Image courtesy of Reynolda House

A Preview of Reynolda House

Reynolds House, Image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Reynolds House, Image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Although the primary base of operations for the Trust’s Spring Symposium in Winston-Salem will be the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, our Friday schedule will highlight the city’s twentieth-century heritage. The Friday lectures and an afternoon tour will be hosted at the mother of the local country estate movement, Reynolda House. This will not be the Trust’s first involvement with the property. Rebecca Migdal, a 2012 recipient of a Trust Summer Research Grant, fell in love with the house during a field trip while a fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. Her research, a summary of which can be read below, happened at a fortuitous time in Reynolda’s evolution as a museum.

Katherine Reynolds, image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
Katherine Reynolds, image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

The Reynolda House Museum of American Art sits at the core of an expansive project spearheaded in the 1910s by Katherine Reynolds, the wife of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. Not one to do things by halves, Katherine oversaw not just the design and construction of the 26,000 square foot “bungalow” but also the acquisition of a 1,067-acre estate that housed a bustling farm village and a working dairy farm with two herds of Jersey cattle—one for milk and one for show.

Although a resident of Winston-Salem for the entirety of her adult life, Katherine Reynolds turned to Philadelphia-based designers to bring her vision into reality: architect Charles Barton Keene and landscape architect Thomas W. Sears.  E. A. Belmont of Wanamaker’s New York executed many of the interior spaces, including two contiguous offices or “dens,” one for Katherine and one for R.J. All three relied on significant guidance from Katherine herself.

Particularly in light of contemporary standards, Katherine was an accomplished businesswoman. She previously worked as a secretary and did more than just dabble in local charitable causes. After R.J.’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1918, Katherine represented her and her children’s interest in his business empire, even going as far to use R.J.’s own office in Reynolda House to meet with his business partners and keep track of their financial interests. After her remarriage to J. Edward Johnston in 1921, she maintained her interest in the Reynolds’ affairs. Following her death from childbirth complications in 1924, the house was held in trust for her children.

During the late 20s and early 30s, much of the original estate was sold off in parcels, many to local families, who built their own country houses, including the Hanes brothers and the Bowman Gray family dwellings that form the rest of the Trust’s Friday itinerary of site visits. A total of 605 acres were also donated to Wake Forest University, whose new campus just to the north of Reynolda House was dedicated in 1951.

Beginning in 1934, Katherine’s daughter, Mary Babcock, raised her own family at Reynolda. In 1967 Mary’s daughter Barbara Babcock Millhouse, along with her father Charles Babcock, turned the house into the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. The original seed collection of nine paintings has turned into a collection of over 300 of the finest examples of American art, many of which have been key parts of national and international exhibits.

In 2002, the Reynolda House Museum of American Art became formally affiliated with Wake Forest University, an institutional partnership that has produced fantastic opportunities for both parties. The collaboration also permitted a 2005 renovation and restoration of the property that added a modern gallery wing behind the historic house, and the return of many of the interior spaces to their 1917 appearance. This restoration initiated a long process of thoroughly reviewing the museum’s collection of family and estate objects, many of which appeared in inventories of the house from the 1920s, but, in a fate familiar to many decorative arts scholars, were subsequently separated from their original context.

Rebecca Migdal’s work focused on R.J. and Katherine’s office suite. Furnished by Wanamaker’s, the spaces initially seemed to rigidly adhere to gendered expectations, with Katherine’s brighter and smaller office showcasing light, French-inspired furniture, a style often found in a woman’s boudoir, and R.J.’s study featuring dark woodwork and heavy furniture often proscribed by decorators of the day for a man’s “den.” The more Rebecca delved into the work that actually went on in each of these spaces, the more interesting their function became. Rather than being private retreats, suitable for quiet, personal work, both rooms became the center for managing the Reynolda estate, both for Katherine and her two secretaries, particularly following R.J.’s death. As such, these spaces more closely resembled the modern home office, with telephone extensions and a typewriter serving as the precedents for a computer and fax machine. R.J.’s massive desk referenced antique detailing, including linenfold panels, and its discreetly hidden typewriter compartment proved it to be one of the most modern pieces of furniture available at that time.

The story of Reynolda house as a family home and center of life on a bustling farm is only one aspect of its nearly century-long history. Our Friday lectures, including one by Barbara Babcock Millhouse, Katherine Reynold’s granddaughter and the museum’s founding president, will celebrate this institution’s history and evolving use. We can hardly wait to explore this museum gem that celebrates American art as well as the the 20th-century country house movement.

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