|By Ken Keuffel, Winston-Salem Journal,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 29, 2012--First of three parts
When the news broke in January that the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. headquarters in downtown Winston-Salem might be converted into an upscale hotel, the story refocused attention on the 1929 majestic art deco building that has sat quiet since 2009.
City boosters and townies alike are ecstatic that the Reynolds Building at Fourth and Main streets might grab hold of a new life.
"I hate to see it empty," said Diane Reeves, who ran a barber shop and salon in the basement from 1977 until the building was vacated three years ago. "There's not another building in town that can match its elegance. I sincerely hope that one day, it will become a beautiful hotel."
Reynolds and Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels have entered into an agreement that gives the Greensboro developer most of this year to study the feasibility of renovating the 22-story building. In 2009, 80 years after the building opened, Reynolds moved its downtown employees out and into the neighboring Reynolds American Inc. building.
If all goes as hoped, 120 to 180 hotel rooms would be carved out of the Reynolds building, as well as a restaurant, bar and event space. Downtown revitalization would take another step forward, city officials have said.
And an important lesson for architects working in any style would be affirmed -- namely the need for buildings to "be designed flexibly enough in anticipation of the day when their initial function is no longer economically viable," said Sandy Isenstadt, a noted historian of modern architecture who teaches at the University of Delaware.
"Those buildings that can be adapted will survive; those that are too demanding to renovate, which can occur for a variety of reasons, will live on only in photographs."
Isenstadt believes that buildings are often treated as commodities -- but for many reasons have unique traits that enable them to become not just another product, but "a meaningful part of our built environment."
"Thus, finding some use that can keep a significant building economically viable and guarantee it stands for at least another few decades, is a very good idea," he said.
If the Reynolds Building does become a hotel, it would join several other office buildings across the country that have undergone or are about to undergo similar conversions. Isenstadt cited several examples, including the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society's former home, a modernist skyscraper that became a Loews Hotel in 2000. The United Artists Building (1927) in Los Angeles and the MetLife Tower (1913) in New York are scheduled to be turned into hotels, Isenstadt said.
Model for the Empire State Building
The Reynolds Building throughout Winston-Salem's history has made civic pride soar, literally and figuratively. It enabled Winston-Salem to boast the state's tallest skyscraper until 1966, when the Wachovia building (now Winston Tower) was built in Winston-Salem.
Viewers of these two side-by-side buildings "sometimes referred to the pair as the Reynolds Building and the box it came in," wrote Catherine W. Bishir in "North Carolina Architects & Builders," an online biographical dictionary.
The same dictionary entry states what many city residents still take pleasure in pointing out, namely that the Reynolds Building became the model for the Empire State Building in New York City. The Empire State, a 102-story skyscraper, was the world's tallest building for 40 years after its completion in 1931. Both the Reynolds and the Empire State were designed by the firm run jointly by E.H. Shreve of Canada and William Lamb of Brooklyn.
In a sense, the Reynolds building and other edifices of the 1920s and '30s resulted from a perfect storm of technological and cultural factors. Nick Bragg, the executive director of Reynolda House Museum of American Arts for 29 years until his retirement in 1999, has long studied the city's architecture. He called Elisha Otis' 1853 invention of the elevator a major driver in making buildings taller and taller.
"We've been going up ever since," he said.
Two other technological factors made "going up" a reality. One was steel, which began to be used increasingly to carry the weight of tall buildings rather than to merely strengthen a building's structure.
Another was a technique called curtain-wall construction, when a building's stone facing is literally hung from the steel structure. This created what has been described as the possibility of almost unlimited verticality. It deviated from past practices, in which all the weight of masonry came down on the ground, thus limiting a building's height.
Curtain-wall construction, however, supports the brick at every floor, said Rence Callahan, a local architect.
"The Nissen Building, built a few years before the Reynolds Building, actually has an exterior skin that is supported on each floor," Callahan said. "It is, however, a brick veneer that required a lot of scaffolding to put up the bricks one by one. The Reynolds Building, using large limestone, glass and metal panels, allowed for the 'curtain wall' to be erected much more efficiently."
After the Reynolds Building went up, more modern buildings employed a variation of curtain-wall technology in the construction of their exterior skin, Callahan said.
Isenstadt cautioned that there are limits on height. Some are structural.
"At great heights, the lateral load caused by wind can be tremendous."
And several factors diminish the amount of usable space per each higher floor, including "elevator times and the amount of square footage that needs to be given to elevators, mechanical systems, and structure," Isenstadt said.
The era of skyscrapers
As for the cultural factors that contributed to the Reynolds Building, Bishir described a principal one in "North Carolina Architecture" (the University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Skyscrapers "were rising in every small city in America," she wrote. "Whether they stood six stories or 20 stories high, they were the chief icons of prosperity, modernity and progress."
The Reynolds Building exemplified this trend, becoming a monument to the prosperity of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The so-called "race to the sky" must also be counted among the cultural factors that contributed to construction of the Reynolds Building, the experts said. This began in the early 1900s, when architects and businessmen in Winston-Salem and elsewhere started building skyscrapers around the city, and there was something of a race to see whose building could be the tallest.
Reynolds won that race, Bishir says.
As far as Isenstadt is concerned, this race is over, at least in the United States.
"American cities have lost the competitive spirit for tall buildings," he said. "(But) the race certainly continues, only overseas. The world's tallest towers are built or being built in Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai."
(c)2012 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)
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