, a pastiche of fancy people throughout history merrily enjoying the company’s signature product in tuxedos, gowns, royal garb.

Winston and Salem had merged more than a decade before this building went up in 1929, a masterpiece by the architectural firm Shreve & Lamb, its steel skeleton and limestone façade assembled by James Baird out of Washington, DC. It was the tallest building south of Baltimore, at 21 floors — or 19, or 22, depending on whom you’re asking — the first skyscraper in the Southeast, the pride of a young city on its way to big things.

In April 1929, when the building opened for business, Camel cigarettes were the No.1 brand in the country, and the company Joshua Reynolds started in 1875 had been growing as quickly as the roots of the tobacco plants taking hold across the state.

Like the company itself, the building was built to last — an art-deco masterpiece that was quickly modified into the plans for the Empire State Building, which went up just two years later and looks like the Reynolds Building’s big brother.

That Sunday’s edition of the Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel described it thusly:

“Throughout the building, a state of finish and design has been followed that harmonizes with the subdued dignity of the exterior lines.

“Offices are soundproofed,” the story continues, “which, it is said, adds greatly to their restfulness. Nowhere has a suggestion of ‘flashiness’ been allowed to creep out.”

Just a few months after the building’s completion, the stock market crash of 1929 kicked off the Great Depression. But the cigarettes endured.

By 1969 the building had a 10-year waiting list for tenants and employed two full-time window-washers for the façade’s 1,000 or so glass panes, 24 maids, 31 janitors, and a guy whose only job was to clean the spittoons.

Executives took a newly installed automatic elevator to the 19 th floor, air-conditioned boardroom; the secretarial pool occupied the 20 th . And in the evenings, until 1955, a firewatcher scanned the horizon for fires in the surrounding farmland.

In the last 100 years the building’s time came and went — RJR pulled out in 1991, moving the staff to the RJR Plaza Building next door, built in 1982. The company put the building up for sale in 2009.

There have been some nibbles, including a high-profile hotel project that, in the end, didn’t make financial sense. But the Reynolds Building was made to withstand the ages, and should still provide a familiar anchor to the skyline at the city’s bicentennial in 2013.

David Howard, a company spokesman, said, “It’s very important to us that as we move forward in the marketing of the building that any interested parties, we take into account not only their practical usage of the building but its historic significance to the community, and the role it can play in the continued transformation of downtown Winston-Salem.”

Howard’s got memories of the place as well — as a young executive on the rise he worked in the 16 th floor. He occasionally got the chance to ride the elevator up to the top.

“The 19 th floor,” he said, “it might have been haunted. There were those that say they’ve seen a ghost up there. Every now and again we’d have a meeting in the conference room. They had the mahogany wood and the big fireplaces. It was really kinda cool.”