I moved to West Virginia almost five years ago and immediately started hearing about the Greenbrier, usually spoken in one of two ways. Either the teller of the tale used hushed, reverential tones, the kind you seem to automatically assume when you enter an amazing cathedral and the architecture awes you with its grandeur OR boastful, as in “I have arrived!”
Over the ensuing years I heard more. Easily accessible off I-64 in the town of White Sulphur Springs in the eastern part of West Virginia, the Greenbrier has been drawing people since 1778. The springs were the initial attraction and people came for the healing qualities of the waters. Then, as the only way to have a more comfortable summer was to escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands, people made the journey to the mountains. Not only the powerful from Washington, DC but the wealthy came in droves from South Carolina and even as far as Tensas Parish in northern Louisiana. Their trip required riverboat up the Mississippi and then up the Ohio, and then rail from Huntington to the White Sulphur Springs depot immediately opposite the entrance to the present 6500-acre hotel grounds. Then, we assume horse drawn carriage to provide access the mile from the train station to the entrance. It was a journey that took days, but then again, this was a lifestyle that meant the summer home was occupied for several months. So many people came that cottages were constructed together.
And so the concept of individual vacation homes on the grounds of this huge hotel was established early. And new homes are still being built. With lots selling from $250,000 to over $1,000,000, new homes cost between $2,000,000 and $5,000,000 today. They are vacation homes, not primary residences. It occurred to me that the people who own one at the Greenbrier probably own another (or more) elsewhere in other “must be seen” locations around the world.
No, I’m not jealous. My inclination is to travel, not stay put in one place. I have never opted for a vacation home of any style in any one place. But I also acknowledge that this lifestyle is not mine. So it was with happy anticipation of seeing how the wealthy vacation that I approached this past weekend of the Cast Iron Cookoff located at the Greenbrier.
The Greenbrier is HISTORIC. Construction of a stage road provided better access in the 1830s and more prominent people started to visit in the summers. At first the cottages were the only residences. The first hotel was constructed in 1858. During the course of the Civil War the resort was closed and the area occupied by both sides in turn and used as military headquarters or a hospital.
The rail access was completed in 1910 and construction of grand facades and additional wings commenced. The 1920s saw a boom with President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson coming to stay and Joseph and Rose Kennedy enjoying their honeymoon there. During World War II the hotel was converted into administrative offices and a 2,000 bed hospital, with the medical staff lodged in the nearby cottages. In 1946 Dorothy Draper was hired to decorate the hotel. She was at the forefront of interior design being recognized as an industry and her style is continued today by the firm she founded. A local airport currently provides additional travel ease to the secluded location.
During the 1950s a massive bunker was constructed deep under the hotel. It was designed to provide shelter and support for the U.S. Congress in case of a war. Declassified from its prior secret status in 1992 at the end of the Cold War, tours are available in part of the area (the other areas are currently used for secure storage of files) for $30 per person. No cameras or any other recording devices are permitted, so I didn’t bother.
The Greenbrier is GRAND. Offering 710 rooms, including 33 suites and 96 guest and estate houses. with 40+ meeting rooms and a complete conference center facility, it is one of the world’s fine resorts. The Greenbrier Classic, one of the PGA tournaments is played here. (One small tidbit I learned is at a PGA classic the host must offer the culinary spcialities of the place at a reduced price. So, while hamburgers and hotdogs may be in the $8 price range, fried green tomato sandwiches are only $2.50. Similarly, the famous Greenbrier peaches are offered at a discounted price compared to a banana or an apple.)
There is a casino, an avenue of shops, and numerous activities.
Our bedroom was classified a “intermediate”. Easily 20×20, it was one of the largest hotel room I have ever enjoyed. The bedroom had a more subdued decor than the room that was used by other members of our cooking team, but the lavish red and pink on green floral wallpaper in our bathroom made up for it.
I learned there was another bank of elevators that was closer to our room than the main elevator we used off the grand lobby. Instead of walking down a long hallway, we were
The Greenbrier is SERVICE. There are over 1,000 employees and they are referred to in the literature as “the ladies and gentlemen of the Greenbrier.” Many families have been employed there for generations. The few I chatted with at the front desk, the breakfast cafe, and one of the bartenders at our Saturday evening dinner told me that they enjoyed working there, Recent layoffs are short term during the January to April slow season; most anticipate being rehired. What I particularly noticed was not only attentive service but immediate and informed pleasant responses to questions.
We returned to our room each night to find the bed turned down, the classic “chocolate on the pillow”, the television on, playing soft jazzy music on an in-house channel scrolling photos of the resort.
I also noticed no sign as you see in many hotels now regarding conservation of water by indicating by the location of used towels whether you required fresh or are willing to reuse. Conservation is not much of a consideration here. I very much noticed the speed of hot water to the shower–INSTANT!
The Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia was able to work out a tremendous package with the Greenbrier. Not only was a group of this size attractive to the hotel in its slow season, it is good business to host an event celebrating fine food there. Rooms were discounted 50%, still pricey (ours was $149 a night PLUS the resort fee of $40 a day PLUS the valet service of $20 a day) but certainly not the most expensive place we have stayed.
So, overall, it was a wonderful place to visit. Not exactly the type of place where I can relax; the fact that there is a dress code precludes over half of my wardrobe. I do not mind mingling with the masses; in fact, I enjoy diversity. But if I wanted to hobnob with the refined and wealthy, this place would be the place to go. Until my budget permits, I will relish the memory of this weekend but perhaps more for the Cook-Off experience, than its venue.