Lions in the Reception Hall
by Clark Harper
October 5, 2023
R.J. and Katharine Reynolds’ daughter Mary and her husband Charlie Babcock took ownership of the house in 1934. By keeping the stately bungalow in the family, the character of the estate was pretty much preserved and is now enjoyed by countless visitors–as well as volunteers and staff–to this day. However, like most substantial houses, Mary made changes, renovations and additions to keep up with the times.
Her mother was tasked with furnishing the house from scratch, so plans and consultations were probably flowing as completion would approach at the end of 1917. Boxcar loads of furniture and accessories from John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and E.F. Caldwell of New York would be ordered. Discussions between Katharine, architect Charles Barton Keen and Wanamaker salesman Earle A. Belmont were to give the grand reception hall an interior design that was in vogue for wealthy early twentieth century homes. The ballet Scheherazade had premiered in Paris not many years before the bungalow had begun construction, and the ballet’s set with its purple and orange tasseled cushions had inspired interior design in homes with its Arabian Night comforts.
In both Arab and Persian culture, the lion is regarded as a symbol of courage, bravery, royalty and chivalry. Today a visitor can spot eight crouching lions in the reception hall. Four are carved into the walnut armrests on two of the chairs. Another four are recumbent lions serving as the front legs of the two sofas.
However as the 1940s approached, Mary hired the New York design firm, McMillen, Inc., to help change things up. The mauve sofas were reupholstered and the recumbent lions were replaced with modern legs, and the cute beasts were discarded. As we know, Mary made a number of significant changes to the house albeit keeping the basic character of the house intact. However when plans were being made to affiliate with Wake Forest University in the early 2000s, the museum chose to roll back the decor of the Historic House to its 1917 look as close as possible.
But what of the lost lions that held up the front of the sofa? Could they be recovered? The dogged curatorial staff of Reynolda, perhaps armed with archival photos of the furniture, seem to have set out on a lion hunting safari to see if duplicates could be made. Their expedition landed them outside of Albemarle, NC at M&W Wood Products (ironically, about 45 minutes away from the North Carolina Zoo). There they presented their work request to two woodwrights, Walter Furr and his son Mickey. The two had no reservations accepting the request. Their shop had done custom wood jobs for the Smithsonian (a couch and Martha Washington tea tables) and re-created 14 chairs to match the dining table in the Governor’s mansion in Raleigh. In a 2017 article by Sandy Hatley for The Stanly News & Press, she writes, “Customers come with magazine clippings, photographs, and ideas of what they want put together. The Furrs carve what the customer wants.” So the four lions of the sofas are back today, replicas of the originals.
Since Katharine first envisioned her country home, a lot of talented hands and minds have created, maintained and restored Reynolda’s unique character for all to enjoy now and in the foreseeable future.