This column's last post (“The New Winston Museum approaches its six-month anniversary”) referenced The Visitor Center at Old Salem Museums and Gardens, but provided little detail about what there is to see and do in the historic district's visitor center. Located at 900 Old Salem Road (not to be confused with The Winston-Salem Visitor Center at 200 Brookstown Avenue), The Old Salem Visitor Center is, in fact, a great first stop for anyone interested in learning more about Old Salem. Though the building is substantially newer than most of the structures in Old Salem (it turns just a decade-old this year), the Visitor Center is not any less focused on the history of the town that once was just called “Salem.”
Indeed, as soon as one enters the Visitor Center one is met with history – a larger-than-life portrait of Bishop August G. Spangenberg, the gentleman who led the state's first Moravians from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to survey the land, hangs smiling at all those who enter the building. The portrait of Spangenberg (who went on to become bishop of all of North America's Moravian congregation in 1744) is actually just one of the building’s 35 floor-to-ceiling wall displays that narrate Old Salem's evolution and highlight key figures from its past. The pictures and text are a great introduction to many aspects of Old Salem including its connection to The Moravian Church, the various trades that thrived in the town, and the people who lived in the Moravian settlement. The final of these wall displays hangs by the building's southern-most entrance, and features a depiction of President George Washington, who not only visited Salem in 1791, but spent two nights in its tavern which stands to this day on South Main Street.
Being a modern building with modern technology, the Visitor Center also utilizes film to introduce Old Salem to newcomers. Approximately every ten minutes a short video plays for visitors on a large screen in the center of the building. The video provides a brief explanation of the town's origins and covers some of the various still-preserved buildings that define the historic district. Nonetheless, for those with even further curious minds, the building also houses a book store stocked with numerous titles about Salem history, the Moravians, and the area that surrounds present-day Winston-Salem. In addition to the film and the books, the Visitor Center is home to The Old Salem Welcome Desk at which its knowledgeable staffers answer countless questions each day about Old Salem, its history and its current offerings. Also at the Welcome Desk visitors can pick up brochures, receive maps, and purchase tickets and memberships.
In spite of its modern trappings, however, the Visitor Center does shelter one particularly precious item from history – the world’s largest surviving “Tannenburg Organ,” i. e. one made by the incomparable Pennsylvania organ builder David Tannenburg. The massive organ of white-painted wood and gold metal trim was initially installed in Home Moravian Church (also in the Old Salem historic district) in 1799, but was dismantled in 1910. According to oldsalem.org, though the organ does still belong to Home Moravian Church, the experts at Old Salem Museums and Gardens oversaw the fifteen year restoration of the majestic instrument. Upon restoration, the organ was then reinstalled, but this time within The James A. Gray Auditorium inside The Old Salem Visitor Center. There the organ resides (in a carefully climate-controlled environment), and for no charge –admission to the Visitor Center is free– the public can view a great treasure from Salem’s past.
No less, The Old Salem Visitor Center is also a draw for many local residents and visiting guests, alike, in that it is additionally home to the “Marketplace” gift shop, as well as an Old Salem souvenir area, as well as “The Old Salem Candy Shop.” The latter is certainly a popular attraction in that often visitors can see handmade fudge being poured, freshly-popped popcorn being tumbled in caramel, and, with luck, Authentic Moravian Cookies being sampled. One thing is certain – though a late addition to the array of buildings at Old Salem, the Visitor Center has no shortage of offerings.
The Visitor Center at Old Salem Museums and Gardens is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and again on Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.. It is closed on Mondays. For those interested in exploring the Old Salem historic district after having stopped in the Visitor Center, there is a covered pedestrian bridge leading directly from the back door of the Visitor Center into the historic district. For more information about Old Salem or the Visitor Center, one can call (336) 721-7350 or visit http://www.oldsalem.org/visitor-center.
• For Examiner.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.
[Enjoy reading about Winston-Salem history, and want to do more? Click the “Subscribe” button at the top of the page to receive updates when new posts are added to the Winston-Salem Historic Places Examiner page. All posts cover history and historic places in, around, and close to Winston-Salem, NC so check in frequently to learn more about historic sites in the area.]