By Ed bumgardner
photos by Shannon Murphy
This review first appeared in WS Arts Magazine’s Issue 0
Maybe itʼs the heart, lungs and brain craving the oxygen now suddenly gathered in gasps and gulps. Maybe itʼs the giddy narcotic rush of endorphins being freed to sprint into the blood stream. It might even be some meditative sense of clarity that accompanies the relative solitude of the loping, labored task at hand.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that Lynette Matthews-Murphy does some of her best work while surviving her daily routine of running a few miles to keep body, mind and soul sharp – something that she has done for most of her adult life.
When she runs, without fail, the high-watt, energy-efficient lightbulb in her head snaps to full cost-efficient illumination.
“It sounds sort of cheesy, but when I go out and run, I do think and I do create,” Matthews-Murphy said, smiling and looking a bit sheepish. “Things just pop into my head. I think about ways to better my life. I think about my job and my family. Ideas flood in.”
She laughed. “Now, they arenʼt always good ideas, but that time ….” She is referring to the day in 2010 in which a germ of an idea that popped into her head led her, two years later, to be the proud founder of and partner in the Spring House Restaurant, Kitchen and Bar, a casually artful and creatively Southern culinary showplace that opened in April at 450 Spring Street in downtown Winston-Salem.
A vivacious mover and shaker, Matthews-Murphy has spent the lionessʼ share of her career in Winston-Salem working to promote and develop the city and its businesses, artists and musicians – whether working as an independent fundraiser, an events planner or as an executive board member of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, Inc.
“Itʼs a cool little city with a wonderful, rich history,” Matthews-Murphy said. “It really does have so much to offer.”
One of the many things she has long loved about Winston-Salem is the former home of Agnew Bahnson, a local resident who in 1915 developed, manufactured and distributed a cooling and humidifier system widely implemented by the textile and tobacco industries.
The Bahnson family home, a grand two-story stuccoed building in the English Country House style, was designed in 1919 and built in 1920, a splendorous example of the English Arts and Crafts architectural movement.
It was a welcome addition to the massive architectural grandeur that then defined Fifth Street, locally known as “Millionaireʼs Row” for its monied residents.
“The Bahnson house is built on the grounds that held the garden and tennis courts of R.J. Reynolds estate, which was right next door,” Matthews-Murphy. “It is one of the last of the homes from Millionaireʼs Row still standing.”
In 1965, the Bahnson family donated the family home, now relegated to Spring Street, to the Forsyth County Public Library, which was located next door on Fifth Street where the Reynolds estate once stood. The house was used as a library annex until 2005, when the building, now in a state of disrepair and facing demolition, was put up for sale for $350,000.
That is when the lightbulb went off in Matthews-Murphyʼs head during her morning run. “I loved that house and its history, and I felt very strongly that it should be saved,” she said. “It is on the National Registry of Historic Places, but unfortunately, that does nothing to legally protect it. “My husband (Lynn Murphy) and I went to look at it, and It needed a lot of work.,” she said, laughing. “But my mind was made up, and when I believe in something, nobody can talk me out of it.So we bought the property as something that would allow me to use all my creativity and indulge all my loves – local history, art, music and food.”
Matthews-Murphy enlisted local architect Kevin Owen and Davie Construction and began the painstaking process of turning the neglected old house into the comfortably elegant Spring House restaurant. “Yes, there were, um, challenges,” Matthews Murphy said, smiling. “We wanted to leave the original building as intact as we could, which gets tricky when you have to bring old architecture up to the various health and building codes that accompany turning an old home into a restaurant. “There were plenty of sleepless nights worrying about how to run new support beams and duct work, how to put in bathrooms and create a kitchen without damaging the exterior, things like that. But we we managed to keep all the original wood floors, all the French doors, all the windows. “I couldnʼt be more thrilled with how it turned out.”
Walking into the restaurant, a visitor is immediately struck by the ambiance which balances the warm and welcoming atmosphere of a bed-and breakfast with the romantic grace and charm of a grand Southern home.
Sunlight streams into every room from myriad windows and French doors, amplifying the sense of spaciousness. A welcoming bar area, filled with vivacious paintings of musicians by local artists, is part library – a nice, subtle nod to the buildingʼs library past – and part comfortable anteroom. The various intimate dining rooms find individuality through subtle decorations, from the vibrant green walls of the sunroom dining area to the gorgeous coffered ceilings, fireplace, chandelier and Southern cane chairs of the main dining area.
Framed shards of local newspaper from 1924 found in the walls during restoration shore the sense of local history, as do artfully re-created city maps and period-friendly street signs.
The upper story where four bedrooms once were is now a multipurpose area. There is a large, state-of-art conference area suitable for corporate events, as well as several more small dining areas. Walls boast history of the Bahnson family and old photographs from Winston-Salem.
A careful sense of reinvention, that of a vision rendered with love and purpose, helps create a convivial air of hospitality. Simply, it feels like home, purposeful and elegant without being presumptuous or pretentious – a place where everybody is family.
“From the start, our intent was to offer a place where people would feel like they belonged, where they would feel engaged and involved in something special,” Matthews-Murphy said. “We want a visit to Spring House to be memorable on a number of levels – a feast for all the senses.”
The architectural mix of art, elegance and comfort is embellished upon by an inventive and wildly flavorful menu created by Chef Timothy Grandinetti, who, with his wife Heidi, are Matthews-Murphyʼs partners at Spring House. Matthews-Murphy first met her future chef when they collaborated on a wine festival during Grandinettiʼs tenure as a regional executive chef for the Marriott Hotel in Winston-Salem (2004-2009).
He was working at an upscale bed-and-breakfast in St. Louis when Matthews-Murphy approached him in November 2010 about joining her venture.
“I was immediately in,” he said. “I loved the area, and the time felt right. I was ready for this. I love collaborations, where everybody works together like a family, and that is wonderfully the case here.”
Grandinetti said that the Spring House dining experience is the combined result of 14 diverse years working as a professional chef (he has worked in St. Louis, Italy and Japan) and the year of specific hands-on planning, preparation and analysis that went into creating the restaurantʼs evolving menu – described as “a living, breathing document.”
The overall approach to the menu is New American cuisine with a strong nod to the restaurantʼs Southern roots. There are certainly European, even Asian, touches, and the flavorful creativity he brings to all appetizers and entrees would not be out of place in high-end restaurant.
“Thatʼs true, but we really arenʼt a high-end restaurant; there is a rustic edge to what we offer,” Grandinetti said. “That said, we are really, REALLY good.” He laughed, something he does easily and often. “We are not pretentious, and we certainly do not ever want to create a menu that is intimidating. Still, there is always something that is a shocker, something that will appeal to ʻfoodies.ʼ
“Our food is meant to stimulate, to be fun. It is made with prime, fresh ingredients, much of which is locally produced. So as we progress, we will continue to offer food that has more flavor, more soul, more variety, all of it cooked with love and commitment.
“This is a full-immersion experience.”
Five months out, Grandinetti and Matthews-Murphy could not be happier. The restaurant is doing brisk business in a difficult economy. Public response to the menu has been overwhelmingly positive.
And virtually everyone who walks in the door has been charmed by the of the restaurantʼs creative intimacy and sense of place and purpose. Now, when Matthews-Murphy runs, there is newfound feeling of confidence in her ideas for the future.
“People have asked me why I would open a restaurant, which is a proven risky venture,” she said. “I was aware of that, but I believed that Winston-Salem needed a place such as this. Everything felt right. It is a reflection of who Tim and I are and of what we believe.
“I hope Spring House continues to be as positive for the people who come to eat and visit as it has been for me.”