BY RON BERNTHAL
Whenever I hear the words “conference center” in a hotel name, without being followed by “…and resort,” I imagine a sprawling, modern, one or two- story institutional-looking building, a style which says to guests “you’re here for business, and only business.”
Thus, when I visited the Graylyn Conference Center I was pleasantly surprised to see a gorgeous stone manor house, built in the Norman Revival style, at the end of the mile-long driveway. The experience got even better when a butler in a black tuxedo greeted me at the door of Graylyn with a glass of champagne. Obviously, this was no ordinary conference venue.
Graylyn is a 55-acre estate located just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Winston-Salem. Its original owner, Bowman Gray, the wealthy son of a founder of Wachovia Bank & Trust, became even richer when he went to work for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in the 1920′s, eventually becoming the firm’s president and CEO.
The Grays began construction of their new manor house in 1927, and the family moved into the residence in 1932. With 60 rooms and 46,000 square feet, Graylyn was one of the largest private homes in North Carolina. Unfortunately, Mr. Gray died at sea in 1935, while vacationing with his family, leaving his wife and two sons (and their families) to occupy the residence until 1946, when the house and land was donated to nearby Wake Forest University.
In 1980 a fire destroyed the building’s slate roof and third floor, but by 1984 the university had restored the entire home to its 1932 appearance, adding modern conveniences and opening the 49 newly renovated bedrooms and public areas as an educational conference center. In the 1990′s Wake Forest University would restore and open to guests The Mews, a Normandy-style farm complex on the estate, as well as the nearby Gardener’s Cottage, and in the early 2000′s the manor house rooms were updated as well, bringing the total number of guest rooms on the property to 86.
After walking through the 15th-century carved stone doorway from France (the Grays imported lots of European architectural flourishes), we checked-in at the front desk and followed the butler up a handmade circular stair tower with slate steps, to Room 201, our room on the second floor. This room, with its high, four-poster canopy bed, windows overlooking the back gardens, and a huge, ornate, white marble bathroom (with the original 17-shower jets, each with its own white ceramic faucet), belonged to Bowman and Nathalie Gray. The bathroom has a specially designed medicine cabinet cut deep into the marble to keep medicine cool. There are also heated towel racks and built-in scales. I must admit, it was a bit eerie at first using the same bathroom fixtures as the original residents of the house, perhaps the front desk knew of my interest in historic preservation and was providing me with the full treatment! In any case, the room was large and extremely clean, with comfortable furnishings and high-speed WiFi and HDTV (both of which I am sure the Gray’s did not have!).
Because Graylyn is open to both leisure visitors, often couples looking for a romantic weekend, and conference participants attending mid-week events, the property caters to both markets by offering evening turndown service, a fitness facility and running trails, an outdoor pool and tennis court, team building programs, and nine private dining rooms. There are over 15,000 square-feet of flexible meeting space, with ergonomic chairs in all areas, and various meeting services and F&B packages.
My guest and I enjoyed walking on the grounds of the estate, and visiting Reynolda House Museum of American Art, set in the historic home of R.J. and Katherine Reynolds, located on the former tobacco magnate’s estate in the same neighborhood. We had breakfast and dinner in one of the glass enclosed dining rooms, and Larry, our assigned butler, provided an informative behind-the-scenes tour of the manor house, including the secret indoor swimming pool. One of the more unique amenities at Graylyn is a tiled room on the second floor which was originally an all-hours snack kitchen for the Gray family. It is now called the “ice cream room” and is open 24/7, offering complimentary Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars. A similar service is provided for guests at The Mews, a 10-minute walk from the main house.
Graylyn’s appearance reflects Mrs. Gray’s strong interest in the French countryside of Normandy and Brittany, and offers conference or leisure guests not only a serene environment but an opportunity to experience the culture and accoutrements of one of North Carolina’s upper class tobacco families.
GRAYLYN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE CENTER
1900 Reynolda Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27106