“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.” So begins Daphne du Maurier’s thriller, “Rebecca,” as the novel’s narrator recalls traveling down the winding drive to the eerie English country house where most of the story is set.
There’s a similar dreamy quality to the meandering drive to Graylyn, only there’s nothing eerie or English here. Rolling green parkland threaded with paths for runners and dog-walkers, and a picturesque stone bridge and a smattering of cottages, are nothing if not inviting. For Nathalie Lyons Gray, the gently sloping hills were reminiscent of the French countryside, her inspiration for the estate.
She and husband Bowman Gray, president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., were avid travelers. Like so many of their elite contemporaries, they had a penchant for bringing home souvenirs—big ones, including an Egyptian tent, wood paneling from a French hotel, and panels from a mosque in Istanbul. These items and others would find a home in 1928, when, under Nathalie’s guiding hand, construction on 87 acres across from the Reynolda estate began.
Though architect Luther Lashmit of the Northrup O’Brien firm is credited with Graylyn’s Norman Revival design, it was Nathalie who had the vision. “She drew up blueprints,” says marketing coordinator Madison Hinshaw. “She really got hands-on.”
And her spirit seems to pervade the place today, much as Rebecca of du Maurier’s novel seems to haunt Manderley. But there the similarity ends, for unlike the manipulative Rebecca, Nathalie’s presence is unquestionably benevolent. You see it in the graceful, delicate hand-painted tiles in the bathrooms, in the intricate molding in the spacious sunroom where the Grays would take coffee every morning, in the whimsical mural of the poolroom, and in the wrought iron detail—the work of a 19-year-old—of the manor house’s famed stair tower.
Guests can stop by the Grille for a drink, or reserve a formal dinner of, say, seared salmon filet in the dining room or the Persian Card Room (where the mosque panels now reside), or opt for one of the many brunches celebrating just about every holiday on the calendar. Chef Greg Rollins is passionate about local produce and keeps his own garden for herbs and seasonal fruits.
Graylyn remains a popular spot for conferences, especially with added rooms and meeting space in the Mews, the former stables renovated and opened in 2012. But if you want to host a reception, a wedding, or stay the weekend (Valentine’s package, anyone?), Graylyn’s doors are open to you.
The come-one-come-all policy is new, for up until last November, only conferences or individuals affiliated of Graylyn’s owner, Wake Forest, could stay on the estate. “We like to make people in the community feel like they’re welcome here,” explains Hinshaw. “Run around. Walk around. Come on in.”
One of the best ways to get to know the estate is through the monthly “Tour Pour du Jour,” a guided tour with one of Graylyn’s butlers that cover its storied past, from short-lived showplace for the Gray family, to psychiatric hospital for Baptist Hospital, to international conference center.
Along the tour, you’ll learn about the tragic attic fire in 1980 that precipitated its renovation. You’ll hear about the various dignitaries who have stayed over the years (among them, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan). You might even hear about the resident ghost that’s rumored to roam the halls. Perhaps it’s Nathalie, still presiding over the home she designed and loved, beckoning visitors down that meandering drive.
So, if some night you drift off and dream of going to Graylyn, awaken with the assurance that your dream can come true.