Penny and Bill Spry’s empty nest atop the iconic Reynolds Building in downtown
Winston-Salem rekindles a newlywed passion
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Amy Freeman
“I was worried that Bill wouldn’t want to live downtown,” says Penny Spry with a laugh.
“Penny’s right,” husband Bill confirms. “I loved our gardens and our house and watching the water run in our pool. I suppose I was being terribly provincial.”
“But it was time for a change,” she adds. “The children were all grown up and gone. It was just us rattling around in a great big house on Banbury Road. The timing was almost perfect . . .”
“We were really just living in two or three rooms,” he allows. “The kitchen and den and bedroom . . .”
“Then we heard about the Reynolds Building, that the top residential floor might be available. We had to come look. Everyone was moving downtown,” Penny enthuses. “So much youth and energy. The Arts District, all the great restaurants.”
It’s a golden afternoon in late autumn in the spectacular 19th-floor apartment of Penny and Bill Spry, residents for less than a year atop the historic and lavishly restored former headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in downtown Winston-Salem. Sunlight streams through large west-facing windows of the apartment, illuminating a spacious gray-walled living room that looks like the most elegant but livable museum gallery one can imagine.
A circular contemporary Thayer-Coggin sofa invites one to simply sit and take in the long views in three different directions, as do a pair of elegant 19th-century Louis XVI chairs (still stuffed with the original horsehair) and a comfortable sitting area near Bill’s strategically placed brass telescope.
“It’s like magic when the sun goes down and the city’s lights come on,” Bill confirms. “A great view of the night skies from up here.”
It was the west view that turned him around.
“For me, all it took was one look out the west window. You could see over the city to the mountains, the sunsets. Every evening the sunsets are different,” Bill adds. “Some of the most beautiful things in life are that simple.”
“I’m an early morning person,” Penny says, “so I wanted the views of the east, the sunrise side of the building. Given our views and the other attributes of the building, it worked out wonderfully.”
Translation: If this Reynolds Building apartment isn’t heaven for Bill and Penny Spry, it may be a floor or two just shy of it.
Bill Spry, after all, a lawyer and private financial adviser, enjoyed a spiritual connection to the historic Reynolds Building even before he set foot in the apartment just over two years ago. During Reynolds’s corporate heyday, Bill’s father, Dennie, was general counsel for one of the company’s subsidiary firms. “I was friends with several of the CEOs’ kids growing up in Winston,” he explains. “So in the end, despite my early misgivings, living here feels a little bit like a true homecoming — doubly so since Penny was so excited and energized by it.”
A Wake Forest – trained lawyer of seemingly boundless energy who co-founded and, for a decade and a half, directed the respected Children’s Law Center, Penny saw the couple’s flight to the 19th floor of the iconic building that served as the design model for New York’s Empire State Building as a passage toward an empty nest and a way to artfully downsize their belongings while making it easier to travel.
“Bill and I have collected art for years, but with five kids and a big house — two houses if you count the place we’ve had in the mountains for over 30 years — we’d also collected all sort of household stuff we just no longer needed or wanted,” Penny says, explaining that the move to their new 3,000-square-foot abode forced the couple to be more selective about the things they would bring with them. Some of the items, she says, “were old and treasured things we couldn’t be without. Other things are new. My taste tends to be more contemporary, Bill’s far more traditional. It’s been a great new adventure for us both, blending the old and new — a little like being newlyweds with their first apartment again.”
A Charlotte-based designer, who recently decorated Winston’s Old Town Club, consulted in the very early stages of the apartment’s evolution from four different smaller apartments into one large one with two bedrooms, five baths and personal dressing/study rooms for each Spry, including an engagingly artsy west-facing space that serves as a library. The Sprys wanted to incorporate their own art and their treasured Steinway into the design, however, so they moved in a direction inspired by Jean-Louis Deniot. Penny and Bill were enamored with the clean and eclectic design concepts of the French designer as a way of fusing their individual tastes in furnishings and artwork with the historic legacy of their new home, down to the smallest detail. Here stands an Art Deco lamp that came from the Empire State Building. There lie two trays made from a pair of golden tobacco leaves, an Aubusson rug and glasswork by Dale Chihuly.
One end of the living room is anchored by a striking pair of dramatic bronze figures — the soaring torsos of a mythic Adam and Eve — by acclaimed sculptor Frederick Hart, who among other things did the Creation Sculptures at Washington’s National Cathedral. Acquired many years ago, the monumental pieces made their journey up from the couple’s former Banbury Road house. Adjoining walls, meanwhile, host several dramatic pieces by contemporary artists, a Picasso, as well as original works by Pissarro in the entrance foyer — right next to the antique brass mail shoot box salvaged from the building by a friend when Philadelphia-based PMC Property Group was in the process of renovating the Reynolds property.
“It’s a juxtaposition of styles that seems to work beautifully for us,” says thoroughly modern Penny. “But Bill even got his fireplace.”
Indeed, looking as if it’s been there since the salad days of Richard Joshua Reynolds himself, stands a handsome stone fireplace with a trompe l’oeil interior that is so convincing a triple take is required in order to discern that the eye has been fooled. The fireplace mantel came from a historic salvage company.
But that isn’t all the couple artfully managed to salvage.
A gorgeous “painting” of an American Colonial scene fills almost an entire wall in their modest but elegantly contemporary kitchen — “It’s an hors d’oeuvres kitchen,” quips Penny. “I’m a terrible cook, but I make a mean hors d’oeuvres tray. Besides, we have a fantastic restaurant, The Katharine, right downstairs and a city full of great restaurants in every direction!”
The “painting” turns out to be a salvaged section of panoramic wood-blocked, hand-painted wallpaper from the building’s former corporate dining room just one floor up.
But not just any old iconic wallpaper.
You can see the same rare scenes in photos of the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy used to great public acclaim in 1961 when she spent $12,000 on handmade French wallpaper depicting historic “Views of North America” in order to brighten up the drab public spaces of the presidential residence. The costly wallpaper was made by the firm of Jean Zuber, a company founded a few years before the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the world’s oldest luxury wall covering firm.
“So here’s a funny story,” chips in Bill, picking up the threads of a tale of how four gorgeous pieces wound up in the hands of the Sprys.
Once the couple had decided to take four different apartments and meld them into one with three different views, they were chatting with one of the landlord’s foremen, who invited them upstairs to see the former boardroom and dining room used by Reynolds executives during the peak years of the company’s life.
“We see these workmen tearing this amazing wallpaper off the wall and Penny, aghast, asks them what they are going to do with it.”
“Throw it away,” came the answer with something of a Gallic shrug.
“Can we buy it?” Penny asked, energized as always.
“Buy it? Heck, we’ll give it to you.”
The problem was the plaster — 4 inches of it that came fused with each removed section of wallpaper. The weight of the sections made framing and hanging them problematic until the plaster was painstakingly removed.
Bill Spry explains the ornate wall covering’s origin. “Unbeknown to us at the time, but as we discovered later, the wallpaper was put there after the breakup of Reynolds in 1986, when F. Ross Johnson moved the company headquarters to Atlanta. Ed Horrigan, CEO and chairman of the board of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company when it was a division of RJR Nabisco, chose to stay in this building and decided to have the boardroom and dining room upstairs redecorated. That cost was about $38,000 back in 1986 — or, in today’s terms, about $80,000.” He pauses and adds with a wry smile, “We had no idea of the value of the paper. We valued it for historic reasons. However, we essentially cut up $80,000 worth of wallpaper just to get four pictures.”
The Sprys even made a special gift of one of the “Views of America” to a friend on the occasion of his birthday in the old company’s former executive boardroom, now an event space made available to the building’s residents. Their friend’s father had been CEO of Reynolds Tobacco at one time.
“He cried. We cried. Everyone cried,” recounts Penny. “That’s how much this building meant to him — what a family affair it once was to many people in this city.”
It’s that same newly awakening city they see out three sides of their splendid aerie — including a swell south view of the Wells Fargo building and Old Salem — that dazzles their friends and neighbors who come calling just to see the vista.
“It’s easy to be blown away by the light and views up here,” confirms Penny, who says the mobility their apartment provides may be the coolest thing of all. Bill can now walk four blocks to his job, his youngest son having recently joined him at the investment firm.
“Our other kids are pretty far-flung, and we love to go to Florida for a break every winter. We’ll all still gather during the holidays and summers in the mountains. But now Bill and I can be so much more mobile, can just pick up and go with much more ease.”
“But why would we want to do that when we have all of this?” Bill thoughtfully adds, pointing to the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, where the sun has just sunk below the horizon. Soon it will be stars and city lights, another kind of dazzling light show from the 19th floor.
Jim Dodson has his own splendid aerie overlooking the Japanese garden of his Starmount home in Greensboro.