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Taking the waters at The Greenbrier makes history come alive

Hotel historian Stanley Turkel’s new book "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi" contains a fascinating story about The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Once the grandest watering hole in the south, it is part of American spa history.

Beginning in 1778, people came to follow the local Native American tradition to "take the waters" to restore their health. In the 19th century, visitors drank and bathed in the sulphur water to cure everything from rheumatism to an upset stomach. Judges, lawyers, diplomats, ministers, planters and merchants from southern states visited the Old White resort in the summer for the restorative sulphur springs.

During the Civil War, the property changed hands between the Confederate Army and the Union Army, who almost burned the resort to the ground. In 1910, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway purchased the historic resort property and embarked upon a major expansion. By 1913, the railroad had added The Greenbrier Hotel (the central section of today's hotel), a new mineral bath department (the building that includes the grand indoor swimming pool) and an 18-hole golf course (now called The Old White Course).

In 1914, President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson spent their Easter holiday at The Greenbrier and Joseph and Rose Kennedy traveled down from Boston for their October honeymoon.
Business boomed in the 1920s. The Greenbrier took its place within high society's traveling network that stretched from Palm Beach, Florida to Newport, Rhode Island.

Rebuit in 1930, additions included the Mount Vernon-inspired Virginia Wing to the south and the signature North Entrance façade. But fashion and war changed The Greenbrier’s fortune.
During the Second World War, the United States government appropriated The Greenbrier for two very different uses. First, the State Department leased the hotel for seven months immediately after the U.S. entry into the war. It was used to relocate hundreds of German, Japanese, and Italian diplomats and their families from Washington, D.C. until their exchange for American diplomats, similarly stranded overseas, was completed.

After serving as Ashford General Hospital, where 24,148 soldiers were admitted and treated, the resort was reacquired by the C&O. Noted designer Dorothy Draper gave it a new look. When The Greenbrier reopened in 1948, Sam Snead returned as golf pro to the resort where his career had begun in the late 1930s.

Then came construction of the bunker. In the late 1950s, the U.S. government once again approached The Greenbrier for assistance, this time in the construction of an Emergency Relocation Center - a bunker or bomb shelter - to be occupied by the U.S. Congress in case of war. Built during the cold war and operated in secrecy for 30 years, it is a huge 112,000 square foot underground fallout shelter, intended for use by the entire United States Congress in the event of nuclear war.Posing as employees of a dummy company, Forsythe Associates, workers regularly checked its communications and scientific equipment as well as updating the magazines and paperbacks in the lounge areas. Decommissioned in 1992, the bunker is now open for tours.
In a surprise announcement on May 7, 2009, Jim Justice, a West Virginia entrepreneur with a long-standing appreciation for The Greenbrier, became the owner of America's most fabled resort. He purchased it from the CSX Corporation which, through its predecessor companies the Chessie System and the C&O Railway, had owned the resort for ninety-nine years. Mr. Justice turned his considerable energies into plans to revitalize America's Resort. He immediately presented his vision of a casino that included shops, restaurants, and entertainment in a smoke-free environment. The Casino Club at The Greenbrier opened in grand fashion on July 2, 2010. Simultaneously, Mr. Justice arranged to relocate a PGA Tour event named The Greenbrier Classic under the direction of The Greenbrier's new Golf Pro Emeritus, Tom Watson.

Twenty-six presidents have stayed at The Greenbrier. The President's Cottage Museum is a two-story building with exhibits about these visits and the history of The Greenbrier. The Greenbrier is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. It is a Forbes Four-Star and AAA Five-Diamond Award winner.

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