Oh to Own a Piece of History!
The Greenbrier. Call it Home
by Stephanie Cavanaugh
Wall St. Journal's OWN Magazine
"We're going up to the White!"
That's what people said long before the Civil War, when White Sulphur Springs, in what was then known simply as western Virginia, was to the south what Saratoga Springs was to the north.
"In the 19th century, there was a cluster of resorts within a fifty mile radius," says the Greenbrier's official historian, Dr. Robert Conte. "Visitors would make a circuit, spending two weeks at one, a week at another. "
The Greenbrier was one of them.
Famous and fashionable southerners flocked to the mountains to "take the waters," drinking and bathing in spring waters rumored to remedy just about any ill. Conte quotes a visitor in his fascinating History of The Greenbrier, "It cures ugliness itself."
They also came to eat, drink, socialize and escape the summer heat -- plantation owners and southern belles traveling on horseback or by stagecoach or up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Lodgings then cost about $1.15 a day.
The whirl of the social season was put on hold for the Civil War, resuming shortly after with the installation of a Chesapeake and Ohio railroad station, virtually at the resort's doorstep.
The railroad had such an interest in The Greenbrier's success that they bought the property in 1910. Shortly after, they added a magnificent hotel to the 19th century cottages that housed early guests; cottages that still exist, upgraded and expanded, and line the walk to the famous golf course.
Fabulously decorated by Dorothy Draper, and offering the most exquisite hospitality, the facilities included stables and pools and a bath wing that was among the finest in the world. The guest list before World War II was as star studded as the setting, a cross-section of luminaries that included presidents Taft and Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bing Crosby, Babe Ruth, and the Prince of Wales.
Over the years, the world-class resort has played host to 26 U.S. presidents.
Time once again stopped for World War II, when the railroad temporarily sold The Greenbrier to the U.S. Government for use as a rehabilitation hospital for 25,000 soldiers. "A particularly nice hospital, and an incongruity," Conte says with a chuckle. "In the 40s the resort was a hangout for the rich and famous, where millionaires went -- to have it available to soldiers? It was never a democratic resort, in the small "d" sense."
With the war over, the railroad regained the hotel -- though the connection to the government was not entirely severed. A Cold War bunker was constructed underneath it "with room for 1000 people," says Conte. "535 members of congress plus staff."
Assuming that Russia sent missiles and Washington was destroyed, this and several other facilities dotted about the region would be easily reachable by train, ensuring the government's continuity.
"It was a helluva idea," says Conte, adding that the bunker still exists and tours are offered. "You can't get rid of it, it's a giant concrete box under a hill. It's not going anywhere."
Conte recalls someone once saying, "The Greenbrier was the symbol of the height of civilization -- here was a facility built for the end of civilization."
The Greenbrier still exists, of course -- as lavish and fabled as ever, nestled in 6,750 acres of mountain and stream and valley, with 4,250 acres reserved for the resort itself.
And now you can own a piece of The White.
In 1999 the railroad sold the hotel and spa, and 2500 of its 6750 acres became The Sporting Club. "A club within the resort," says John Klemish, the broker in charge and advisor to the chairman. "You would be blown away!"
Fifteen neighborhoods, each with its own character, pepper the land. "You can live where you can walk to the hotel itself, or on a golf course, on a river, in the valley, " says Klemish. You might also chose the mountain, where the views stretch 50 miles.
"Of the 500 home sites, 400 have been purchased, and 200 homes have been built," he says, adding, "some are worthy of Architectural Digest."
Each neighborhood has a different architectural character, "the sites and the vernacular, the language of the design, makes them different," says Klemish. There is, however, an orderliness to designs, with the homes closest to the hotel echoing its classical Georgian style, stone and timber homes in the mountains and along the river. An architectural review board approves each custom building.
As members of The Sporting Club, homeowners receive special discounts on hotel amenities, including rooms, dining, and activities and enjoy exclusive use of private club facilities including a golf course, lodges for dining, a spa, an equestrian center, and a fitness center.
And there's a brand new casino, "James Bond meets Gone with the Wind," Klemish calls it. "It's elegant, it's civilized, it's Monte Carlo." It's the elegance of a movie set, where champagne flows, music plays, and jackets are required after 7 p.m.
These are second and third homes for most of the homeowners, most of whom live within a five hour drive of The Greenbrier, says the broker. You can also fly directly from Dulles International or Hartsfield Int'l airport in Atlanta, Ga.
And you can still take the train from Washington's Union Station for a mere $39.
Should you ever tire of the offerings at The Sporting Club or at the hotel, Klemish notes that the nearby town of Lewisburg was recently voted the "America's Coolest Small Town" by Frommer's Budget travel Magazine. It has a has a Carnegie Hall for concerts, boutiques and antiques, a college, coffee shops and art galleries -- and an adorable main street reminiscent of an idyllic New England town."
Up at The White, the heyday never ends.