The lens through which we view the past romanticizes the reality of any given time and place. The 1920’s brings forth visions of speakeasies, The Great Gatsby, flappers, good times, and wealth. The rise of the industrial revolution brought great prosperity but also greater distinctions between the rich and poor. America had become the richest nation in the world. The populace swarmed to the cities for work. Business owners, with more money than they could spend, tried to create lasting beauty in the not-so-beautiful cities by erecting buildings based on medieval and neo-classic architecture. They “sought to combine beauty and community in the middle of where it [the city] lacked both.” 1 It was no different in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Starting in the 1880’s, men and women had begun to flee from farms due to overproduction to try to find jobs in the city. Black tenant farmers came from South Carolina to find work in factories. Their skills were lacking for what was needed in an industrialized city. Most were paid low wages in unskilled work.2 R.J. Reynolds would gain the corner on the tobacco industry. Textile factories were on the rise. The population would double from 1880-1890 to 14,000. By the early 1920’s, Winston-Salem was the largest city in North Carolina.
The business leaders of Winston-Salem created an elite class made up of only a handful of families. They wanted to make the city more attractive for businesses, and elaborate buildings designed by well-known architects started to change the cityscape of Winston. The City Hall
2 )Tursi, Frank V. The Winston-Salem Journal: Magnolia Trees and Pulitzer Prizes (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair and the Winston-Salem Journal, 1996), 43
designed by Northup and O’Brien was built in 1926. The Nissen building, designed by William Lee Stoddart, stole the skies in 1927. The R.J. Reynolds building, not to be outdone, was erected in 1929 by architects Shreve and Lamb. Even the humble YMCA, built by architect Harold Macklin, one of the few local architects in 1927, stood out in the grandeur. The hodge-podge of exquisite designs, all opulent in nature, were centered in the downtown area. Winston was booming and money free flowing. The factory workers and laborers did share some in the profits of their employers, but the divide was still drastic.
Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church was caught up amid the growing and evolving city. The first church was built on the corner of 4th and Pine (now Marshall) streets in 1879. The wooden carpenter gothic structure housed only about 15 families, but by 1882, it had increased to 26 families. By 1891, “45 white families and one black family had become members.”3 The church was growing as quickly as the city around it. Thoughts turned to building a larger church. However, the parish had only a little over $4.00 in cash and about $20.00 in the bank. In 1905, the senior warden, John Cameron Buxton, son and grandson of North Carolina Episcopal priests (Jarvis Buxton and Jarvis Buxton, Jr.), investigated architects and assigned a committee of two, R.E. Lasater, an employee at R.J. Reynolds, and A.B. Daingerfield, an insurance company manager, to begin raising funds for a new larger church. With much success, by 1907, almost all the funds had been acquired and in 1908, the new building of the church began a block away on 4th and Cherry Streets.
The second St. Paul’s was built in the traditional style of a gothic stone church. William Northrup was the supervising architect for this structure which cost approximately $15,000. The organ and the tower bell were to be moved from the old church. The altar, pews, and a reading desk were given to St. Stephen’s, the black congregation across town who had simultaneously begun to build their new church.4 There was much planning and excitement to complete the new building. The 94th annual Diocesan Convention met at the new church in 1910. During that year, growth continued for St. Paul’s. An Estey organ, partially funded by a gift from Andrew Carnegie, was installed. A new rectory was beginning to be built. In 1917, J.C. Buxton, the first and only senior warden of St. Paul’s, died. This was a great loss to the church. Buxton had been a lawyer, president of a private water plant, chairman of the school board, alderman, Mayor of Winston-Salem and served in the State Senate. However, he was also a faithful servant to the church. A new parish house would be given in memorial to him in 1920.5 The unfinished parish house ended up being used for students from Winston’s high school that burned down in 1922. The city agreed to finish the roof and repair damages after use. Shortly thereafter, the parish house was lent to a private school.
The church was flourishing. Plans for a new rectory were begun in 1925. A gift of 240 cushions had just been proposed by May Lybrook and pew racks were just installed by parishioner Mr. Cornwall. The Rector, the Rev. Mr. Robert Gribbin6, acquired tables and chairs for the church school. Frosted lights were being added to the church. St. Paul’s balance on hand
5 ) Byrd, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church 1876-1976, 17.
6 ) Gribbin was rector of St. Paul’s from 1921 to 1934 when he left to become bishop of the Western Diocese of North Carolina. He retired in 1947.
in March 1926 was $731.59 and they had debt to the city. A curious note was in the vestry minutes of June 7, 1926.
“The question of selling the real estate on which church, parish house, and rectory was discussed. On motion, Mr. Lasater was authorized to confer with interested parties and attend to such preliminary matters as might arise.” 7
Further investigation would be required to find out from where this comment may have arisen. Did they owe an amount to the city that they could not pay? In their parish expansion, did they already need a bigger space? To the latter, I must disagree. Both the Rector and the congregation were moving ahead in the space they had. They were not behaving like a congregation that was looking to move. Could it have been because of the great expansion of the city at the time and that the Nissen Building, which was 18 stories high, was currently being built across the street and the noise and traffic was too much? Or was it that those in the vestry, who were prominent in Winston’s business world, knew that with the incredible growth of Winston, that they could exact a great price for their property?
In October 1926, an offer of $350,000 was made for the church property. The secretary was directed to notify the Bishop and the Trustees of the diocese that an offer was made. The offer, the sale of property, and the outline for the future of the parish would need to be approved by the bishop. The vestry would also relay their plans to buy the late J.C. Buxton (the first senior warden) house to build the new church. The house sat on a great elevation, looking over the city on Summit Street. Most likely, Buxton, who had such great ties to the church, had wished for the
property to go to the church after his death. Another thought is that in finding a new location for the church, the parish could not think of a better way to honor the man who gave so much as to put a church where he had lived. However, according to the county deeds, it appears that the property was in a trust belonging to William Ruffin. Whether Ruffin had actually bought the land or Buxton had put his land into a trust with Ruffin as the executor before his death is unclear. Ruffin died in 1921 and his wife in 1922. Their children were still young, so it is highly likely that is why the property was still available from the trust. Buxton’s wife died in 1932, but little seems to be known of her whereabouts. By the end of the month, the parish had received consent from the Diocesan Trustees for the sale.
Five million dollars. That is how much $350,000 would be worth today. I can only speculate that this must have come as a huge shock to the congregation. The first offer brought forth to the vestry was made by Mr. Ross of Greensboro, who was most likely representing R. T. Chatham. This offer was declined. The vestry and Mr. Ross and Associates met again to discuss the offer. The vestry once again declined because of the conditions attached to the offer. The terms were eventually ironed out and R.T. Chatham, of the Chatham Manufacturing Company8, bought the property giving St. Paul’s the privilege of removing the buildings. The congregation was also permitted to continue worship in the old church until the new church was built.
The 111th annual convention of the Diocese of North Carolina was held on May 10th and 11th of 1927. Its minutes show St. Paul’s was in debt for $9,000 in 1926. The total assessed value of the property and buildings was $111,000. The selling price of $350,000 would certainly be a
gain for the parish. Lasater, now a director at R.J. Reynolds and married to Nancy Lybrook, niece of Reynolds, along with Meade Willis, vice president of Wachovia Bank and Trust, John C. Whitaker, personnel director for R.J. Reynolds, and Gribbin, the Rector, created the building committee and proceeded with the purchase of the J.C. Buxton house on Summit Street for $35,000. St. Paul’s moved forward with a piece of property sitting high on a hill, just outside of the confines of the city. Gribbin would make a rare insight to Lasater’s view on the building of St. Paul’s on Summit Street. When the property was sold on 4th and Cherry for $350,000, Lasater said,
“it would hurt the power and spirit of the Parish if only that amount was spent to build elsewhere. The congregation had an opportunity to erect a structure which could express the Faith and be a silent though eloquent witness for the same to all who looked at it.” 9
“The beauty of holiness.” This statement found in the Book of Common Prayer to describe how material means should create a worship space was obviously held dear by the parishioners of St. Paul’s. The churches of this time period were built to be “cultural institutions-architectural displays, art collections, and performance venues for music and oratory.”10 Of all the Christian denominations, the Episcopal Church would be foremost in holding this ideal. The superfluous wealth of the times and the joy of prosperity mixed with the need to create a beautiful space to worship God could possibly lead to reckless spending. In the 1920’s, installment plans had become a popular means to get anything one wanted on payments.
10 ) Williams, Religion, Art, and Money,79.
However, the Episcopal Church mandates that a church building must be paid for before it can be consecrated. Bishop Cheshire of North Carolina reiterated this with his statement of concern of churches over building and mortgaging their future. But the members of St. Paul’s sadly could not envision the years on the horizon and began their dream of a sacred beautiful space.
Only the best would do. It was the great age of cathedral building. Robert Lasater, when he spent time in New York, would go to services at St. Thomas Church in which he described as “a poem in stone.”11 Ralph Adams Cram was the architect of this church and reputed to be the best Gothic architect in the world. Cram, who had become Episcopalian in his younger years, felt that “Gothic was the only proper style for Christian worship because of its explicit Christian symbolism and its design for celebration of sacramental worship under priestly auspices.”12 Lasater proposed that the building committee invite Cram to make proposals for the new church. Rev. Gribbin stated that when Cram was showed the site, “he quivered and said, ‘A man does not have many chances in a lifetime to build a Church on a location such as this’ ”13 Cram had a national reputation for English gothic ecclesiastical and collegiate gothic designs. His designs included St. John the Divine in New York, the chapel at Princeton University, and a large portion of the U.S. Military Academy. Cram believed in taking medieval designs and envisioning where they would have gone if history had evolved differently. Cram was a gifted architect and in the 1920’s the superfluous wealth and abundance of skilled immigrant craftsman made it so his imagining of a place could take on reality. Harold Maklin, an English architect familiar with
12 ) Williams, Religion, Art, and Money, 65.
13 ) Gribbin, “Robert Edward Lasater: An Appreciation,”1.
English Gothic architecture and a parishioner of St. Paul’s, would help locally. An excellent architect in his own right, Maklin had already designed City Hall, the new YMCA, and Journal and Sentinel building in Winston-Salem. Cram’s designs created a larger church than the congregation had planned. Lasater believed nothing was too good for the church.14 Jacob and Young were hired as the contractors. They had also built St. John the Divine in New York. They would bring the same builders with them. Granite came from Massachusetts and sandstone from Ohio. Only the electrical and plumbing were completed by local workers. The property being part of steep hillside gave it a unique advantage in being able to construct the large worship space at the top and create lower levels for other church functions. On July 8, 1928, Bishop Penick, Coadjutor of the Diocese, helped to lay the cornerstone.
The building was not the only place where no expense was spared. St. Paul’s was furnished as beautifully as it was built. The altar from the second church was moved to the new church as a side altar. R.E. Lasater and his family donated the Skinner organ in memorial to their young daughter Peggy, who passed away as an infant. However, behind the scenes, the vestry minutes show a great amount of borrowing with R.E. Lasater putting up shares in Reynolds stock as collateral.15 The Winston-Salem Journal described St. Paul’s in its August 25, 1929 article thus: “[T]here is no better built building anywhere in the country than this one. The contractors took most unusual pains in this work and have given the owners an honest and substantial structure.” The new church was timeless. Built to last forever. An icon to bring community together and to spread Christianity.
15 ) “Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church: Minutes of the Vestry from January 1926 to December 1945”, 37.
The cost was much greater than the profit made from selling the previous church. By October 7, 1929, more than $550,000 had been paid out. In the end, the church would cost over $700,000. The first service was held in the new church on September 8, 1929. Many pledges had been made in the previous years, but it was still not enough. Since the church needed to be paid for before it could be consecrated, Robert Lasater went to New York and borrowed the money to pay off the church. He felt that “no one should worship in a building that did not belong to God.”16 When the pledges were eventually able to be paid, Lasater would not accept the money. He instead set up a trust fund for the maintenance of the church. The church was consecrated on October 6, 1929. The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929.
The depression hit some people extremely hard, and some barely at all. Robert Lasater was fairly insulated from the devastating time, becoming Vice President of Manufacturing at Reynolds in 1931. However, not all in the congregation were the same. Pledges were down. Pledges could not be paid. Large churches have large bills. In April of 1932, the church staff offered to have their salaries reduced by 10%. It was declined. However, by September, the vestry had no choice but to decrease the staff salaries. J.B.Wahmann, the assistant treasurer, agreed to not be paid at all. The oil for heat became too expensive. One boiler was changed to coal and spaces limited in use. The weekly radio broadcast of services was ended. In the mid-thirties, when pledges started to be repaid, a trust was set up to insure the health and well-being of the finances of the church. The Endowment Fund for St. Paul's was a source of generous income throughout the ensuing years.
A church building is just a stark shell until life is breathed into it by the people who worship there. St. Paul’s would not be what it is today if it were not for the dedicated people behind the dream. The central person in the early decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s of this congregation was R. E. Lasater.
From the outside looking back, one could think that Robert Edward Lasater was just one of the wealthy of Winston-Salem—a go-getter, who with the help of R.J. Reynolds became rich with the help of tobacco. However, the lack of information on this individual brought about questioning. Why was it so hard to find information on this gentleman? The answer was simply, he was a humble person who loved God, his family, and wanted to do nothing more than to give to God whatever he could while walking on this earth. As found in an article in the Wall Street Journal which Lasater had found interesting and given Gribbin, one “who cannot feel that good work must tell for its own sake, without his little name tagged on to it, will do little worth remembering.”17 The story of St. Paul’s cannot be told without telling the story of him. He built something that was grand without his name, but I believe his story only makes it grander.
Robert Lasater was born in 1867 in Raleigh. He spent his early years in Sanford and at age 22 moved to Winston-Salem. His first job was with the P.H. Hanes Company and it appears that he joined St. Paul’s at the same time. Lasater was confirmed in the church on June 2, 1889, when the little wood church on Pine Street had just turned ten. In 1901, he took a job at Reynolds Tobacco Company. This same year, he was elected a member of the vestry. By 1912, he was elected a director at R.J. Reynolds. On May 10, 1917, Lasater became senior warden after the
death of J. Cameron Buxton and continued to serve as such for thirty-seven years. In 1918, he was the president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. In 1931, Robert Lasater became vice president of R.J. Reynolds. He also served as a member of the Board of Aldermen. Lasater was chairman of the Winston-Salem Foundation from December 1929 until 1946 when he became ineligible because he was then living outside the city limits. In 1949, when the city limits were extended, he became chairman again. But all these roles in the community is just the “building” of the man. It was his spirit on the inside that gave his accomplishments life.
Robert Lasater had four girls, one of whom died in infancy. He took his family to church every Sunday. He would be out with them in the afternoon. Robert Gribbin, the rector whom he served for over twelve years as Senior Warden declared, “I have never known anyone, clerical or lay, more devoted the church. I recall seeing a tear in his eye as he talked with me once about how much it meant to him coming to Winston as a young man finding the Church with its good influence ready to welcome him.” 18
Lasater was blessed with wealth but would also make sure that his wealth would bless others. He gave not only his money, but his time and intellect. Gribbin in his appreciation letter would describe him as “reticent.” He worked hard. He greatly contributed to the development of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. He faithfully reported there for 58 years. Lasater genuinely cared about the workers there and would inquire about their families.19 He was very much involved in community leadership. He bought land and created a Boy Scout Camp in Mount Airy. When the famous aviator Lindberg came to Winston-Salem, Lassater hosted a party and announced buying
19 ) Gribbin, Robert Emmet. “Robert Edward Lasater: An Appreciation,” handwritten addendum, February 20, 1976.
the airfield in Winston-Salem and gave the property to the city as a gift. With the tragic death of Lasater’s ward, Z. Smith Reynolds in 1931, this airport would be named after the young flying enthusiast.
When Robert Lasater built a house in Roaring Gap and his daughter asked why there was not a Sunday school, he had one built. Lasater would always think of the church and its members. He and his wife, in memory of their parents, gave the St. Paul’s window which is near the side altar. It was designed by Reynolds, Frances, and Rohnstock, the same company that made windows in St. John the Divine and St. Bartholomew’s.20 Lasater gave another window, the one above the altar depicting the Passion of our Lord. Like the others in the sanctuary, the windows are not memorials. Lasater felt that memorials would be a distraction during communion.21 However, it seems fitting that in the back nave is the memorial window for J. C. Buxton, given by his family. Lasater offered his former home on 5th and Broad to be the rectory for Gribbin so the congregation could save money during the Depression. When then Bishop Gribbin retired, Lasater told him that the parish would furnish a house if he came back to Winston-Salem. Bishop Gribbin moved into a house on South Hawthorne. Gribbin discovered after Lasater’s death, that Lasater had bought the house when it was sold. The Trust that was set up by Lasater would give Bishop Gribbin income on the proceeds.22
21 ) However, it seems fitting that in the back nave is the memorial window for J. C. Buxton, given by his family.
22 ) Gribbin, “Robert Edward Lasater: An Appreciation,” 3
St. Paul’s in the early 1920’s had around 200 members. It reportedly had a very small choir. When the rector mentioned that a large junior choir would be a welcome addition, a children’s choir director was hired. The choir expanded at one point to eighty members. Some attributed this growth to the new director Mildred Lott’s personality and Mr. Lasater’s purse.23 However, though he did contribute monetarily, it was with great heart. He would host choir picnics, provide money for candy and movies for the children. He would sponsor girls who wanted to go to the School of Church Music held at Wellesley College. His love of his family and music is epitomized in the gift of the Skinner Organ in the current St. Paul’s in memory of his daughter. When Gribbin convinced Lasater that he valued his insight and opinion, Lasater seemed visibly moved that he was wanted for something more than his money.24 His excitement about the new “limited edition prayer book” (1928) brought forth one for himself, the rector, and the custodian.
St. Paul’s today stands as grandly on the hill on Summit Street as it did over 80 years ago. It is a true testament to the people that helped to build it. I can only finish the same way that the first service began on Sunday, September 8, 1929 with a quote from Haggai 1:8.
“Build the house: and I will take pleasure in it and I will be glorified.”
24 ) Gribbin, “Robert Edward Lasater: An Appreciation,” 3.
“Foundation Stone of New St. Paul’s Laid Sunday, July 8th.” The Carolina Churchman, August 1928.
Fraser, Thomas A. “Sermon: The Fifth Sunday after Trinity.” Presented at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, July 18, 1954.
Gribbin, Robert Emmet. “Robert Edward Lasater: An Appreciation,” February 11, 1976.
Byrd, Elizabeth Gabriel. Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church 1876-1976. Winston-Salem: Hunter Publishing Company, 1976.
“Journal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of North Carolina.” The Church of the Holy Comforter, Burlington, NC: Edwards and Broughton Company, 1927.
Marianna Thomas Architects. “Historic Integrity Analysis: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church,” December 12, 1996.
“New St. Paul’s at Winston-Salem.” The Carolina Churchman, September 1929.
O’Donnell, Lisa. “A Touch of ‘Gatsby’: For a Few Million, the Lasater Estate Can Be Yours.” Winston-Salem Journal. September 18, 2013
“Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church: Minutes of the Vestry from January 1926 to December 1945,” 1945.
“St. Paul’s Winston-Salem to Open New Chapter.” The Carolina Churchman, March 1928.
Tursi, Frank V. The Winston-Salem Journal: Magnolia Trees and Pulitzer Prizes. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair and the Winston-Salem Journal, 1996.
Winston-Salem Journal. “Lasaters Give Stained Glass Memorial Window At St. Paul’s.” The North Carolina Churchman, May 1946.
Williams, Peter. Religion, Art, and Money. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.