Winston Salem’s Empire State Building and How the Future of Historic Buildings Reflects a Shifting America

Nothing defines American cities more than the architecture. Every major city in America has a distinct skyline, and building, that comes to mind when the city is mentioned. Chicago has the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, Washington D.C. has the White House, New York has the Empire State Building, and Winston Salem has an Empire State Building of its own…

The Reynolds Building was built in 1929 by New York designers’ R.H. Shreve and William F. Lamb, the same architects who designed Empire State Building in New York City. They intended the Reynolds Building to manifest modern progress and economic achievement. The building was completed in just under thirteen months at the cost of approximately $1.9 million.

The construction of iconic architectural buildings was a symbol of a changing America. Cities of industry were traditionally the premier places and they influenced the building and construction of these structures. This explains why a large tobacco town was able to have a building that went on to be a model for the Empire State Building.

“The building is an icon of Winston Salem’s history of our strong manufacturing heritage and the success of that manufacturing economy” Allen Joines, the mayor of Winston-Salem said.

The fluted pillars and tower’s iconic ziggurat form contribute to the distinct Art Deco style that was emerging and they were emulated again in the design of the Empire State Building.

“Art Deco seemed jazzy, young, exotic, and urban in contrast to the academic classic Beaux Arts architecture which was used for public buildings in the late 19th  and early 20th century” Professor Emeritus Peggy Smith said. Smith is a retired professor of art history, focusing on architecture, at Wake Forest University.

Prior to the Reynolds Building most of Winston-Salem’s buildings were a classical style. The Reynolds Building proclaimed a different attitude for businesses at a time when half the town’s families were directly connected to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.

The buildings unique style was a point of pride for the city and this still holds true today.

“About eight out of ten residents will tell you that the building was the prototype of the Empire State” Smith said.

The Empire State Building has not forgotten its roots. For a number of years, they sent a birthday card that said “Happy Birthday Dad” on the anniversary of the construction of the Reynolds Building.

As Winston Salem has shifted from a manufacturing economy to one based on knowledge, the city has also expanded.

“We are in the process of a shift toward an economic model of innovation and rapid change. There have been 1.7 billion dollars in investment in our center which is indicative of the rebirth of our economy” Joines said. Joines highlighted how the economic shift has been the biggest change since the building went up in 1929. The new economy focuses on knowledge based medical work, design, information, travel, tourism, and advanced manufacturing.

This shift is represented in the Reynolds Building. RJ Reynolds Tobacco sold their administration building in 2004 to PMC Property Group who turned it into The Cardinal, a  Kimpton hotel that opened in 2016.

The expansion of the city is not solely due to an economic shift.

“Young people want to live downtown across the United States because of its amenities, urban aspects, and proximity to work” David Gall, an architect who works in Winston-Salem said. This viewpoint has created a need for more living spaces in Downtown Winston Salem which has garnered expansion.

This need for land to expand has caused Winston-Salem to face a problem with which many cities across the United States have struggled. Winston Salem is going to expand either to the east across US-52 or to the north into the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood. Both pose issues because many of the current residents have lived there for generations. The gentrification would cause them to have to move, which most have no desire to do.

“The gentrification issue is a very difficult problem that other communities have not solved well. Winston Salem needs to show we can be better than that” Gall said. He emphasized how there needs to be comprehensive participation by everyone who lives in Boston-Thurmond so that their desires and hopes can be recognized and maintained.

Another problem that expanding cities have had to face is historic buildings being torn down to make way for new projects.

Chicago, where the golden age of skyscrapers took place, is now facing problems as many of these buildings have been knocked down.

“Though buildings such as the Chicago Stock Exchange were demolished, we are fortunate to have the original trading room in the Art Institute.  I sometimes just step in there and enjoy a bit of the past” Mary Jo Harper, a resident of Chicago, said.

In Winston-Salem this has also happened on a smaller scale.

“The city has lost a great deal of historic fabric. The city has so few [historic buildings] remaining and this may drive young entrepreneurs who are best economically suited to use and rehabilitate older commercial spaces. This may drive them to other cities” Gall said.

One solution has been the North Carolina Secretary of the Interior’s tax credit on historic buildings. This is one motivator that may help builders decide to keep historic buildings instead of demolishing them.

RJ Reynolds never filed for historical building status while they owned the building, but when Kimpton acquired it they filed for historical status and were approved.

When you look at a city you don’t think about something mundane like tax credits. But really it is tax credits that have saved Winston-Salem’s recognizable skyline.