The Reynolda House Museum of American Art is one of the few surviving, well-preserved examples of the American Country House movement. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the former Winston-Salem, North Carolina home of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds and his wife, Katharine, is not only an archived tribute to one of America’s iconic families but also one the top museums in the country for American art.
Built in 1917, the 64-room Reynolds Mansion was part of a 1,067-acre estate. In addition to the 35,000-square-foot manor house, it included a 20-acre planned village with a working farm and dairy, a blacksmith shop, a church, a school and a post office plus a formal garden. All buildings featured white stucco with green tile roofs.
The restored mansion, known as Reynolda House, opened to the public in 1965 dedicated to arts and education. It became an art museum in 1967. It has been affiliated since 2002 with neighboring Wake Forest University, where the late Maya Angelou was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies in 1982.
In 2005, Reynolda House opened the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing with 3,000 square feet of gallery space for traveling exhibitions. Past exhibits have included “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” “Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light” plus “The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920.”
Tranquil setting, meticulous grounds
Approaching the home in spring, we’re delighted by the tranquil setting, stunning architecture and meticulous grounds sprouting thousands of daffodils. It’s not our first visit and we recommend fall visits for an explosion of color.
An admission ticket opens the doors to a world of the socially connected, wealthy and culturally well-heeled who played a leading role in the development of America around the turn of the 20th century.
Among the Reynolda House collection, comprising nearly 200 works, are masterpieces by Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Romare Bearden and Gilbert Stuart. According to John Wilmerding, Professor in American Art Emeritus, Princeton, and former curator for American Art at the National Gallery, Reynolda House contains “the finest concentration of American art in a public collection south of Washington.”
Much of the extensive art collection is attributed to the keen eye and wide interests of the Reynolds’ granddaughter, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, who began collecting art in the 1960s and was named museum president at age 26.
Also considered one of the “Great Houses of the South,” Reynolda House features changing exhibitions, concerts, lectures, classes, film screenings and other events. A summer tradition on the grounds is “Cinema Under the Stars” with weekly offerings such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Great Gatsby.
Original Aeolian pipe organ
During our recent visit, we explore the Reynolda House Museum using the free, downloadable app, Reynolda Revealed, which was easy and informative, offering highlights room by room.
But we put the app aside as the time neared 2:45 p.m. when a staffer cues up the auto-play on the magnificently preserved Aeolian pipe organ. This festive occurrence fills the grand, two-story reception hall with musical strains that spur the imagination. Perhaps these tunes were once the background for the family entertaining important business associates. On another day, perhaps, the youngest of the Reynolds clan were gathered with their own peers begging for music.
The paper rolls of the organ’s automatic player device from 1917 have been digitized for use today. Incidentally, an Aeolian organ from 1932 still fills Durham’s Duke University Chapel with music.
Toys, formal wear, and magnificent antiques
Reynolda’s historic revival furnishings show preferences for Italian Renaissance, English Tudor and Adam styles, and French 18th century. Exhibits offer glimpses into the family’s lifestyle. Two attic rooms display toys from the four children as well as their parents’ lavish formal wear. Katharine, who was active in the estate’s operations, designed and sewed her own wedding gown, which is included in the collection.
On view in the kitchen and dining room are custom china and a 15-piece silver punch set with an incredibly ornate flower motif, a fourth-anniversary gift from R.J. to his bride.
On the covered sun porch, we linger over the life-like collection of porcelain birds, amazed at the highly detailed feathers, flowers and branches that support them. All are the work of British sculptor Dorothy Doughty. We also look for details of bees, wasps and turtles in the original floor tiles.
Whimsically, a shooting gallery and art deco bar with bold red-and-white striped decor were added to the house later. Also added, an indoor pool that’s still used today for summer camp programs on site.
Learning about a favorite painting
Among our favorite discoveries in the house is a work by Frederic Edwin Church, “The Andes of Ecuador,” created in 1855 following the artist’s first trip to Ecuador in 1853. Appreciating it requires both close-up study to distinguish its marvelous features and stepping back for an overview perspective of the 48- x 76-inch painting.
According to museum notations: “The Andes of Ecuador combines the scientific and religious concerns of Church’s time in one grand panorama. The infinite botanical detail, the terrifying depths of the abyss, and the overwhelming sense of unlimited space combine to communicate a powerful sense of the sublime…. through a dramatic sweeping vista that contains several small vignettes and seemingly endless details.”
This visit, we more closely study the modernism “For Internal Use Only” by Stuart Davis. We’re drawn in by bold colors: yellow, red, green and blue. Museum notes explain that “the painting pays tribute to Davis’s friend Piet Mondrian, known for his primary-colored gridded compositions. Davis and Mondrian, a World War II refugee, frequented jazz clubs in New York…. The painting contains an abstracted marquee, piano keys, a bowtie, and a black face — all signifiers of the New York boogie-woogie jazz scene.”
We find it’s easy to spend an entire day at Reynolda, not only for the lovely, historic house and its art, but also for the shopping and dining at adjacent Reynolda Village and Gardens, part of the Reynolda Historic District. Originally modeled after an English village, it’s a quaint destination in an idyllic setting. The conserved farm buildings still feature the green roofs and white exteriors matching Reynolda House.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Exploring an eclectic, highly rated art collection in a historic home setting
- Access to an adjoining wing with changing exhibits and the chance to purchase art for $5 from an Art-o-Mat, a repurposed cigarette vending machine
- Discovering art and striking architecture amid a 178-acre historic district of gardens, shops and trails popular with visitors and locals alike
- Reynolda House is closed on Mondays; allow at least three hours to explore the museum and surrounding estate;
- Do take time to watch the outstanding orientation video
- There is elevator access in the house and gallery wing, plus two wheelchairs are available at the front desk at no charge
- Reynolda is located next to the Wake Forest University campus, which was built on original estate land donated to the college
- The extensive book “Reynolda: Her Muses, Her Stories, with lavish illustrations and essays, was published to mark the home’s 100th year in 2017.
- While in Winston-Salem, also consider visiting the community of Old Salem with costumed interpreters and Home Moravian Church plus The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Cobblestone Farmers Market, the downtown Arts District, West End and thriving restaurant scene and more.
IF YOU GO
While in Winston-Salem, don’t miss Historic Graylyn.
All photos courtesy of Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Disclosure: The author’s stay was hosted by the Winston-Salem Convention & Visitors Bureau
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