Barbara Babcock Millhouse’s name is inextricably linked to the history of Reynolda House. She spent part of her youth living in the home, played a central role in its transition to an art museum, started its renowned art collection, and more recently has written extensively about the home’s history.
Her father, Charlie Babcock — who married R.J. Reynolds daughter Mary — incorporated the nonprofit that we now know as Reynolda House Museum of American Art. It’s been an art museum now for more than half a century.
Millhouse has built a legacy of art scholarship and historic preservation, which last year earned her the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor.
Her time living in Reynolda was limited — while the family was living there she was often away, at boarding school or attending Smith College.
In fact, her most cherished memories of life in Winston-Salem are from when the family relocated from Reynolda to a nearby cottage while her father served in World War II.
“We were in that cottage for four years,” she says. “It was simpler life. The family was closer ... I loved working in the Victory Garden.”
By the 1950s, it was clear that Reynolda was not destined to remain a family home, and it took about 10 years of planning to turn it into a museum.
Millhouse played a central role in the transition, starting to build the art collection when she was just in her mid-20s.
This was in the 1960s, when the art world was exploding with abstracts and works of pop art.
So it was a bit of a surprise when she focused on a much different genre to highlight: 19th Century American Landscapes. At the time, many of artists who had flourished in their times had fallen out of favor among art critics.
She says when she was in college there was a feeling among art teachers that American art was subpar.
It was a slideshow in Reynolda that featured the work of John Singleton Copley that
“I was the one who had the revelation at that time. I said ‘This is good. This good work,’” she says. “All of a sudden the power of those paintings that were sorted painted in almost like a mirror came out.”
Paintings by other American landscape artists including Frederick Church followed.
Exhibitions in recent years have included a who’s who of American visual artists including Georgia O’Keefe, Romare Bearden and Ansel Adams, to name just a few.
The collection started with help from foundations, but Millhouse says it doesn’t take much for someone interested in art to start a collection of their own.
She recently completed a book, "Comfort and Convenience: Early Technology at Reynolda, 1906-1924." The book examines the growth of technology that went from luxury conveniences to everyday necessities, and how her grandmother, Katharine Reynolds, incorporated new technologies into the home as it was being built.
She says she was inspired to write the book upon the discovery of a mysterious hole in the baseboard. It turned out to be a port for a central vacuuming system that had long been forgotten.
From that discovery came a curiosity about other technologies in Reynolda and how they impacted life both in the home and on the surrounding farm.