The R.J. Reynolds Building has undergone nearly $60 million in renovations over the past several years.

Gone are most of its offices, replaced by hotel rooms and apartments.

But walk into the lobby, and you can still see a sight that would have been familiar to Bowman Gray Sr. and other tobacco executives who worked there decades ago.

Straight ahead from the main entrance is the elevator bank, gold and silver leaf ceiling overhead, and brass doors polished to a blinding finish. An octagonal hall just past the elevators is clad is St. Genevieve golden vein marble. All around is metalwork featuring stylized tobacco leaves and diamond patterns.

“That entryway, that is the best entryway in the state of North Carolina,” said Michelle McCullough, historic resource officer for Forsyth County. “The floors, the ceiling, the doors, it’s amazing. This was really a way for R.J. Reynolds to show its power, to show that they had made it.”

The 22-story edifice at Fourth and Main streets was not just the tallest building in town; it was where some the state’s most powerful businessmen had their offices. It inspired a New York City icon. And it was an art deco monument to a business that employed some 10,000 locally, and headquarters to a crop that made Winston-Salem famous the world over.

The Reynolds Building, now the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel, celebrated its 90th anniversary in April with champagne toasts in its restaurant, the Katharine Brasserie and Bar. And though its height has since been exceeded by several buildings in town — including its immediate neighbor, the boxlike Winston Tower — it still stands out in the city’s skyline, offering a glimpse into an era when tobacco was king.

Ahead of its time

Among the legends that have cropped up around the Reynolds Building is a story that the Empire State Building sends an annual Father’s Day card. It does not.

But in a nook off the lobby of the Cardinal Hotel is a framed card from the New York City landmark, sent in 1979 to congratulate the Reynolds on its 50th anniversary. The card refers to the building as “Dad” and also expresses appreciation for the Manhattan skyscraper’s “roots in Winston-Salem.”

How much influence the Reynolds Building had on the Empire State is a matter of dispute among architectural historians, with some noting big differences in the setbacks, windows, and corners.

But the two do have a similar tapered ziggurat shape and art deco flourishes. And they were both designed by the same architectural firm, Shreve and Lamb, out of New York.

The town of Winston (which would not merge with Salem until 1913) had a population of about 450 when Richard Joshua Reynolds arrived from Virginia in 1874. The town had just been connected to the railroad, and the local tobacco industry was starting to boom. From a two-story building dubbed the “Little Red Factory” on a lot purchased from the Moravian Church, Reynolds began growing his business empire. In 1900, he bought Hanes’ tobacco operations (the Hanes family subsequently moved into textiles), and by the time he died in 1918, his company had 121 buildings in town. By then, Winston-Salem’s population had grown to nearly 50,000, making it the largest city in the state.

R.J. Reynolds also brought international recognition to the area. In 1913 the company introduced Camel cigarettes, and about 425 million packs were sold in its first year. Two billion were sold in 1915. The brand became so closely associated with Winston-Salem that the place soon became known as Camel City. According to one legend, Krispy Kreme founder Vernon Rudolph decided to set up shop in Winston-Salem after seeing the city’s name on a pack of Camels.

By 1927, Reynolds’ annual earnings totaled nearly $30 million. The company’s offices were then housed in a four-story building at Fifth and Main streets, but with continued growth in the years after World War I, executives were looking to build a new headquarters. Ground broke in the spring of 1928 at what had been the site of Winston-Salem’s original city hall, and the building was occupied about a year later. A Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel editorial (cited in an application to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places) hailed it as a “real triumph of modern architecture” and “the pride of Winston-Salem and a distinct asset to North Carolina.”

The building, standing 315 feet, was the tallest in the state until the 1960s. Faced in Indiana limestone, with accents of lead-coated copper and nickel silver, the structure contained about 314,000 square feet. Tobacco leaf motifs grace the grillwork above the main entrance. The National Association of Architects in 1929 named it Building of the Year.

“This building meant we were on the map,” McCullough said. “But for a lot of people, it also meant they had a livelihood. During the Depression, we still had this giant of an industry here, and the building symbolized that.”

Still a modern marvel

In its early years, the building rented space to other business like dentists, attorneys, and insurance companies. But Reynolds eventually came to occupy the entirety of it, and for the most part it became closed off to the general public, giving it something of a mystique.

Reynolds moved out of the building in 2010, and sold it to Kimpton and PMC Property Group in 2014 for $7.8 million. Before the hotel opened in 2016, the building underwent an estimated $60 million in renovations. Most of the building was gutted to make way for 174 guest rooms and about 130 rental units. The restaurant on the ground floor is named Katharine, after R.J.’s wife.

On the 20th floor, the office of Bowman Gray Sr., head of R.J. Reynolds when the building was constructed, retains its fireplace, and has been turned into a conference room. Just outside, spotlights bathe the top of the building in different colors — red, white, and blue during the Fourth of July, red and green during the holiday season, other shades for various community events. Liza Edgerton, director of sales and marketing for the Cardinal Hotel, said staff takes requests from organizations, and even from couples getting married there to cast the building in their colors.

In the lobby, curiosity seekers often poke their heads in to get a glimpse at the marble and metalwork — and just to say they’ve been inside. If you made it through the doors of the R.J. Reynolds Building during the heyday of the tobacco industry, McCullough said, you knew you were a big deal.

“It was really something to get invited into the Reynolds building,” McCullough said. “And to get invited into executive offices [at the top of the building], you had to really be somebody. When it got turned into a hotel, a lot of people were all excited because they could finally go in and have a look.”

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