Fifty years ago this weekend, a Downtown Winston-Salem landmark was demolished. On a cold late March morning back in 1972, a crowd gathered in front of First Baptist on Fifth Street to witness the Robert E. Lee Hotel’s demolition. The Robert E. Lee Hotel long ago surrendered to the whims of urban planners. The grand hotel with a problematic name that once hosted dignitaries and celebrities alike is still remembered fondly locally.
Back in 2012, the Winston-Salem Journal published a Robert E. Lee Hotel 4oth anniversary piece. Paul Garber called it “a gleaming 10-story symbol of Winston-Salem’s boom time when it opened its doors in 1921.” But the Journal didn’t condemn the hotel’s 1972 cancellation.
Local historian Fam Brownlee on the other hand, pulled no punches in his condemnation of city leaders for pulverizing a historic downtown building.
“Urban renewal”, a disastrous idea that brought down whole city blocks of historic buildings and replaced them with chaff. All the old Robert E. Lee really needed was a thorough renovation, a bit of expansion, some visionary leadership and a new name. If we had it back today, it would be worth its weight in gold.
The Robert E. Lee was quickly replaced by a downsized clone of Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency.” –Fam Brownlee
Fifty years later, a new aspect of the Robert E. Lee Hotel’s history was revealed to the public. At a school board meeting focused on RJ Reynolds’ stadium boondoggle, Darrell Walker, Assistant Superintendent of Operations, stated matter-of-factly that the old Robert E. Lee Hotel was buried on Winston-Salem Prep’s campus.
How the hell the rubble of the Robert E. Lee Hotel got from Fifth Street to 14th and Cameron, home of the historic Atkins High School building is still a mystery. I asked the school system for some documentation to support Walker’s claims.
They gave me documents showing that something (probably the Robert E. Lee) is buried at historic Atkins, today’s W-S Prep. And that something is causing sinkholes. But Atkins High was built in the early 1930s, four decades before the Robert E. Lee Hotel came down. The school system’s documents assert that the old hotel rubble predated the school. Clearly, that is an impossibility.
Based on our discussions with you and other representatives with the Winston‐Salem/Forsyth County School maintenance department, we understand as many as 10 sinkholes have been observed across the athletic field over the last 10 or more years which have been filled in when observed by maintenance personnel. There is suspicion that remnants of a previously demolished hotel building were buried beneath portions of the athletic field prior to construction of the school building.
-G. Douglas Smith, P.E., Geo Hydro Engineers (Full Document)01 - Atkins High School (PDF)
The rubble of some old structure is buried at historic Atkins, today’s W-S Prep. And the fact that ruble is buried at 14th and Cameron speaks volumes about the power dynamics that simultaneously sustain Downtown Winston and marginalize East Winston. East Winston is a victim of environmental racism (see Weaver Fertilizer Fire) sustained by unequal, racist zoning standards that go back to the Jim Crow era. One hundred fifty-seven years after the Civil War ended, Robert E. Lee is still causing harm. Locally, it’s important that the City and County stop funding downtown projects and start spending a more significant portion of their budgets on WS/FC’s urban core.