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Gracious Graylyn

Courtesy Graylyn International Conference Center

When Nathalie Lyons Gray purchased 87 acres of prime country property near Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1925 from her husband Bowman Gray’s boss, tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, the couple set about building a home that in size and style seemed more like a castle.

The Norman-revival masterpiece — with more than 50 rooms — took  four years to complete. European influences were everywhere, from rounded turrets and hand-painted tile murals to a 15th-century carved doorway and rare Louis XV paneling, both imported from France.

Each of its 15 second-floor bedrooms  had a private bath with gold-plated fixtures, a marble tub, built-in scales and a shower with 17 heads. Water and steam lines were made of copper and solid brass, respectively, and there was a phone system, a radio system that piped hi-fi to a number of rooms and a security floodlight system, all cutting-edge for the era.

A castle that was truly a home
From the outside, the stone house seemed forebidding and fortresslike, but inside, Graylyn was a warm, well-lived-in home, an atmosphere that abides today in its modern role as Graylyn International Conference Center.

The Gray family gave Graylyn to Wake Forest University, and in 1984, after spending millions to repair damage from a fire, the university opened this National Register of Historic Places structure to meetings and events. Seventy percent of its business is conferences, and 25 percent, special events.

The manor house is surrounded by eclectic outbuildings and 55 acres of gardens, wide lawns, woods and arched stone bridges that span a quiet lake. The former estate is a blend of 1930s easy elegance, undisturbed nature, stellar service and top-of-the-line technology.

“Part of our appeal is the fact that we’re a distraction-free environment,” said Amy Willard, manager of promotions and advertising. “There are plenty of activities a group can do on property, but if they want to get down to business, they can. It’s secluded: You can barely see the house from the road.”

As manager of training and organizational development for one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, Syngenta, Bill Knowles appreciates that. He has led six to eight meetings of 12 to 40 people at Graylyn each of the past eight years.

“We use Graylyn to make a statement to our clients that our company cares about them,” Knowles said. “It’s beautiful, and there are no cars driving 20 feet from the classroom as in most cities. Part of our program involves intuition work, holding thoughts and reflecting on future plans. Attendees can do this while strolling Graylyn’s grounds. Try to do that in a busy city, and you lose your train of thought.”

Graylyn’s 98 guest rooms are in four buildings scattered around the grounds. No two rooms are alike, and 70 are single rooms. Complimentary airport shuttle service to the North Carolina cities of Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham are included with oversize premium guest rooms.

Antique rooms have original furniture
Fifteen of the 35 rooms in the original stone Manor House are called “antique rooms,” because they are furnished exactly as they were when the family lived there.

The original 1930s and 1940s furnishings are in pristine condition, because they were stored during the years Graylyn served as a Wake Forest psychiatric hospital and then as an academic program and community service center. Even the wall colors remain as close to 1930s hues as possible.

“Graylyn is different from places like the Biltmore mansion, because [at the Biltmore] you don’t actually sleep in those rooms,” said Tina Davis Fullard, associate general manager of sales. “You can visit them but can’t touch anything. Some of our guest rooms are the original rooms lived in by the Gray family.”

“Walking into the Manor House is like an exploration of the world,” said Willard. “Because of items purchased overseas by the Grays, we have representations of probably 10 different countries.”

In the Persian Card Room, for example, 16 can dine surrounded by elaborately carved wall panels from a small mosque in Turkey. Instead of one central dining room, Graylyn has nine spaces where meals are served, including an outside terrace and a living room porch. The configuration allows small groups to dine together in privacy. A Grille Room serves light fare; a full buffet breakfast is served in the largest space, the living room, which seats 70.

“In my book,” said Knowles, “the food is better than any five-star restaurant, and I eat in those daily.” The Manor House’s  15,000 square feet of meeting space ranges from a 10-person boardroom to a conference room for groups of up to 165.

Outbuildings serve new purposes
Other outbuildings house guest rooms and additional meeting rooms.

The Mews, which was originally a decidedly low-tech 1930s farm complex, is stone and slate-roofed like the Manor House, with 45 bedrooms, a cobblestone courtyard and a French cottage feel. Its meeting venues include three breakout rooms, a boardroom and the property’s largest meeting room, which, at 2,050 square feet, seats 243 theater-style with floor-to-ceiling window views.

The Gardener’s Cottage was renovated a year ago; it contains four premium bedrooms and a shared parlor. “Meeting planners love to use it for their own workspace,” said Fullard.

Another building, the Management House, has four meetings rooms where two groups can gather and both can use a dedicated break area. Bernard Cottage, where the Gray family lived while the Manor House was built, has 10 private rooms and small meeting space.

Throughout the estate, technology is cutting-edge. State-of-the-art podiums with touch-screen panels allow easy access to LCD controls, speaker-system volume and room lights. There’s also a business center and wireless high-speed Internet.

Though the Gray family donated the estate to Wake Forest, the present generation of Grays remains involved in its marketing, and a number of Nathalie’s great-grandchildren have gotten married there. And at Graylyn, the walls do talk.

“We hear new family stories daily,” said Fullard, “and we try to incorporate them into our day-to-days and share them with our guests.”

For instance, as a great-grandma, Nathalie Gray hosted Sunday “silver dollar dinners,” placing a silver dollar under each child’s plate. Meeting planners can arrange to bring the tradition back by having the center place silver dollars under plates during a theme dinner, perhaps a candlelit Tuscan supper under the stars with strolling musicians and gypsy fortunetellers, or a Carolina Pig Pickin’ with barbecue and bluegrass music.

English taxi is part of the fleet
Graylyn has its own fleet of vans and sedans, and an authentic classic English taxi and is happy to transport guests to golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones, Hale Irwin, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer that are within 20 minutes of Graylyn. Guests can also be transported to the 69-room Reynolda House Museum of American Art, once R.J. Reynolds’ country home, which is right across the road.

The museum is surrounded by a four-acre formal garden and 129 acres of woodlands and fields. Also nearby is Reynolda Village, a cluster of Reynolds’ estate buildings that have been turned into boutiques, eateries and a day spa.

The area also offers wine tours, Wake Forest college sports, pro baseball, canoeing and kayaking on the Danbury River, and horseback riding in 1,100-acre Tanglewood Park, former home of R.J. Reynolds’ brother William Neal Reynolds, who willed his estate to the citizens of Forsythe County to share as a public recreational park.

No need to leave the estate
Many guests, however, never leave the property. They take walks or run on its trails, swim in the heated art-deco pool, learn to fly-fish or simply warm by the fireside.

Martin Penry, executive director of J. Kiffen Penry Epilepsy Education Programs, has had eight to 12 programs for 30 to 45 attendees at Graylyn each year since 1986.

“It’s easy to lose people if you meet in downtown,” said Penry. “Graylyn’s grounds are pretty, they feed you well, and there’s nowhere to go. The rooms and breakouts aren’t oversized, and there are no air walls like in large hotels, where you can never really get comfortable. Our programs last a number of days, and attendee comfort is vital. Besides, it really feels like home.”

That is the goal, Fullard said. “Our living room is so homey that I think people feel like they can take their shoes off. We encourage our staff to be professional at all times, to give our guests five-star service but never to be stuffy. We want to be friendly and make guests feel at home.”

For more information:
Graylyn International Conference Center