Reynolda Gardens: Public or Private?

Written by Bari Helms, Director of Archives & Library

The history of Reynolda is full of mysteries and curiosities. One point of curiosity—the location of the formal gardens. At the time of Reynolda’s construction, most formal gardens were intended for private use and were most often situated behind or at least adjacent to the main residence. But at Reynolda, Katharine Reynolds chose to locate her formal gardens as an extension of the greenhouses and along a public road. Which leads to the question, were the gardens at Reynolda meant to be public? Private? Or a hybrid of both? Further, what did it really mean for a space to be public in the context of 1917? 

When Katharine unveiled her model farm in 1917, the Twin-City Sentinel described Reynolda as an “experiment station… destined to become one of the great factors in the development of rural life” in North Carolina. Katharine created a space for local farmers and their families to come and learn the newest techniques in scientific agriculture, dairying, livestock management, and horticulture. But did this public accessibility extend to the formal gardens? 

Katharine opened her greenhouse and gardens for many public and private events. Reynolda Road provided easy social and commercial access while still protecting the family’s privacy. Chrysanthemum shows were held annually in the greenhouse beginning in 1913, before the formal gardens were even planted in their final form. An admission fee of twenty-five cents was charged and plants were sold for the benefit of the local YWCA, of which Katharine was a founding member. The annual show continued during World War I for the benefit of the Red Cross. Students at Reynolda School used the gardens as their stage for plays and operettas, like their 1921 performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

While rare, it was not unprecedented for a private estate to open portions of land to the public. Greystone Hall, built in 1907 for Philip M. Sharples, inventor and manufacturer of the cream separator, opened 300 acres of woods and landscaped gardens to the public as a park. Even turning a playhouse, similar to the one found at Reynolda, into a community gathering space for local children. Reynolda and the Sharples estate had a vital element in common—architect Charles Barton Keen. Katharine most definitely looked to Greystone Hall as a model for her modernized dairy, so it is possible that she was inspired by the public gardens as well.

Katharine’s younger daughter Nancy Susan Reynolds believed that her mother “wanted the public to enjoy [the gardens] without losing the privacy of the family.” Newspaper accounts, oral histories, and photographs indicate that Reynolda’s gardens were at times accessible to the local community. However, Reynolda as a working estate existed during Jim Crow segregation, one of the most repressive climates for Black citizens in North Carolina history. Katharine was progressive and yet still very much a woman of her time. She provided frequent access to her gardens at a time when green spaces set aside for public use was uncommon, but she adhered to the strict racial etiquette of the time and viewing the gardens would have been for white citizens only. 

Photographs depict white Reynolda construction worker Bynum Fulcher touring the gardens with family and friends, but even for Reynolda’s workers access to the estate could be segregated. Children of white workers who lived in Reynolda Village had their run of the property. They rode bicycles or horses through the estate, swam in Lake Katharine, played tennis, ran through the underground heating tunnels, and drank chocolate milk from the dairy. In contrast, Black children who grew up in the community of Five Row did not enjoy the same access, primarily interacting with Reynolda through the odd jobs they held. They cleaned and helped repair cars in the garage and assisted with carpentry work, taking home lumber scraps and nails to build toys and wagons. They could play golf on the nine-hole course but only at the end of the day after caddying. They played in the underground heating tunnels but only while also cleaning them. Black families would not have been allowed the freedom to roam the gardens on a Sunday afternoon like the Fulcher family. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would come years after the gardens were donated to Wake Forest University.

Bynum Fulcher Sr. (left) touring Reynolda Gardens, around 1918.

When Mary Reynolds Babcock took over Reynolda in the 1930s, she continued her mother’s tradition of public events in the gardens. Letters written in the 1940s describe the gardens open annually in April with visitors “coming out in droves” to see the cherry trees. With a love of gardening and floral design, Mary was an enthusiastic supporter of garden clubs. She joined the Twin City Garden Club after her move back to Winston-Salem and was instrumental in getting the club affiliated with the Garden Club of America. In her 1951 appeal to the national organization, Mary described her garden as “open to the public without charge all year. When the cherry trees are in bloom thousands of visitors come from all over the country to see it.”

Between 1946 and 1951, Mary and her husband Charlie Babcock donated 350 acres of the Reynolda estate to Wake Forest College for its relocation to Winston-Salem. Ultimately the Babcocks would donate over 600 acres to Wake Forest. After Mary’s death in 1953, Charlie Babcock donated additional acreage, including the formal gardens and greenhouses, with specific instructions to preserve the space as a community resource. 

FEATURE IMAGE: Harvey and Rosalie Miller visiting Five Row, late 1940s or early 1950s.

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2020 Cultivate. Become a Friend of the Gardens to receive this bi-annual Reynolda Gardens publication.