BLOG #7, SERIES #7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
AUTUMN IN APPALACHIA
UNEXPECTED SPLENDOR – Part 3
February 17, 2016
Every day of our trip, the colors appeared brighter than they were the day before. But this was to be a very special day: our opportunity to see one of the most iconic hotels in America:
The Greenbriar valley has been known for sulphur springs that were considered important clear back in pre-Colonial times. Settlers to the area tended to be few, first, because it was so isolated, and second, because of the constant fear of Indian attacks.
Nevertheless, from 1778 on, there was always a hospitality center for travelers at White Sulphur Springs. By the 1830s, more and more famed Americans patronized it, including five U.S. presidents. Since it was on the Midland Trail (later, U.S. Route 40), the facilities received a steady stream of travelers. In the mid 1850s, the Old White Hotel was constructed; it featured 228 guest rooms and was over 400 feet long. It was surrounded by 7,000 acres of forested land, which has been retained until this day.
Though thousands flocked here to be cured of their ailments by the sulphur springs, the Civil War all but brought leisure travel to a halt. Nevertheless, during the war, both North and South occupied the hotel—but eventually the North took total control of the region. After the war, the hotel became one of Robert E. Lee’s favorite vacation retreats.
1869 proved a watershed year, for it was then that the train tracks reached it. Train travel shortened the travel time from Washington from four to five days to only fifteen hours.
But by the Turn of the Twentieth Century, the vast hotel was in danger of being lost to its graduaal deterioration. It was saved just in time by Edwin Hawley, of C&O Railroad, who thereby bought control of the facility. Then came major backing from J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. It was during the years 1910 to 1913 that the great white hotel we see today was constructed. This one was built to be fireproof.
Golf arrived in 1913 with the completion of an 18-hole golf course that has since become legendary. President Woodrow Wilson was among the first golfers to play the course, in 1914. Frequent guests included the likes of the Vanderbilts, Joseph Kennedy, as well as Pulitzer, Armour, Guggenheim, Bloomingdale, Carnegie, Gimbel, Auchincloss, and Flagler.
Just as the Great Depression of the 1930s began, the Greenbriar Hotel was virtually rebuilt and doubled in size. Amazingly, the hotel survived the Depression intact.
Shortly after lunch on December 17, 1941 (only 10 days after Pearl Harbor), the hotel’s general manager was asked if he’d be willing to accommodate diplomats of embassies of newly hostile nations. Then, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the removal of all enemy diplomats from the capital within 48 hours. Eighteen FBI agents came along with them, as well as 50 members of the U. S. Border Patrol. By March of 1942, the number of diplomatic guests had grown to 800; by April, 1000—eventually 1,698! Finally, by July 8, all of them had been sent home.
On August 30, the U.S. Government purchased the hotel, turning it into a 2000- bed military hospital. During its four years of operation, the so-called Ashford General Hospital admitted 24,148 patients, and 11,346 operations were performed. Among the generals were the likes of Omar Bradley, Anthony McAuliffe, Mark Clark, Matthew Ridgeway, Jonathan Wainright, George Marshall, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After the war, the government put the facility up for sale. After six anxious months, President Truman agreed to give the C&O Railroad first chance to buy it. Robert Young and Dorothy Draper took command of restoration and redecorating. Draper, in the process, ordered thirty miles of carpeting, 45,000 yards of fabric, 15,000 rolls of wallpaper, and 40,000 gallons of paint.
By then the Greenbriar had been closed to the public for six long years. But would people come back after all this time? VIPs who showed up at the grand opening party included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bing Crosby, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., John Jacob Astor, Clark Clifford, Cyrus Eaton, and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy, as well as a veritable Who’s Who of the age. The press, of course, loved it.
Since that time, it almost seems axiomatic that all U. S. Presidents come here either for relaxation or for important conferences. Eisenhower was such a regular that hotel operators got in the habit of answering all incoming calls, “Good morning, Greenbriar White House.”
In the summer of 1976, Jack Nicklaus arrived to rebuild the Greenbriar Golf Course—took almost two years to complete. Sam Snead has had a lifelong love for the course as well.
On Friday, May 29, 1992, Greenbriar President Ted Kleisner called together an unusual staff meeting none of those present will ever forget: “Today we are going to acknowledge,” he announced, “a secret thirty-five-year partnership with the United States government. This partnership is about to be disclosed in an upcoming article in The Washington Post which reveals the existence of an emergency relocation center, a bunker on our property and describes the facility in such detail that we can no longer deny it.”
The news was indeed mind-boggling: underneath the stately five-star resort sat a huge concrete and steel bunker designed to house Congress in the event of a national crisis! Just as startling: it had been kept a secret for an entire generation. And the bunker contained over 100,000 feet of space. Mosler Safe Company constructed the huge blast doors that protected vehicular entrances into the bunker. The bunker was intended to not only house Congress, but also dormitories, dining room, and a power plant; as well as a sophisticated communications center. An underground water system constantly replenished three huge 25,000 gallon storage tanks within the bunker.
All during the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, this vast facility was kept in readiness for use with only a few hours notice needed. A landing strip adjacent to the Greenbriar Golf Course was part of the planned evacuation process.
Today, under new management, the Greenbriar is entering its fourth centuiry. What a remarkable story!
Our source for this section is a book you may well wish to purchase yourself: Robert Conte’s lavishly illustrated hardback, The History of the Greenbriar, America’s Resort, (printed in Canada: The Greenbriar, 2000, 2014).
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We found it easy to locate White Sulphur Springs, but anything but easy to find the hotel itself. Clearly, management feels that if you have to ask to find the hotel (situated as it is in the midst of such a vast complex of buildings, golf course, and forested reserve), then maybe you’re not paying guest material. 🙂 Which we weren’t—we just wanted to see it, eat there, and pretend we could afford to stay there.
Eventually we found it, and soon found ourselves in another world. A fascinating synthesis of comfort and understated palatial. A king’s ransom of great paintings gracing the rooms, cut-flowers everywhere. A library in which guests may write letters. We didn’t see a check-in counter anywhere. Strangely, however, in spite of the opulence, we felt at home here, and wished we could stay. We did eat in one of the cafes. My nachos towered higher than any I’d ever seen elsewhere. Bob’s milkshake set a price record—at least for him. But the experience was worth it: we could now cross the Greenbriar off our list of places to see before we die.
TO BE CONTINUED