Of Art and Agriculture at Reynolda House Museum
Most visitors to Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem go to see the home of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds and the art collection started by his granddaughter – each an important representation of the state’s history. But museum curators hope visitors don’t miss the fact that the 178-acre estate originated as a working farm village.
“Visitors pass through the farm areas, whether they know it or not,” says Phil Archer, director of public programs and interim director of program and interpretation. “When you’re coming in, you’re driving by the pastures where the Shropshire sheep were kept and passing through the farm village, but you may not get the sense that agriculture was the original intent of this estate.”
Southern Belle Turned Visionary
Reynolda House dates back to 1906 when Reynolds’ new wife, Katharine, began purchasing tracts of land outside Winston-Salem, which was a booming industrial town at the time.
“The idea of moving out to the country to get fresh air and grow healthy foods was not unusual. People wanted to have a little bit of country air as cities were getting really industrialized,” Archer says. “Katharine was a progressive rural reformer who believed a scientific approach to agriculture could solve a lot of the South’s economic problems.”
Archer says Katharine set about creating a model farm, hiring graduates of North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now N.C. State) to demonstrate how to analyze soil, rotate crops and use the newest fertilizers. At the same time that cities were booming, the farm areas were languishing, particularly in the Piedmont region, where farmers were able to grow about a fourth of the food they ate and imported the rest.
“The farm was like her own extension service,” he says. “Farmers from the area came to the farm to learn these scientific techniques. There were sessions about sanitary dairying and canning demonstrations, some of which led into the World War I effort to provide great reserves of food. There were corn clubs to teach boys about growing and harvesting corn.”
A New Era for Art
The estate underwent several renovations in the 1930s after Katharine’s death. Her children and grandchildren continued the family’s tradition of education, but shifted the focus to the arts and humanities. Philanthropist and eldest daughter Mary Reynolds Babcock, purchased Reynolda House from her siblings, and her descendants opened the mansion and estate to the public in 1967 as an art museum.
If You Go...
Winston-Salem, NC 27106
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Admission: $14 for adults; free for children, students and members of the military
“The art collection is one that the state can be very proud of,” Archer says. “The deputy director of the National Gallery once called it ‘the finest concentration of American art in a public gallery south of Washington.’”
In its heyday, more than 100 Reynolda employees and their families lived and worked on the property, which even housed a school attended by workers’ children. Today, the school, blacksmith shop, post office, dairy barns, cattle sheds and carriage house have been converted into shops, cafes and restaurants, collectively known as Reynolda Village. The house features three rotating and permanent art galleries as well as period clothing, toys and furniture, and old Reynolds family photographs. The basement features the amusement park built by Mary Reynolds Babcock.
“The whole floor on that level is this hard rubber that was for rollerskating,” Archer says. “It has a shooting gallery, a bowling alley, a ping pong room, a regulation size squash court and an indoor swimming pool that could be heated with the fireplace. There were even 12-foot-tall cages for the family parrots. The treasures that are in each room are astonishing.”
The house itself has so many windows showcasing the nature surrounding the campus, Archer says. “There are paths guiding you into the woods or into the Reynolda Gardens,” he continues. “I think it sends the message that taking time for yourself and nature just makes you happier.”
Beginning in July 2016, the museum will host an exhibition about the Reynolda farm, drawing from archived letters, architectural plans and photographs. In September 2016, an exhibition opens showcasing the works of Grant Wood, a 20th-century painter from Iowa best known for his American Gothic painting. The exhibit will feature art depicting farm life from 1850 to 1950.
“Wood’s inspiration his entire career was the farmland of the middle west. Our curator is looking at the long history of the American farm and the examples of citizenship and virtue, resiliency, and self-sufficiency. The farm has been a constant wellspring for American art,” Archer says.
– Teree Caruthers