wake forest innovation quarter

You can try, but you can’t consolidate them, stereotype them, lump them together. Oh, that mill, that warehouse, that factory. It’s just like that other mill, or warehouse, or factory. But there’s always one, isn’t there? In a crowd, in a classroom, at a party, at a meeting. The inconsistent one. The non-traditionalist. The break-the-mold one. There’s one in Winston-Salem, and it’s still breaking the mold.

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R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was keeping it local long before the trend was launched. They didn’t just make cigarettes in their numbered downtown Winston-Salem plants. They made everything they needed to make the cigarettes, as well. Building 91 was the machine shop, built in 1937 to repair and create the machinery to sustain the manufacture of cigarettes. Today, Building 91 is Wake Forest Biotech Place, which opened February 21, 2012. Governor Bev Purdue was there. Vice President Joe Biden has been there. They’re still making things there. Like vaccines for whooping cough.

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wake forest innovation quarterBiotech Place is part of an 11-acre, multibuilding site in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, gifted by the Reynolds family. Thanks to private, federal, and city funds, approximately $45 million in tax credits, and an audacious program to renovate and repurpose, the property has become a hub of business, retail, residential, and wellness. In Biotech Place, you can literally see science happening. Don’t be intimidated by directional signs that read “Biochemical and Structural Biology.” They — Wake Forest School of Medicine and Virginia Tech — want you to visit this building with LEED Gold Certification; to walk by classrooms and labs where windows are unshaded and research is being conducted. Or have lunch in the café downstairs, attend a Lunch and Learn program, or meet colleagues in the vast atrium at bar tables or circular arrangements of sleek chairs where suspended, futuristic “chandeliers” with 10-foot circumference shades make whoever’s beneath feel cozy and enclosed. All inside a building where sleek, technical, and academic are the operative words.

Fine, but where’s the architectural irregularity? Because here, too, are the original wood floors, planed three times for maximum smoothness (and pale color). Here are 12-inch solid concrete columns, and here are the rough, exposed, concrete walls, though now painted. The inconsistency comes in the form of the 66,000 hollow glass blocks, instead of bricks, that make up the Biotech Place’s exterior walls. Why glass blocks? At the time, glass bricks were the rage in Europe, and the story is that the company who was constructing the building for RJR said, Let us do it this way. Replied RJR: Thanks, but no. Regular bricks work just fine for us. Tell you what, the building firm said. If you don’t like it, we’ll tear it down and start over. For the renovation, which took 18 months from demolition to completion, every single glass brick was removed, inspected by hand for cracks and other flaws, repaired, and reused, if possible, in the 242,000-square-foot building.

wake forest innovation quarterThese are historic buildings, deemed so by the National Park Service. What you can do, or cannot do, to them is mandated. The smokestacks, therefore, remain, visual landmarks to this small town in downtown, where 50 companies and 26 academic departments bring more than 3,000 employees and students every day (15,000 people worked here for Reynolds every day). Never mind the more than 2,850 apartments and condominiums — all occupied — created nearby, some in former RJR buildings. By 2030, 145 acres will have been developed, including a 20-mile walking/biking loop incorporating the — you guessed it — de rigueur train tracks.

Or you can go work out in the YMCA branch just there, beside Building 91. Biotech Place, rather. While one warehouse — correction: “ecosystem of innovation” — over, an internationally renowned scientist is figuring out how to keep you living longer, healthier, and happier. Which, come to think of it, are synonyms of revitalized.

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Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.