Old Salem

What is Old Salem?

Old Salem is located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Old Salem features a living history museum which is operated by the non-profit group Old Salem Museums & Gardens, better known as Old Salem Inc.  The non-profit organization started its work in 1950, though some private residents had already restored buildings before the organization was formed.

As the Old Salem Historic District, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966. The Old Salem Historic District showcases the culture of the Moravian settlement in North Carolina during the 18th and 19th centuries, re-creating churches, shops, and houses.

Two buildings in the Old Salem Historic District were individually designated as National Historic Landmark, the Single Brothers’ House and Salem Tavern. Additional buildings and properties have been added to the National Historic Register that expand the historic area.

Ownership of the buildings and land is currently divided among private owners, Old Salem, Inc., Salem Academy and College, Wachovia Historical Society, Home Moravian Church, and the Moravian Church Southern Province.

Historic Salem

Salem was first settled by members of the Moravian Church, a Protestant denomination that first began in 1457, out of the followers of John Huss in the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. In 1722, the exiles finally found protection on the estate of Count Zinzendorf, a Saxon nobleman, where he helped create the village of Herrnhut as their home.

First settling in North America in Savannah, Georgia in 1735, they eventually moved to Pennsylvania in 1740, where they founded several communities. Due to development pressures, they looked for more space to create their church communities.

Purchasing just over 98,985 acres from Lord Granville, one of the British Lords Proprietor, in the Piedmont of North Carolina in 1753, they sent groups down to begin construction from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They founded the transitional settlement of Bethabara, North Carolina.

Salem was to be the central town of a 98,985-acre tract named Wachovia. Construction began in 1766 to build the central economic, religious, and administrative center of the Wachovia tract. The outlying communities, eventually five in all (Bethabara, Bethania, Friedberg, Friedland, and Hope), were more rural and agriculturally focused.

Salem and most of the other communities were controlled by the Church, which owned all property and only leased land for construction. All people in the communities had to be members of the church and could be expelled from the town if they acted contrary to the community’s regulations.

The several governing bodies all kept meticulous records, of which copies were sent to the Bethlehem and Herrnhut archives. Most of this information has been translated and published in the “Records of the Moravians in North Carolina” by the NC State Archives, now comprising 13 volumes. This detailed information is part of the documentation used for the accurate restoration and interpretation of Old Salem.

In 1849, Forsyth County was created, but Salem was unwilling to be the county seat and sold property directly to the north to become the new courthouse town. This town became Winston, which quickly grew into a thriving industrial center.

In 1857, the Church finally divested control of the town and allowed the residents to purchase their property. Salem then became a legal municipality.

Salem merged with nearby Winston in 1913, becoming known as Winston-Salem. This was the only community to ever be officially designated as a hyphenated name for a Post Office by the US Postal Service.

A local architectural review district was created in 1948 (the first in North Carolina and probably the fifth in the country) to protect the historic remains what had become a depressed area from encroaching development.  In 1950, Old Salem Inc. (a not-for-profit corporation) was formed to protect threatened buildings, restore the town, and operate portions of it as a museum.

Old Salem Museum and Gardens

Today, the Old Salem’s preserved and reconstructed buildings, staffed by living-history interpreters, present visitors with a view of Moravian life in the 18th and 19th centuries. The features include skilled interpreters such as tinsmiths, blacksmiths, cobblers, gunsmiths, bakers and carpenters, actually practicing their trades while interacting with visitors. Approximately 70% of the buildings in the historic district are original, making this a truly unique living history museum.

Substantial historical and archaeological research has focused on Old Salem’s historical African-American population. Moravians even educated enslaved members of their community, teaching literacy skills and even some professional trades. Holistic studies directed towards understanding ethnicity and cultural identity of African-Americans in Old Salem have resulted in significant additions to the historical interpretation presented at Old Salem.

Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts

Other museums in Old Salem are housed in a modern building on the site and are part of the same organization. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) is the only museum dedicated to exhibiting and researching the regional decorative arts of the early South.

In its galleries, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts showcases the furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics, silver, and other metalwares made and used in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee through the early 19th century.

Old Salem Features

Highlights of Old Salem include the Salem Tavern, where George Washington spent two nights, May 31 and June 1, 1791, while passing through North Carolina; the Single Brothers’ House; Boys’ School; Winkler Bakery; and a host of restored homes and shops, and several stores including T. Bagge Merchant and the Moravian Book and Gift Shop.

Also of note is the St. Philip’s Moravian Church complex. Original site of an 18th century graveyard, the (now reconstructed) 1823 ‘Negro Church’ was built following a congregational vote to segregate worship in accordance with North Carolina state law in 1816.

Prior to that the African-Americans who joined the Moravian church attended Home Church. In 1861, St. Philip’s Church was constructed. Now restored, the church was originally built by the Salem congregation for the enslaved and free African-Americans of the community.

St. Philip’s Moravian Church is the oldest surviving African-American church built for that purpose in North Carolina. Completed just before the Civil War in 1861, the Emancipation Proclamation was read there to the congregation in 1865 by the chaplain of the 10th Ohio Regiment. The St. Philip’s Moravian Church continued to grow and was expanded in the 1890s.

The congregation moved to a new location in 1952 (and still exists at a third location), and the building stood vacant until its restoration. The original St. Philip’s Church is now individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Partially within the Old Salem historic district is the campus of Salem College and Academy, with Main Hall, the restored Single Sisters’ House, the college book store on the Square, and Gramley Library just down Church Street. High school students attending the Governor’s School of North Carolina stay in the college’s dormitories each summer.

Home Moravian Church, while not a part of the official Old Salem tour per se, opens its sanctuary to visitors on a regular schedule. Still owned by the Moravian Church, Salem Square, in the center of the district, hosts many special events throughout the year, including a long-running band concert series in the summer. The famous water pump, one restored portion of Salem’s c. 1778 waterworks, stands on the southwest corner of the square.

Old Salem Visitors Center

Old Salem’s Visitor Center was built in 2003, and is the main location where museum visitors purchase tickets. The Old Salem Visitors Center features a large concourse along a serpentine glass wall with interpretive panels about the history of Wachovia and Salem.

The preliminary design was developed by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, with local firm Calloway, Johnson, Moore, and West completing the project. The Old Salem Visitors Center also houses a food service, gift shops, and the James A. Gray Auditorium. The Gray Auditorium is home to the 1800 Tannenberg Organ.

The Old Salem Coffee Pot

The Old Salem community is popularly represented by a tin coffee pot, originally built by Moravian Julius Mickey in 1858 as an advertisement for his tinsmith shop. Traditionally said to hold “740 gallons of coffee”, it was originally located at the intersection of Belews Street and Main Street in front of his shop. That location was the border between Winston and Salem before the two towns merged. When the cities merged in 1913, it came to symbolize the joining of the two communities.


  1. “National Register Information System”. National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. http://www.nr.nps.gov/.
  2. “Old Salem Historic District”. National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service.
  3. Polly M. Rettig and Horace J. Sheely, Jr. (June 15, 1976). National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Old Salem Historic District. National Park Service.
  4. Shirley, Michael (1997). From Congregation Town to Industrial City. NYU Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780814780862.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply