On a recent trip to Winston-Salem, we took a bit of time to visit Reynolda House. I’ve been there several times, but there was an exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs that I wanted to see, and Tim had never seen the house. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Reynolda is the story of three women – Katherine Smith Reynolds, her daughter Mary Reynolds Babcock, and granddaughter Barbara Babcock Millhouse. Even more interesting is that the main character in this story in times past was R.J. Reynolds, Katherine’s husband, and the owner of Reynolds Tobacco. But this house is so much more than the house of a wealthy industrialist. It was a home created by the Reynolds women.
To be fair to RJ, he only lived there a very short time before he died. The house was finished in 1917, and he died in 1918, but it did become the family home in every sense.
In 1905, RJ married his cousin and much-younger secretary, Katherine Smith. He was pretty much a confirmed bachelor, and I’m sure all of Winston-Salem was a bit taken aback by the wedding. Smith was an accomplished woman for the times, having not only graduated college and having moved from the family home to the city to work, but she was also an expert seamstress who made much of her trousseau. Over the next few years she had four children.
The family lived in Winston-Salem, but Katherine bought large tracts of land a few miles north of the city. That is where Reynolda and its supporting farm and village were built. As you can see, the exterior of the house was rather plain.
But as you stepped into the front reception hall, you knew this was no ordinary country home. This was a house to be lived in, but it was also built for entertaining.
After RJ died, Katherine and their children continued on at Reynolda. In 1921 she remarried, and unfortunately, she died following the birth of a fifth child in 1924. At the time her oldest child was only twelve. Eventually, in 1934, daughter Mary Babcock became the owner of the estate. Her own children were in part reared in the house, which Mary and her husband updated after moving there in the 1930s.
While the main part of the house was left intact, Mary turned the basement into a recreation center, complete with bar, bowling alley, and indoor swimming pool. Her family lived there through the 1950s, when it was becoming increasingly hard to maintain such a huge house and estate. In the 1960s the property was made into a non-profit that was to further arts education.
Mary’s daughter Barbara Babcock Millhouse became the next woman to shape Reynolda. She had become interested in American art in a time when there was not much interest in it, and so she was able to start a collection that became the nucleus of the Reynolda House Museum today. She had a simple strategy for collecting – to buy the best example she could find of who she considered to be the American masters.
The house opened to the public in 1967, and as a high school junior I visited it in the fall of 1971 as part of a statewide tour my class got to take. I can remember that we all compared it unfavorably to the Biltmore House in Asheville, but one classmate pointed out that it was more like a home than was the Biltmore. And he was right.
One thing of interest to the fashion lovers among us is that Katherine Smith Reynolds loved clothes, and she used a big room on the third floor of the house as her huge closet. Over the years, the other men and women of Reynolda used this area as clothing storage, and in 1972 the room was “rediscovered” and found to be full of the clothing of three generations of the family. Despite the fact that the room had been used by the children as a source for dress-up play, the clothes were in good condition. Today, the attic is a display space for a rotating exhibit of the Reynolds family clothing.
After my first visit to the house in 1971, I did not make it there again until 2003. I went because I’d read that the Reynolds clothing was on exhibit, so I went and spent an entire afternoon sketching the collection. I can’t remember if there was a photography policy, but at the time I was so into drawing that I probably would not have taken them any way.
On this trip, I did notice the policy (Oh, now Instagram has changed things!) and photos are allowed in only two areas inside the house. I’m sure this is a compromise to satisfy the selfie generation as the two areas are great photo opps. Still I found myself wanting to photograph the details of the clothing, as with a husband along, the time for sketching just was not there.
But I was even more surprised later when I reread the list of rules and found that one must have permission before sketching in the house. I really do not understand why an art museum would want to limit sketching.
I do understand the photography rule though, and like it or not, I will admit that our visit was enhanced by the knowledge that I could not whip out the phone and start snapping. It was a quiet afternoon at the museum, and we had the little audio tour devices which told not only about the house and the Reynolds family, but about most of the works of art on display. Still, I’d have loved some detail shots of that Boue Soeurs cape.
Click for more about Reynolda House, including some shots of the clothing.
Sightseeing hint: As a former teacher, I know that school groups have to be at a site early, and they usually have to return to school before it closes between 2:30 and 3:00 pm. So late afternoon is a quieter time to visit many museums that are popular with groups of school kids.