WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For nearly a century – 90 years, to be precise – a name and the building it is on have dominated the city of Winston-Salem.
RJ Reynolds was, arguably, the most significant figure to ever grace the city. So, when he died from pancreatic cancer in 1918, his company and the men who came to run it wanted to pay homage to him somehow. Adding a 122nd building that was bigger than anything else in town seemed to be the right fit and so it was then that the New York architectural firm of Shreve & Lamb was hired to build it.
“I've heard that if RJ was the one to build said building, it would've been a basic, brick box,” said Forrest Howard, sales manager for the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel & Restaurant, which now occupies the building. But Bowman Gray, who was the chief executive officer of Reynolds Tobacco in the late 1920s, wanted something that was worthy of Reynold’s impact on the city. “Bowman, I think, had wanted to pay honor to that.”
The building, which is now 90-years-old, is practically a how-to of art deco.
“The limestone to just this grand building itself, to the inside with the gold leafing on the ceiling or the marble that was imported from Italy and from France and the Midwest and all over the place, there was just no expense spared,” said Howard, in describing the building’s grandeur.
According to a history of Reynolds Tobacco, the company was so successful that they paid 40 percent of all corporate income taxes in North Carolina – $66,000 a year, more than twice what the next highest payer did – which is almost $1.5 million in today’s dollars.
So the building the company began putting up in 1928 reflected that wealth.
“It cost around $2.7 million,” Howard said. That’s more than $40-million in today’s money, though that’s just a straight, general inflation calculation. When you consider the prices of marble, gold and construction in today’s market, it might well be far more.
Shreve & Lamb was thrilled with how it turned out.
“They completed this one and they loved the design and the features and just wanted to do a larger one,” Howard said.
And not just any “larger one.” See the iconic building that is considered the “son of the RJR Building” in this edition of the Buckley Report.