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Building Housing the Former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Which Served
as Inspiration for the Empire State Building, May be Converted Into an
Upscale Hotel by Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels

By Richard Craver, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 06, 2012--A Greensboro developer is considering breathing new life into the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. headquarters by converting it into an upscale hotel.

Reynolds and Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels said Thursday they have entered into an agreement that gives the developer most of this year to study the feasibility of renovating the 22-story building, which opened in 1929.

The potential goal: carving out 120 to 180 rooms, as well as a restaurant, bar and event space.

The majestic building that inspired the Empire State Building has been closed more than two years, after Reynolds moved its downtown employees into the neighboring Plaza Building in 2009.

If Quaintance-Weaver decide to undertake the renovation, the hotel could open somewhere between the fall of 2014 and the summer of 2015, said Dennis Quaintance, chief executive of the company.

The developer has two high-profile properties in Greensboro: the O. Henry Hotel, which opened in 1998, and Proximity Hotel, which opened in 2007. Quaintance also is a national leader in sustainable hotel construction.

Reynolds and Quaintance-Weaver are optimistic about the proposal. The companies stressed the renovation would balance the practical use of the building with its historic value. The building was at one time the tallest south of Baltimore.

"If this works out the way both groups think and hope it will, it could have a significant impact on the continued development of downtown Winston-Salem, making the Triad the envy of communities across the country," the companies said in a press release.

Mayor Allen Joines said the agreement represents "exciting news for our community."

"The Reynolds Building is arguably one of the most important historic structures in the city. This new use will give life and vitality to this grand resource."

Quaintance said he fell in love with the building shortly after moving to the area about 30 years ago. He said he thinks the building's art deco motif could make it a draw for visitors.

"It has such glorious potential," Quaintance said.

"The elevator lobby is the centerpiece of the building, the image of upscale we are looking for. It has an authentic appeal to it that will attract visitors and locals for a stay."

"We want it to be upscale and sophisticated, but not stuffy," Quaintance said. "We will be careful to hit a proper balance."

The main challenge of the project could be reaching a compromise on how much Reynolds accommodates the developer's renovation costs with its asking price.

Reynolds spokesman David Howard said the companies have not discussed price. The building is valued at $12.3 million, according to Forsyth County tax records.

"We're very much at step one on this project," Howard said.

Although Quaintance said he could not estimate the renovation cost "until we know more about what we could be getting into," he expects the cost could be more than the $30 million spent on building the Proximity Hotel. That hotel received international attention when it became the first hotel in the world to be certified LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Quaintance said he is impressed with how well Reynolds has maintained the building. He said he was "pleasantly stunned" that he could detect no odor of smoke in the building, which he credited to Reynolds' decision in the 1950s to installing a ventilation unit that drew 100 percent of the air from outside.

"There's a lot of detail to explore, such as we know there is a need for more stairways for emergency exits," Quaintance said. "We just don't need any unexpected surprises, because at the end, it has to make financial sense to move forward."

Howard said Quaintance-Weaver's proposal stood out among developer ideas, which included retail, office space and housing.

"We believe it is a very good opportunity for the building, and we're pleased a well-respected Triad company understands our vision for maintaining its historic beauty while helping it offer new economic hope for the community," Howard said.

The building represented the culmination of a downtown construction spree during the 1920s. The job of designing the building went to Shreve & Lamb, who a few years later designed the Empire State Building. The Winston-Salem Journal reported at the time that the architectural firm was asked to produce "an effect of conservatism along with attractiveness, but to avoid flashiness."

According to a centennial edition of the Journal published in 1997, "city residents could be forgiven for wondering whether the architects followed the directive."

"Gray-brown marble from Missouri, black marble from Belgium and buff-colored marble from France covered the walls and floor. The ceiling was festooned with gold leaves, and the grillwork, elevator doors and door frames were bright, gleaming brass."

The building won a national architectural award.


(c)2012 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)

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