A True Southern Lady

Before it was an art museum, Winston-Salem’s iconic
Reynolda House was a hub for progressive
farming, as realized by Katharine Smith Reynolds

By Nancy Oakley    Photographs courtesy of Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Strolling its shaded, paved paths alongside joggers, dog-walkers and young parents pushing strollers, it’s hard to imagine the clip-clop of Percheron draft horses and mules that once trod these grounds. Or the 216 Shropshire sheep that grazed where a meadow of native wildflowers and grasses now flourishes. It was a 9-hole golf course then — the first six having names such as “The Gate,” “The Marsh,” and “Pilot View,” so-called for the vista of Pilot Mountain in the distance. The tree canopy obscures that view today, framing the expanse of the manicured lawn populated with Frisbee players and amateur photographers — and drawing the eye to the vantage point on the horizon to the now-familiar row of fat, white columns and a low-slung, green-tiled roof of Reynolda House Museum of American Art. But long before it became home to canvases by Frederic Church and John Singleton Copley, along with sculptures by Alexander Calder and Frederic Remington, the Winston-Salem icon was, 100 years ago, twice its current size, a model for fine country living and a monument to the progressive vision of Katharine Smith Reynolds.

In an early photograph, Katharine is the epitome of a Southern lady of the Gilded Age, her dark hair piled high beneath a feathered hat, her gloved hands demurely folded against the pleats of a frilly gown. But the froth of lace and ruffles disguise a strong will and an agile mind. “Her determination was impressive, but also her ability to enroll people in her projects,” says Phil Archer, the museum’s Betsy Main Babcock director of program and interpretation. “A lot of Katharine’s ethos comes from Charles Duncan McIver,” he adds.

The first president of the State Normal and Industrial School (later Woman’s College and today, UNCG), where Katharine enrolled in 1897, McIver was a crusader of the higher education of women, contending that “The chief factors of any civilization are its homes and its primary schools. Homes and primary schools are made by women rather than by men.” Though Katharine’s tenure at the Normal School was interrupted by a typhus outbreak, (She graduated from Sullins College in Bristol, Virginia, in 1902.), she would, indeed, leave a strong imprint on her community, or immediate “civilization,” as it were.

After graduating from college, the Mount Airy native went to work as secretary for her distant cousin and future husband, Richard Joshua Reynolds, magnate of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston (later to become Winston-Salem), which was then the most industrialized city in the state. Katharine lobbied for improved factory working conditions with shorter working hours and hot lunches and eventually, on-site day care — accomplishments commemorated in the lobby of the Reynolds Building downtown, now an apartment complex and the site of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel where the restaurant, The Katharine Brasserie & Bar, was named in her honor.

“She was not radical,” Archer is quick to point out, explaining that Katharine’s reforms were “sort of a gradual, conservative reform.” She did advocate for women’s suffrage and an integrated YWCA, Archer says, but her aims were for be the betterment of the community. “Somebody said that she had a tendency to ‘speak with great precision’ and liked to reveal to others what was in their best interest,” he laughs.

In 1906, a year after her marriage to R.J. Reynolds, Katharine began buying 25 tracts of land that would total 1,067 acres — signing her name alone on the deeds, according to exhibit materials in the main lobby of the Reynolda Museum. It was the first step in realizing a dream that the young woman had articulated in an oft-quoted letter to her college roommate in 1899: “When I marry, I shall go to Europe and buy a great work of art and come home, develop a farm, have a thousand cattle on a hill and flowers all around.” Not such an unusual notion for a young woman of the day. “Her sister said that’s just kind of what you did in that era,” Archer says. “The ideal way to live was to have a farm and grow vegetables.” And, he points out, most people of that era, R.J. Reynolds included, grew up on farms.

It was also the zenith of the Country House Era, the period from about 1890 to 1940, when prosperous Americans spent their newly acquired industrial wealth on country estates to enjoy leisurely pursuits. By the time Katharine started scooping up those 1,067 acres north of town, Americans’ passion for growing things, a trend known as the Garden Movement, (which Reynolda itself illustrated in its 2015 exhibit of Impressionist works, The Artist’s Garden) was in full bloom. “She had a book called The Country House, a history of the Country House Movement, but also a how-to,” says Archer, adding that the book featured the photographs and garden designs of Thomas W. Sears and houses designed by Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen.

But there were more serious reasons for wanting a pastoral retreat. This was an age of rampant infectious diseases and to use Archer’s expression, “more mechanized” life in crowded, industrialized cities. Katharine herself had suffered rheumatic fever as a child and was, Archer says, “a physically fragile person.” He suggests that the death of her 5-year-old brother from severe diarrhea, likely the result of consuming tainted milk, and the typhus outbreak that interrupted her education at the Normal School, would not have been far from Katharine’s mind. Tuberculosis was another persistent threat, as novelist Thomas Wolfe so vividly illustrates in his autobiographical opus Look Homeward Angel, set in the same time period. Drawing on his own experiences living among tubercular guests in his mother’s boardinghouse in Asheville, Wolfe succumbed to the disease at age 38. Poorly ventilated houses were a part of the problem, particularly those with a vertical orientation, such as the popular Queen Anne structures similar to the one newlyweds R.J. and Katharine Reynolds inhabited on Winston’s West Fifth Street.

A house in the country, by contrast, accessible to nature, would literally give one breathing room, and just as important, clean water. “That was the motivation for moving because there were 18 springs on the property,” Archer says, mentioning articles dating to the 18th century that refer to the area’s early inhabitants “taking the waters” at Mystic Springs or Marienbad Springs. “So the water was known before Katharine started buying up land. And it meant cold, fresh water that people were all drinking.” But the land itself wasn’t so desirable. The museum’s exhibit text describes it as “eroded and desolate,” part of its allure to the young matron, according to an accompanying quote from a 1917 article in the Twin City Sentinel (Winston-Salem’s afternoon paper at the time): “Its ruggedness attracted the attention of Mrs. Reynolds, for it was well watered, and she determined to transform the scene of desolation into a model, producing country estate.”

Clearly, Katharine’s dream of raising cattle, growing flowers and vegetables had expanded to a more purposeful project. “One of the pamphlets at the time said that only a quarter of the food in the Piedmont was grown in the Piedmont,” Archer says. “The diets were really poor.” Katharine was also subscribing to forward-thinking books and magazines,
among them, Progressive Farmer. Its editor, Clarence H. Poe, as the exhibits at Reynolda reflect, had appealed to civic and business leaders of the Southern Commercial Congress in 1908 “to join the great movement in the rural South” by improving its agricultural practices.

Just a year later, the landscape engineering firm of Buckenham & Miller (which had designed the 2,700-acre New Jersey estate of another tobacco magnate, James Buchanan Duke) started clearing the land for Reynolda. In another three years, in 1912, the farm was completed and the construction of the formal gardens began. By this time, Katharine and R.J. Reynolds’s family had grown to include children Richard Joshua Jr., Mary Katharine, Nancy Susan and Zachary Smith. That same year, Katharine hired the renowned and prolific architect Charles Barton Keen to design the estate’s house.

“Keen was incredibly versatile,” says Phil Archer, pointing to the variety of styles — Italian Revival, Colonial Revival, Spanish Revival — that the architect had designed for Philadelphia’s Main Line suburb, as well as some Arts and Crafts buildings on the campus of Bryn Mawr College and nearby communities of Ardmore and Haverford. “One of the things that [the magazine] Country Life in America alludes to is the ‘stockbroker’s Tudor,’ all these country houses that were being built for stockbrokers in Philadelphia,” Archer continues. He goes on to say that the book that Katharine had read, The Country House, “talks about Keen and his ability to do homes of a large scale, befitting the tremendous wealth of his clients. But they maintain a modest character; they’re homey. So Katharine would have read that passage in her book, as well. It’s really what they wanted.”

Archer says Katharine’s early designs of Reynolda from 1912 to around 1914 were relatively modest. “There’s a big gun room and billiard room. It’s a place to go and play,” he says. “The house becomes more manorial. More a center of a big operation. Her ideas are developing pretty fast as the designs are coming in.” And, indeed, to the bemusement of her husband, 30 years her senior, the project is clearly Katharine’s, as another piece of museum text, a written observation by her niece Senah Critz Kent, allows:

“Uncle Dick derived his greatest pleasure from his pride in Aunt Katharine’s executive ability. Supervising the construction of Reynolda was a daily delight to her, and no detail was too technical for her intelligent study and supervision.”

She and Keen decided on a bungalow plan. Originating in the Bengal region of Southeast Asia, bungalows are characterized by their low-pitched roofs, verandahs and entrances that lead directly into living quarters. The style was associated with housing used by officials of the British Raj (1858–1947) and was later adapted in California. It was a modern choice for Reynolda, says Archer, because of its open floor plan, “cubbyhole rooms,” and flow. “It’s a much more democratic way to apportion spaces,” he explains, noting that Katharine apparently wanted a “squatty, low-slung house that would nestle into the landscape and not tower over it.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, the house that stands today is a fusion of Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts styles. There is symmetry in the neat rows of windows and doors, pent roofs (sometimes called shed roofs, used between stories as a way of shedding water away from a house) across its horizontal line, and in the green-and-white color scheme, considered de rigueur for Colonial Revival in the early 20th century — despite the fact that houses of the actual Colonial period, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, used a varied palette of bright hues. Reynolda’s fat, Tuscan columns and recessed porches, the Inglenook under the stair landing of the Reception Hall, however, are hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts movement, which, Archer clarifies, often looked to rustic styles of architecture. He also highlights classical proportions of the rooms, particularly the Reception Hall that are the same as those used in the atriums of ancient Rome and later in Palladian architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Other sets of classical proportions proliferate through the house, Archer says, that contribute to its sense of comfort and explain their timeless appeal. “They just feel right,” he observes. “All of that is inside the envelope that’s the bungalow look. That’s all about a home that’s tied to nature, where it’s really permeable inside and out. You’re always just a step away from a garden.”

And yet, the interior décor is decidedly heavier: the dark wood paneling of R.J.R.’s study, the oriental rugs, the antique reproductions in Elizabethan and Jacobean styles, the ornate wrought iron balustrade upstairs (the work of Samuel Yellin, who, incidentally, designed similar details for New York financier J.P. Morgan, steel magnate Henry Clay Frick and the Washington National Cathedral). The furnishings, lumped under the descriptor of “Old English,” were ordered from Wannamaker’s, the first department store in Philadelphia (and one of the first in the United States), whose designers worked closely with Charles Barton Keen to create a “single artistic vision,” Archer says. The reason for choosing them? “It’s conferring a sense of age and permanence and tradition on money that’s grown really rapidly,” he explains. “And there’s a consciousness of the youth of the nation, wanting to have an established tradition in America. The furniture looks way back to much earlier styles.” There are some exceptions that are more contemporary for the period: the tile floors on the porches; the breakfast porch furniture with the checkerboard design that echoes the aesthetic of the Wiener Werkstatte; and the bold color scheme of the Reception Hall, likely inspired by the Léon Bakst sets of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, performed by the Paris-based Ballets Russes in 1910.

Much of the modernity of Reynolda, however, is in its bones — such as the reinforced concrete, a new building material in the early 1900s, used in its construction. Or its south-facing façade and east and west wings placed at an angle, which capture sunlight — a boon in winter. Conversely, the north-facing porch in back, with its semi-circular terraces echoes the style of English Arts and Crafts architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It also absorbed the cool summer breezes off Lake Katharine (now filled in due to silt and sediment buildup). However, a massive stone fireplace — with imposing, medieval-looking andirons, it should be noted — was added for year-round use.

Other details reflect Reynolda’s purpose as a healthy retreat. Sleeping porches gave access to fresh air, as did an air washing system, a “huge apparatus that filtered the air through cold water sprays, these kinds of screens sprayed water to pull out any impurities,” Archer says, adding with a chuckle, “The irony is not lost that it’s a fortune made on tobacco and smoking, but the house is designed in all kinds of ways to make the air clear.” New technologies in plumbing allowed for bathrooms to be connected to the bedrooms, a sanitary measure to prevent the spread of disease. Each contained a scale, intended for monitoring weight loss — a symptom of the dreaded tuberculosis. There was a dual telephone system, one for calling to the rooms and servants within the house, another for dialing outside through a switchboard. And the Aeolian organ, one of only three that are still playable today, its massive 2,566 pipes concealed behind wooden panels, tapestries and in attic chambers, permeated the house with music when it was played — for Katharine believed music brought relaxation and created a harmonious atmosphere. “It was a high-tech house that wore the disguise of an old English home,” Archer concludes.

And the village, also designed by Keen, and which Archer likens to an English hamlet, belied other innovations. “Below the ground it was electrified, and there’s steam heat running into all the buildings,” Archer says. All told, there were 68 buildings on the estate, including a church, a school, a blacksmith’s shop, and cottages for supervisors and workers. The implementation of telephones and call bells in the house was meant to make everyone’s jobs easier, so too, was a central vacuuming system that precluded having to haul heavy equipment to clean the house. The kitchen was strategically placed near the dining room; janitor closets were placed throughout. All of these measures, says Archer, formed a response to what was called “the servant problem,” meaning a reduced labor pool from competing factory jobs. And because many potential workers in domestic service were black, they were migrating north to escape oppressive policies of the Jim Crow–era South.

As many as 30 families lived on the Reynolda estate, a third of them on Five Row, the African-American community just beyond Reynolda Village with its own church and school. In 1979, Reynolda’s first executive director, Nick Bragg, had an oral historian record the recollections of former employees. “We had 43 of them,” says Archer. “We’re occasionally adding more to them, and it’s incredible because it’s daily life: ‘I rode my bike here, and then I went canoeing, and then I caddied on the golf course . . .’ They pointed to which neighborhoods African-Americans could live in and what jobs were available and how farm work compared to factory work.” Thanks to a federal grant, the museum will make the oral histories available to the public next spring through a smartphone app. “As you’re going through the spaces in the house, you’ll also hear from the maids, the switchboard operators, the butlers about their work,” Archer says.

True to Katharine’s original vision, Reynolda was a working farm. “She’s growing things that can go straight to the table,” says Archer, before reeling off a list that includes cabbages, corn, peas, okra, melons, pumpkins, grapes (for grape juice). “We know there were 12 acres of wheat, 45 acres of oats, 65 of corn, 10 acres of sugar corn on top of that, 5 acres of tomatoes,” he says incredulously. The only glaring omission from the crops? “No tobacco!” Archer laughs. “I love making that point!”

Additionally, there were peach and apple orchards, and among the flowers of the formal gardens, says Archer, “2 acres that they called ‘fruit, cut flower and nicer vegetable gardens’ so that the vegetables they had would look pretty.” This was not, he adds, anything new. “[Frederick Law] Olmstead [designer of New York’s Central Park] advised owners of large properties to have vegetables gardens, too, and in strolling through you’d see beautiful vegetables in discussing the virtues of a healthy diet.”

Of course, part of a healthy diet included milk that was safe to drink. Reynolda’s Jersey cows were milked with electronic milking machines, and Katharine issued strict instructions to the dairy workers to brush off all the cows and wash their udders, one cow at a time, before milking them, and insisted that their own clothes be washed and sanitized every day.

Among the other breeds of animals besides the Jerseys, the Percherons and Shropshire sheep were 51 Tamworth hogs, 350 Barred Rock and White Leghorn chickens, mules, bronze turkeys, guinea fowl and bees. Under farm superintendent Clint W. Wharton, a graduate of the N.C. Agricultural and Mechanical School in Raleigh (later N.C. State), there were experiments in soil analysis and crop rotation. Katharine was even running an extension service at Reynolda School so that farmers in the area could learn these agricultural practices. By 1917, the year the Reynolds family moved into the house, some 350 acres of the once “desolate” property had been cultivated into farmland.

It was the scene of outdoor recreation, too — tennis in summer, skating and sleigh riding in winter. Katharine had started a walking club from the Reynolds’s previous Fifth Street residence to survey the construction on the house. (The family actually camped in the woods sometimes to watch its progress.) The 16-acre lake provided opportunities for canoeing and fishing, the cement-lined pond beneath the falls of the dam served as a community pool — for black and white employees. Katharine frequently rode her horse, Kentucky Belle, along the trails, and she is shown among a foursome of women posing with their clubs on the 9-hole golf course.

And then there were the formal gardens, which Katharine opened to the public on occasion. “I think this is really unusual for a country house of the era,” Archer observes, referencing an article that counted some 10,000 visitors the first year the gardens were open (1917). Thomas W. Sears, who had worked closely with Keen, replaced Buckenham & Miller as landscape architect and redesigned the 4-acre gardens that would include sunken gardens around the greenhouse that Lord & Burnham had designed in 1913. Two of these were arranged by color (the Pink and White Garden and the Blue and Yellow Garden). Sears added two rose gardens, Japanese-style tea houses, pergolas; two fountains; perennial and shrub borders; specimen trees, and a central lawn — in addition to the aforementioned cut flowers and “nicer vegetable” garden. The greenhouses contained various tropical plants, orchids, ferns, succulents and were the site of Katharine’s chrysanthemum shows. Referencing another article, says Archer, “She decided to keep them open in the evenings so people with daily 9-to-5 jobs basically could visit the chrysanthemum show.”

Reynolda was the hub of other public activities —Easter egg hunts, Halloween pageants, a Hiawatha pageant (dramatizations of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song Hiawatha,” a craze in the early 20th century). Notable figures visited, including Josephus Daniels, secretary of the Navy during World War I and publisher of the Raleigh’s News & Observer, and Edith Vanderbilt. Katharine continued her civic responsibilities such as founding the Junior League of Winston-Salem in 1923. It was a utopia of sorts.

But utopias seldom last. R.J. Reynolds had died from complications of pancreatic cancer at age 68 in the summer of 1918, not even a year after the family’s move to Reynolda. And though Katharine found happiness in a second marriage to J. Edward Johnston, the headmaster of Reynolda School, she died from complications in childbirth in 1924 at the age of 44. By then, the family’s community focus had begun shifting away from agricultural reform. In the 1920s, part of the estate was developed into “a huge polo complex,” says Archer, who calculates that the fields were the equivalent size of 29 football fields. “Winston-Salem had a team in the 1920s, that competed against Richmond and Pinehurst all over the Southeast,” he says. Hence the name Polo Road, the artery that intersects Reynolda Road beyond Wake Forest University. Vestiges of the old polo fields can be seen around the flat, low-lying grounds around Speas Elementary School today.

The other primary focus of the Reynolds family, perhaps because of Edward Johnston’s influence, was education. Under Mary Reynolds Babcock’s ownership of the estate from the 1930s to the 1950s, more than 600 acres would be sold or given away — to Wake Forest (which the museum is now affiliated with), to Speas Elementary, to the development of Old Town Country Club. “It gets complicated, but they’re giving land for schools,” says Archer. “It was a way to develop the land in a way that was pretty far-sighted. Now, Wake Forest is still the largest employer in the city. As Reynolds had been once upon a time. So it was investing by divesting, essentially,” he observes.

The family, he says, was responding the community’s needs of their time, just as Katharine had responded to the needs of farming in her day. And, he points out, during the 25 years in which they came of age, they had been orphaned, and the world had been through the tumult and uncertainty of the Great Depression and World War II. The way of life had changed. Big country estates were a thing of the past. Still, Archer says, “They kept it green, whether for golf courses, college campuses or preserved wetlands.” Green, and a generation later, public. In 1965, with Barbara Babcock Millhouse as president of Reynolda House Inc., the Keen-designed Colonial Revival bungalow was renovated and opened for all to see. Two years later, it became the art museum that some 50,000 visitors enjoy annually today.

Keen’s design influenced the building aesthetic of Winston-Salem and beyond. Reynolda, explains Archer, was a “terminal” project for the architect: “It had elements of what he had done before, real strict Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts bungalows, and Reynolda brought those two parts together.” It became Keen’s signature that brought in more commissions in the Southeast. Archer estimates there are about 30 or 31 white or white stucco houses with a horizontal configuration and green-tiled roofs throughout the city, and a few more in Greensboro such as the McAlister House in the Gate City’s Irving Park neighborhood and in Charlotte, as well.

Just as Keen’s designs were considered progressive for the early 20th century and conducive to the modern life in the industrial South, another equally progressive architectural style would emerge in the 21st century. A style using new building materials and methods, just as Keen had used reinforced concrete. Accommodating the busy, casual way of life and innovations of the Digital Age, the new aesthetic, like Keen’s bungalow style, would take root in Winston-Salem in tandem with the city’s new, knowledge-based economy . . . and spread.  

Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its sister publication, O.Henry.



Reynolda’s Centennial

As the start of its centennial celebration, Reynolda House Museum of American Art kicked off a series of events last month with the exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern in the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery. It seemed an appropriate choice, says Phil Archer, Betsy Main Babcock director of program and interpretation, for “a 20th-century house, envisioned by a woman [Katharine Smith Reynolds] and kept preserved by two other women [Mary Reynolds Babcock and Barbara Babcock Millhouse].” On view through November 19, the show includes paintings by O’Keeffe, photographs of her and her home by Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, among others, as well as items from her personal wardrobe. “It is by far the largest we’ve put on at Reynolda House. There are 180 objects in this exhibit. It’s definitely the largest retrospective of her works in the Southeast for decades,” Archer says.

In November and December, the Museum will present a Centennial Christmas with tours of the house festooned with historically accurate decorations from 1917, the year (and the month) the Reynolds family took up residence at the estate.

From February 9 through May 13, 2018, look for another Centennial exhibit, Frederic Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage, featuring 50-plus paintings and studies by the American artist and organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts.

On June 2, 2018, the museum will host Centennial Community Day with art, music and games, as well as a new audio-visual tour of the museum.

For advance tickets to the O’Keeffe exhibit (which are strongly encouraged), other programs, lectures, concerts and events, check the museum’s website, reynoldahouse.org.

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