A Former Power Plant Carries Creativity and History to Winston-Salem
The eastern part of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, owes its beginnings to the tobacco industry, but today bio-technology and innovation rule the roost. The Bailey Power Plant, a brick-and-metal industrial building built in 1949 and revamped in 2018 to join the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, is one of the newest examples that embodies the city, then and now.
In February of 2018, the Bailey Power Plant re-opened as an 111,479-square-foot office, entertainment, retail, and restaurant space. The developer, Wexford Science and Technology, has been one of the forces behind the revitalization of the Innovation Quarter, along with other academic and government groups. Each week, nearly 4,000 employees and 1,500 students take advantage of the district’s 145 acres, which is home to companies focusing on biomedical research, information technology, and clinical services, as well as several academic institutions, all housed in a mix of historic and new infrastructure. The Bailey Power Plant is now an indispensable member of the buzzing district, bringing not only work space, but community-centered and entertainment activities to round out the concentration of research related organizations.
The coal-fired power plant was used by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJRT), which was founded in Winston-Salem by R.J. Reynolds in 1875. It quickly became a driving economic force in the area. By Reynolds’ death in 1918, his company owned more than 100 buildings in the city.
What is special about the company is how many generations of Winston-Salem residents have ties to it. “My dad worked in the building one summer when he was in high school, and his dad worked for Reynolds. At that time, the company would offer summer positions to children of its employees,” explains Lauren Frye, project architect at Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce Architects, the firm hired to design the renovation of the former power plant.
The structure was first built in 1947 to house oversize turbines that powered many buildings in the surrounding area. It was expanded two years later and again in 1963. Though its current use differs drastically from its original purpose, the industrial architecture is still visible—smooth reinforced concrete, skeletal steel framing, worn brick walls, and tall cylindrical smoke stacks that rise above the flat roofs with painted lettering that spells “R.J.R. TOB. Co.”
In the early 2000s, RJRT decommissioned the building. For several years it remained defunct, occupied only by rusty mechanical equipment and machinery, but the massive industrial building was still a recognizable landmark in Winston-Salem. Its connection to the community and the fact that the plant abuts the popular Bailey Park provided hope that its future wasn't doomed to neglect. In 2010, the company (now called Reynolds American) donated it to the growing Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.
“This building really tells a great story, because it’s such an emblem of what built Winston-Salem.”Lauren Frye
For the most part, the building was in solid condition when Frye first studied it a dozen years after it was vacated. “It wasn’t a building made to be cleaned, so the floor was dirty. But it was in good shape structurally. It was made for heavy machinery,” she says. By that point, most of the machinery had been removed, including turbines, boilers, and furnaces. “The first time I saw it, it was just clear, open space, 70 feet tall, like a cathedral.”
Though the common perception of adapted industrial buildings is that they’re the perfect canvases for loft apartments, offices, retail—anything, essentially—just as they are, that’s not always true. As Frye points out, industrial spaces often lack a pedestrian feel: “How do you take something designed for machines and bring it to the scale of people without compromising the scale that’s there?”
The architects wanted people in the space to be drawn to the existing historic character, so they made sure that the new design used clean lines and materials that wouldn’t distract from the building’s patina."We wanted to highlight the materiality and the texture of the original facility,” Frye says. They left the old paint, peeling from the brick walls in places, to emphasize the contrast with new construction. Bulley and Andrews Masonry Restoration restored the exterior masonry and the iconic smokestacks. The original catwalks in the structure had been removed previously, so Walter Robbs added floors surrounding the perimeter of the space to create a central atrium that emphasizes the interior's height.
One of the challenges with transforming an industrial building into a livable office space was the lack of an original entrance. “It was just an industrial facility, so it didn’t have any clear grand entryway,” says Frye. But the north side of the building faces several newly developed business centers, so the firm chose to place the business lobby entrance there.
One of the most eye-catching features of the lobby is the reception desk, nestled between a massive hollowed-out concrete structure. Originally, it held one of the building’s turbines. A close look at the concrete shows the stenciled silhouettes of camels, doodled at some point in the past as a reminder of the building’s former ties (the company created the Camel cigarette brand in 1913).
Frye describes the renovated five-story building as having “dual personalities.” The bottom portion provides space for entertainment, retail, and restaurants, while the upper floors are dedicated to a mix of co-working and traditional office space.
“This building really tells a great story, because it’s such an emblem of what built Winston-Salem. The tobacco company and a few other large companies built the city,” says Frye. “The economy is shifting toward more innovation and bio-technology, so this building embodies both the history and the future of our city.”