Old Hotels

Spring 2018

Nancy and I love staying at elegant old hotels, built in scenic out-of-the-way locations, where the destination is the objective.  Some examples are the Grand Hotel, built on an island in Lake Huron, and the Balsams Hotel, pressed against Canada in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. Closer to home, we like Skytop Lodge, which offers broad views of the Pennsylvania Poconos. Our most recent old hotel visit was to The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.  My parents took me there several times as a child. We continued the tradition, taking our children there 35 years ago.  The photo on the right is of our two oldest children (now 38 and 40), in front of one of the Greenbrier’s cottages; on the left, is me 35 years later.

Many of these hotels were built by railroads. In order to visit the scenic location, guests traveled by rail and stayed in railroad owned hotels. The Greenbrier still has a train station, and is rail accessible from Washington DC. It was owned for many years by CSX railroad and its predecessors.

Our “bucket list” purpose in visiting the Greenbrier was to see “The Bunker,” a cold war era hideout built to accommodate the House and Senate in the event of nuclear war.  Also, we were curious to see if the hotel still met our high, 35-year-old expectations.

“West Virginia Mountaineers” isn’t just a slogan. The Greenbrier is nestled in mountainous territory, split by the Howard River.  In 1958, during the Eisenhower administration, Congress approached the Railroad with the idea of building The Bunker. Cleverly, it was built as part of the “West Virginia Wing” room expansion that included meeting facilities. Rather than hide The Bunker, several of the rooms, including part that looks like a large exposition area and an auditorium type area were (and still are) open for meetings and conferences. The auditorium area could quickly be converted into a chamber for the House of Representatives, while the exposition space was planned as work space for Congressional staffers.

The entrances are blast doors, resembling those on bank vaults. The blast doors where one enters from the Hotel are cleverly disguised. They recess into the wall, and are covered with flowery Dorothy Draper wallpaper.

In addition, there were dormitories, a medical clinic, a cafeteria, and a communications briefing room. Upon arrival, one was supposed to remove one’s clothes, presumed to be contaminated by radiation. Everyone was to shower, and then army fatigues were to be issued. Your clothes would be incinerated.  This whole facet is pretty creepy.

Of course, The Bunker needed a power plant, water, and food. Food was delivered weekly– enough for hundreds of people.  As expiration dates neared, food stores were recycled to feed hotel employees.

The Bunker stayed secret from its completion in 1962 to 1992, at which time a Washington Post reporter leaked the story.  By that time, The Bunker was obsolete. Recall that the first nuclear bombs were delivered by aircraft. Under that scenario, a warning system would allow time to evacuate Congress from Washington to West Virginia. In the 1990’s missiles supplanted aircraft as the primary nuclear weapon delivery method. With their greater speed, there is no time to shelter at remote locations. There must now be a bunker in or near Washington for Congress.

The Greenbrier itself is much different than newly built hotels. Today, even 5-star hotels have modest public areas, which save on energy and maintenance.  The Greenbrier has massive public spaces, including lobbies, reading rooms, bars and hallways.  The buildings are sprawling, on 12,000 acres, and require constant maintenance.  In 2009, during the heart of the recession, CSX, the owner, put the Greenbrier into bankruptcy.  Six hundred fifty employees were laid off.  In 2010, Jim Justice, a coal billionaire, and the richest man in West Virginia, bought the hotel.  He re-hired employees and set about maintaining and improving the hotel. In our opinion, he’s succeeded. This is an area where, besides the Greenbrier, not much is going on. Jobs that the hotel provides are good ones, with benefits. Each restaurant or hotel bill comes with a 7 or so percent surcharge for “historic restoration”, the cost of keeping up the place.  They’ve added a casino, a sports performance center, and other activities that people like today.

In addition to being a coal magnate, and owning The Greenbrier, Justice is now the governor of West Virginia.

Development is something that helps these old hotels on large tracts of real estate to survive. The Greenbrier has developed vacation houses on the surrounding mountains and along the fairways.  With so much acreage, selling off an acre or two for a couple of hundred thousand dollars is a no brainer.  In addition to the money it brings in, homeowners then play golf, have meals, and bring others to the area.

I doubt that I would agree with the politics of Jim Justice, but I salute him for taking on the burden of running the Greenbrier. He’s helping the local economy and the state in general by operating this grand old hotel.

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