A jagged hole marring one of the oak wall panels in the richly appointed library of Graylyn, once the second largest private home in North Carolina and now an international conference center, is all that remains of a Parisian love story run amok.
Butler Larry Worley, my tuxedo-clad, yet thoroughly unstuffy, guide in this historic Winston-Salem estate tells the tale with animated relish. Supposedly, a distraught woman who was an attendant to the young Marie Antoinette in the 18th century entered a room with murder on her mind. Her target? The man who jilted her – King Louis XV of France.
“She raised a pistol, and BOOM,” Larry bellows pointing his finger like a gun to demonstrate.
Thanks to her errant aim, the bullet struck an ornately carved wooden wall. Punishment being what it was in those pre-French Revolution times, the ill-fated shooter was presumed to have been either beheaded or hanged, despite having missed the royal. Years later, England’s King Edward VII used the same room, which sat atop a hotel, as his French office.
That the room’s entire complement of rare, 1680-era wooden panels (with hole intact, minus the bullet) embellishes Graylyn’s library walls reflects the spare-no-expense mindset of the home’s original owners.
From 1927 to 1932, Nathalie Lyons Gray and her husband, Bowman Gray, chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., employed 150 artisans and craftsmen (many from Europe) to build Graylyn’s stone manor house and a variety of out buildings on their 87-acre property – land that was formerly corn fields and pasture. Enchanted with grand homes and castles during visits to Europe, the couple fashioned their 46,000-square-foot, 60-room Norman Revival-style mansion with old world charm and exacting attention to detail and design. Today, as one of the finest conference centers in America with 85 sumptuous guestrooms, Graylyn perpetuates the Grays’ legacy of refined taste, comfortable luxury, and Southern hospitality.
Having lived in Winston-Salem for nearly 16 years in the 1980s and 90s, of course I was familiar with Graylyn.
Its pristine grounds were part of my running route through the upscale residential neighborhood of Buena Vista. I knew Nathalie and Bowman’s son Gordon had donated Graylyn in 1972 to Wake Forest University, which used the property for programs and a student dormitory.
On June 22, 1980, Bill and I attended the final Music at Sunset performance by the Winston-Salem Symphony on the great lawn. Mentioning the specific date is important, for a fire erupted on the third floor of the unoccupied manor house. If we hadn’t needed to depart the concert early, we would have been among the 7,000 picnickers aghast at the flames and smoke emanating from its slate roof. Graylyn sustained extensive damage from heat and smoke as well as the one million gallons of cascading water firefighters pumped in.
Undaunted, Wake Forest University turned tragedy into triumph, restoring the National Historic Landmark home to its original magnificence. In 1984, Graylyn opened as an educational conference center, then became an international conference center in 1993. A new directive was issued: always stay open.
“Graylyn is one of those places to be and to visit, one of the crown jewels of Wake Forest University,” Larry beams.
Following Graylyn’s post-fire transformation, Bill and I participated in meetings and events there hosted by our corporate employers, so I became familiar with much of the opulent interior. Decades later, though, it’s my behind-the-scenes exploration with Larry that’s really opening my eyes to this landmark’s pedigree and presence in the community.
While my tour is private, Graylyn offers monthly tours for guests and the public called Tour Pour du Jour (Tour for the Day) for $20 as part of its open-door mission. During the 90-minute event, which includes wine and cheese, tour goers learn about the Gray family’s early history, Graylyn’s use today, and some of its enduring mysteries – including the still-unsolved murder of a European man the Grays hired to work on the exterior. Tour days or not, visitors are always welcome.
Walking through Graylyn
Lingering in the library, Larry and I experience a minor mystery of our own. Classical music had been playing at the start of our walk-through, so he kindly turned off the sound system to allow me to make a clean recording of his commentary on my iPhone. He’s pointing out the miniature chairs and sofa that Nathalie, an avid shopper, had purchased from a traveling furniture salesman, and upon which children nowadays sit during Graylyn’s annual breakfast with Santa. Abruptly and inexplicably, the music begins, then ends, then begins again. The pattern continues.
“Graylyn ghosts,” he shrugs.
He leads me into other rooms and points out their special features.
Nathalie’s pastel portrait oversees dinner service in the Adam Revival-style formal dining room – nicknamed the Dogwood Room because of the hand-carved dogwood flowers on the door casings. If Nathalie were still alive and walked in, she would recognize the same pale yellow and cream paint scheme, the hand-carved marble fireplace imported from London, and her candelabra and wall sconces. Beyond I glimpse a porch with the original slate floor, now enclosed with sliding glass doors and equipped with HVAC for more comfortable year-round use.
In the stair tower, we climb up and down tightly wound, circular blue slate steps that are cantilevered through the walls to the outside. Capping the narrow space is a beehive brick ceiling. I watch my footing and try to envision Larry gracefully maintaining his balance while carting suitcases up the stairs.
My favorite is the medieval-looking Great Hall, now Graylyn’s lobby. I feel like I’m in a castle. A limestone arch, hand-carved during 15th century France, overhangs the entryway simply for show rather than support. Also for ornamentation instead of function is the limestone fireplace from 16th century France. A matte back suit of armor leans against a wall as if its knight were catching a few winks. Curtains surrounding French doors to the terrace are original and, frankly, Larry admits, a bit worn and tattered after 85 years, which is part of their charm. In an abundance of caution, housekeepers lightly dust rather than remove them for a thorough cleaning, for fear they would disintegrate. To my right is a massive, ornately carved wooden table from 18th century England. Above is a flamboyant portrait of King Augustus II of Poland and Saxony.
“He must have been a likeable fellow,” Larry quips, “because his claim to fame is having fathered over 200 children.”
When the Grays visited Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, to buy tobacco for Reynolds Tobacco’s Camel cigarettes, they also returned with hand-painted wall panels from a small, private mosque and installed them in the Persian Card Room. Panels that would have faced Mecca and been opened for daily prayers still appropriately face east.
Standing in the Georgian Revival living room, I feel a mixed sense of dismay and acceptance as I look at the ceiling, for in the third floor space above us is where the fire originated.
We stride through the airy sunroom to the oldest indoor pool in the city. At the moment, a temporary floor covers the pool, leftover from a previous event. Thanks to porthole windows and colorfully painted Art Deco murals of swimming fish, sunken treasures, and bare-breasted mermaids, it resembles either a pool, ocean liner, or the inside of an aquarium. Or, in a fateful twist of irony, Bowman’s final resting place. Bowman had a hand in the room’s design, not knowing he would soon perish on a Swedish ship during a cruise around Scandinavia. Per his wish, Nathalie buried him at sea. In true Viking fashion, an honor guard placed his remains on a longboat and set it ablaze as it was cast away.
Back in the Great Hall is a table cheerfully set with afternoon refreshments for guests and passersby who happen to drop in. Every day, the chef faithfully recreates Nathalie’s recipe for sugar cookies with butterscotch chips, a culinary tribute to the Grays’ Scottish terriers, Butter and Scotch.
Two valets stand at the massive, wooden double front doors. Timing my approach, they open the doors with synchronized precision. Cookie in hand, I notice the Grays’ wrought iron boot scrapes just outside, dog-shaped to further memorialize their beloved pets.
If I still lived in Winston-Salem, I’d be sure to make regular treks to Graylyn to munch on a cookie and wander back through time.
As it is, I depart with a copy of Nathalie’s recipe. How typical of Graylyn – offering visitors a take-away memento that thoughtfully marries its storied history and gracious hospitality.
Mrs. Gray’s Recipe: Scrumptious Sugar Cookie with Butterscotch Chips (Reprinted with permission of Graylyn.)
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Makes: 20 cookies
1 lb. butter, softened
8 oz. brown sugar
8 oz. white sugar
Pinch of salt
1 t. vanilla extract
1 lb. all-purpose flour
¼ c. butterscotch morsels
1 t. baking soda
1. Cream the butter and sugars together.
2. Add the eggs and vanilla extract.
3. Mix the flour, baking soda, and butterscotch morsels into butter/sugar mixture until batter is smooth.
4. Portion mixture into 2-3.5 oz. balls.
5. Place onto greased baking sheet.
6. Bake at 375° for 10-12 minutes.
7. Allow to cool at room temperature.
Feature photo courtesy of Graylyn.