We had to get back to Columbus this morning, which meant we arose before the crack of dawn and were treated to a view of the Greenbrier in the wee hours. With wisps of fog shrouding parts of the grounds, absolute, not a whisper to be heard silence, and no living soul out and about, the Greenbrier assumed an almost mystical dimension that made you almost expect to encounter the ghost of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But no ghosts appeared, so we loaded up the car and headed out toward I-64 West.
This may be the perfect time of year to visit the Greenbrier, and the mums are only part of the reason. The weather has been bright and clear, warm but not too hot during the day and cool in the evening. The leaves are starting to fall, letting us feel them crunch underfoot as we walk the trails and walking paths. Throw in the soothing clip-clop of horse hooves from the carriage rides, and you’ve got a beautiful place to spend a weekend.
It’s spring break again at the Columbus Academy. Last year, we decided to visit the Greenbrier for the first time. This year, we’re checking out the Homestead.
The Greenbrier is in West Virginia and the Homestead is in Virginia, and the Homestead is a bit farther away from Columbus than the Greenbrier, but people tend to think of them together. There’s a reason for that. Both have the same historical feel, both started as resorts because of proximity to sulphur water, and both have the same impressive outside appearance and the same huge and beautifully decorated common rooms — at least, the ones we’ve seen so far.
We’ll be doing some exploring of the hotel and grounds, but right now we need to find a pub that is showing the NCAA games and get ready for some March Madness, Homestead style.
The Greenbrier is located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia for a reason. Sulphur water is what attracted people to the area in the first place. The Greenbrier’s iconic logo is the Spring House, a Greek revival structure that marks the head of the sulphur spring, and one of the rooms at the Greenbrier features fountains where guests used to be served glasses of sulphur water to drink. Imagine, voluntarily drinking a glass of sulphur water!
For a long time, Americans thought that sulphur water had significant healing properties and helped cure rheumatism and stomach ailments and other afflictions. People traveled for miles to “take the waters” at White Sulphur Springs, or sample the “Pluto Water” in French Lick, Indiana, or visit other resorts found at the heads of sulphur springs. Eventually, of course, tests confirmed that there were no health benefits to consuming sulphur water — or for that matter, steeping in hot sulphur water versus other hot water — and sulphur water became a nuisance to be addressed rather than a boon to be celebrated.
I think of sulphur water when I see a new pop-up website ad touting a simple way to reduce belly fat, or increase energy, or enhance sexual potency. Americans have always been targets for the snake-oil salesmen preaching about the latest miracle cure — because we don’t want to believe that the only way to a flat stomach is a good diet and plenty of exercise. At least the sulphur water health phenomenon had the benefit of producing some fine resorts along the way.
One of the many distinctive touches you find at The Greenbrier is tea time.
Every day at 4 p.m., a pianist sits at the grand piano in the garden room to play a march. Then, uniformed waiters and waitresses come striding into the main lobby to the cadence of the music, carrying silver trays groaning with cookies and sweets. The trays are placed on a large central table in the main lobby, tables with silver canisters of steaming hot tea and iced tea are moved into the room, and the guests descend to enjoy the feast.
In the meantime, the pianist gives a 45-minute concert to all who prefer to take their tea with musical accompaniment. It is quite pleasant indeed to sit in the beautiful garden room with the pianist, sipping tea and milk, nibbling on an almond cookie, and listening to the strains of Beethoven’s Fur Elise or a medley of Disney movie tunes.
Good vacations are made, I think, of little moments like this, where you do something fun and unusual in a distinctive place and then can recall the moment with pleasure after you return to your ordinary routine.
Yesterday Kish and I took the “Bunker Tour” at The Greenbrier. It was a fascinating 90 minutes.
For those not familiar with the story, during the Cold War America decided to build an extensive fallout shelter for the legislative branch of government for use in the event that bombers from the Soviet Union dropped nuclear bombs on Washington, D.C. The concept was that after the Soviet bombers took off, members of Congress (and one trusted aide each) could be transported to the secure facility before the bombs fell and then would be safe to conduct the legislative business of the country for 60 days. The Bunker came on-line in 1962 — just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis — and continued to operate as The Bunker until its existence was exposed in 1992.
The Greenbrier was selected as the site because it was close enough to Washington, D.C. to allow for evacuation and the facility could be constructed in secret under the cover story that The Greenbrier was building a new wing — which is what happened. In fact, some of the parts of the Bunker — including the office space and the chambers where the Houses of Congress would meet — were hidden in plain sight and were routinely used by the public as an exhibit hall and a theatre. Those areas could have been secured by a huge nuclear blast door that was kept hidden behind garish wallpaper.
The rest of the bunker, which is now used as a highly secure data storage area by Fortune 500 companies, featured bunk bed dormitories, offices, kitchens, a radiation shower, redundant power and water systems, an incinerator, a medical facility, communications areas, and storage areas where food and medicine sufficient to keep more than 1000 people fed and healthy for 60 days was kept.
Although the idea of The Bunker presupposed a horrific nuclear bomb exchange, there was something naively optimistic about the whole concept. The notion that our legislators would faithfully keep debating and legislating for 60 days, living cheerfully in military fatigues, eating C-rations, and sleeping communally in bunk beds while the nuclear winds raged outside is hard to understand now. Did they really think that, when they emerged, our country could continue as even a semblance of its former self — and that, if it could, the Members of Congress who led us to nuclear holocaust should be the ones to then lead the American survivors of the nuclear conflagration?
We’ve always wanted to visit The Greenbrier — that ancient, rich-with-tradition hotel-resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia — but it always seemed too expensive to be a realistic option. With it being off-season, and with the economy still struggling and people traveling less, I thought perhaps we could get a deal this time. Sure enough, a visit to The Greenbrier website showed that was the case. To comply with the terms of the deal, we arrived yesterday and are leaving Wednesday.
I didn’t know quite what to expect of The Greenbrier, but it is an extraordinary place. First, it is huge. When you arrive, you see this enormous, all-white, multi-winged building looming in the distance. I was stunned by the sheer massiveness of the place. Second, the hotel just reeks of older days, when people spent times in common rooms and waiters and bellmen and doormen were everywhere to be seen. The Greenbrier has an enormous number of public rooms, and all of them are colorfully, strikingly decorated. The effect is jaw-dropping.
Yesterday we drove over from Columbus and wandered around, and last night we had a splendid meal in the main dining room. Today we will be taking the “bunker tour,” where you can see the facilities that were constructed to house the legislative branch of government in the event a nuclear attack wiped out Washington, D.C. I’m very much looking forward to that tour.