Jeff “Smitty” Smith has been covering the Winston-Salem scene since the late 1990s in Smitty’s Notes, a website and monthly e-newsletter. His vantage point hasn’t changed – he’s lived in Albert Hall at the corner of North Chestnut and East First streets for the past 15 years – but much else has.
For one, the city today has a whole lot more going on in terms of arts, entertainment, dining, nightlife and community events than it did when Smith produced his first newsletter, which went to about a dozen subscribers. And the district where Smith lives, now part of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter – has been similarly transformed.
A lifelong city resident, Smith started Smitty’s Notes in 1997. That same year, he made plans to move into a renovated building downtown, the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Plant 256 on North Chestnut.
“The concept of living downtown was brand new at that time and it was considered somewhat of a risky venture,” Smith said.
A real estate developer had purchased the abandoned four-building factory – where Reynolds made Prince Albert pipe tobacco and its iconic tins – from Forsyth County in 1996 and started to convert it into a mixed-use facility with office, laboratory and residential components. The renovation project was near completion in August 1998 when the three main structures in the complex were destroyed in a fire that ranks as one the largest in Winston-Salem’s history. Only the fourth building – erected in 1917 as an addition to the original 1890s construction – survived the blaze, though not without suffering extensive damage.
That building was Albert Hall, named after the pipe tobacco. The fire damage was repaired during the fall and the building welcomed its commercial and residential tenants that winter.
Among them was Smith. With a condo in the larger complex no longer an option, he chose to move into Albert Hall – enticed in part by the opportunity to contribute to the design of his home.
“I basically designed my house,” Smith said. “I worked with the architect and picked out design elements, down to the electrical outlets. That probably wouldn’t happen today.”
Smith’s condo is one of 18 on the fourth floor of Albert Hall. Ranging in size from 550 to 2,000 square feet, the lofts today are home to 23 people.
The first three floors of the brick-facade structure contain office and laboratory spaces that are occupied by 15 tenants representing the commercial, government, nonprofit and research sectors.
And those who now live and work in Albert Hall are far less isolated than the occupants were when the building opened. Numerous renovation and construction projects have in recent years brought a wide range of businesses, institutions and people into the former industrial district, giving it a new vibrancy.
“It was more than putting housing downtown,” Smith said of the neighborhood’s growth. “There was a vision of different elements working together to create the environment we have today.
“I have to give the Innovation Quarter a lot of credit for creating the research park and rehabbing a number of historic buildings. It has made all the difference in our downtown, and people have followed.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Smitty’s Notes now has more than 15,000 monthly subscribers.
“We have definitely come a long way since 1997,” Smith said.
Photos courtesy of Jay Sinclair