Besides going to a Shakespeare insult party last weekend, Leah and I also went to Reynolda House in nearby Winston-Salem. The house falls along the same line as Hearst Castle in California, Casa Loma in Toronto, The Breakers in Rhode Island, or Biltmore Estate, also here in North Carolina. So Reynolda is a VERY large house built pre-WWII which now has now been opened to the public. And by the way, Leah and I have been to all the houses on the list (except Biltmore—we’re going this summer), and we didn’t really think rich, fancy Gilded-Age houses were our thing to see everywhere we go… but huh, it sure looks like they are.
So Reynolda was built by R. J. Reynolds, of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco company, along with his wife Katharine Smith. More on her below, but first, Reynolds was a tycoon. At the time of his death he was the richest person in North Carolina, and one of the richest people in the United States. He was the driving force behind switching Americans from self-rolling cigarettes to buying the pre-rolled cigarettes we see today. That whole campaign focused on Camels, and you’d probably recognize other Reynolds tobacco brands like Pall Malls, Lucky Strikes, Winstons, and Salems, and yes, the latter two are named after the city.
You can make arguments about the morality of the tobacco industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They don’t really talk about that at Reynolda, though they do talk about Reynolds’ great philanthropy, and besides creating hospitals, orphanages, YMCAs, opera houses, savings and loans, and colleges, the charitable work of his estate still lasts to this day. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Wake Forest University is in Winston-Salem, NOT the city of Wake Forest, NC. It was started in Wake Forest, but when 350 acres of Reynolda land and a large amount of money was given to the university in 1956, it moved. And now you know.
The house itself was completed in 1917, and has been a public art museum since 1967. It’s a bungalow-style house, meaning that roofs are low, the eaves are deep, and porches are recessed—this is another thing I learned on the tour. Reynolds started it so he and his wife could get out of the city. Previously he’d been living next to his tobacco factories, or even above the offices of his company, and the staff at Reynolda heavily imply Katharine Smith, his wife, helped spurn the move. Not to say she was anything but a wonderful lady, and she was actually the driving force behind the house as well as its decorations, as her husband died in 1918.
The outside grounds include vast gardens, greenhouses, a village, and when Reynolda was running, a lake, golf course, school, and all sorts of other facilities. The inside is very nice, though I wouldn’t say opulent—Katharine and her heirs had MUCH better taste than what I’ve seen at the other mentioned estates. The whole basement is a recreation center, there is a very nice indoor pool, and the art, of course, is very much worth the entry ticket. The house is a fine visit, and especially in the spring. Katharine planted tens of thousands of daffodils when alive, and with warm weather now here they’re all starting to come up—what a sight!
–Jeff and Leah