In 1941, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced what would become the most famous billboard in history…the Camel cigarette smoking billboard was located at the most photographed urban location in the USA…Times Square…


Times Square, early 1950s. The smoking billboard was attached to the Claridge Hotel and blew a smoke ring every four seconds from 1941 until 1966. There were many variations. A mid-1950s version featured Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko.


Hollywood version, 1949

The Twin City didn’t have a smoking billboard, but we had something better to look at, the magnificent Reynolds Building. Coming home from the South Carolina beaches in the 1950s, my sisters and I would compete to  be the first to spot our local landmark and whoever succeeded would sing out “I see the Reynolds Building!” Unfortunately, today, the building cannot be seen from the south…always my favorite view, because it meant that we were almost home.

By now, only the local hermits do not know that the Reynolds Building has been sold and will soon start a new and  vibrant life as it remains the best known symbol of Winston-Salem. Herein a bit about how the building came to be and a look at its dominating presence in the city of art and innovation.

From its beginnings in 1875, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, like all other such businesses, was a seasonal operation. One bought as much cured tobacco in early fall as could be reasonably stored, then converted that into a retail product. When the supply of tobacco ran out and the manufacturing was done, employees were dismissed until the next season.

Good workers were given a slip of paper inviting them to return the next year. This practice was called “layoff”, which meant that the employee was guaranteed employment the following year. In recent times that term has been perverted to substitute for “firing”, which is permanent.

For a number of years, R.J. Reynolds had only one permanent employee, a part time bookkeeper. What offices that existed consisted of a desk in a corner of the first factory.


The “Little Red Factory”, 1875, between Chestnut Street and the railroad

Over the next decade and a half, as his business grew, Reynolds simply built onto the original building. In 1890, Reynolds incorporated his business and built a state of the art factory just to the south of his original building. It is said that the smokestack of factory #256 cost more than all of his previous construction.


Factory #256, 1890…the office was on the third floor

In 1899, Reynolds built a second modern factory, #8, and moved his growing office into that building.


But by 1910, he needed a separate building just to house his office force.


The first purpose built office building opened in July, 1911. Fifth Street is in the foreground, with Main at the left. In the background is the P.H. Hanes Knitting Company complex.

For the first 38 years, Reynolds made and sold only chewing and smoking (pipe) tobacco. In 1913, they introduced their first cigarette. Within four years, Camel was the number one selling cigarette brand in the world. R.J. Reynolds died in 1918. He had already selected Bowman Gray as his successor, but because Bowman was a little too young at the time of his death, R.J.’s brother, William Neal Reynolds, “Mr. Will” to several generations of locals, took the helm of the company.

Between 1900 and 1920, driven by the success of Reynolds Tobacco, and the Fries and Hanes textile industries, the population of the Twin City increased from around 10,000 to around 47,000, making Winston-Salem the most populous city in North Carolina. Between 1920 and 1926, the population would truly explode, to about 71,000, but the Roaring 20s were roaring everywhere, and by 1930, Charlotte had become the most populous city in the state, never again to look back.

But by the mid 1920s, it had become obvious that Reynolds needed much more office space. The board of directors decided to build the most magnificent office building in the South. To that end, they hired the architectural firm of Shreve & Lamb of New York. Sometime in 1927, the Winston-Salem Journal published Shreve & Lamb’s elevation drawing of the new building.


Construction began on March 1, 1928. In the spring of 1929, Reynolds began moving their office workers into the building. By mid April, the move was complete. Reynolds occupied only the 7th through 9th and the 19th through 20th floors of the 22 story building, with the 10th devoted to a variety of employee activities. The remainder was rented out to tenants seeking to be a part of the most prestigious location in the city.

The 1930 city directory tells us who some of them were:

In the “basement” were the Reynolds Grill (later the famous Caravan restaurant…get it? Camel = caravan?) and the the Reynolds Barber Shop. Bobbit’s Newstand was in the lobby. In suite 103 was the First Industrial Bank, which bragged about its location in its newspaper ads. Other first floor tenants were cotton and stock brokers, another barber shop operated by J.M. Willis and the Norman Stockton men’s furnishings shop.

On the other floors were the offices of interior decorators, Army and Navy recruiters, dentists, doctors, lawyers, real estate and insurance companies.

The Pilot Life Insurance Company occupied a suite on the third floor. The fifth floor was a major center, housing the offices of the noted architects Hall Crews and Northup & O’Brien; as well as the Westover Realty Company, developers of the golf course in Ardmore; and the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company

On higher floors were such noteworthy tenants as Ernst & Ernst, accounting; the Carolina Detective Agency; the Norfolk & Western, Norfolk Southern, Pennsylvania  and New York Central Railways;  Washington and Arista Mills; the Bahnson Company and the private offices of mayor George W. Coan.

Upon completion, the Reynolds Building eclipsed its neighbor the Nissen Building as the tallest building in the southeast, topping out at 380 feet, 315 for the building itself plus its 65 foot flagpole. The cost was about $2.5 million in late 1920s dollars. Because it used nothing but the best materials and a unique metal called Benedict (an alloy of copper, tin, lead, zinc and nickel) created specifically for the building, the cost to build it today is virtually incalculable.

Among the ingredients were gray-brown marble from Missouri and buff colored marble from Hauteville, France, in the lobby; black Belgian marble framing in the elevator lobbies; aluminum, and gold leaf in the wall and ceiling decor. The exterior was Indiana limestone.

Windows made up 40% of the exterior, a total of about 1,000 windows in all. There was not then, and still is not now, a 13th floor. On the day that the building officially opened, April 27, 1929, the company’s stock closed at $55.12 per share.

For 35 years, the magnificent Reynolds Building dominated the Twin City, looking down upon almost every activity within its confines. Unfortunately, in the mid 1960s, people who knew not what they did built a huge, bland rectangular building just to the south of the Reynolds Building, blocking forever the most favored southern view. Those of us who had grown up with the Reynolds Building as the center of our universe joked that the “Wachovia Building” was the box that the Reynolds Building came in. But it was not really a joke.

Here are some perspectives from the long past of the Reynolds Building.




The Reynolds Building’s first Christmas, 1929, complete with trees on the ledges. The J.C. Penney Store (now the Artists on Liberty building) can be seen in the foreground.



Christmas, 1938


From City Hall


From Salem’s God’s Acre


The Carnegie Public Library opened in 1906. Now Our Lady of Fatima chapel. The Realty Building, 1922, later the Patten Building at left.




Looking west along Fourth Street from the Reynolds Building, 1935. Note the traffic control station at the intersection with Liberty Street.


The 1950 annual report had an embossed image of the Reynolds Building on its cover


From the factories on Chestnut Street. Legendary Journal photographer Frank Jones often parked his imported cars to include them in his news photos.



The first police radio tower goes up atop the Reynolds Building, 1939, Chief Walter Anderson looks on.




Fortune Magazine, 1931





Reynolds HS football practice, Hanes Park, 1950s


Marvin Eck, stuntman, fair, 1958…while serving in the US Army in England in the 1950s, he marched in the Coronation Parade of Queen Elizabeth



Normie Abercrombie, Miss Winston-Salem, 1962