Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Amazing, Entertaining Greenbrier

The Greenbrier Resort in the mountains at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is a most luxurious, charming, outlandish, vast and entertaining place, a cruise ship, as my daughter called it, a grown-up Disneyworld, a kind of verdant Las Vegas for addictless adults. The place is about the wonderful spa, the traditional afternoon tea, the bunker built in the Cold War as a fallout shelter for Congress, The place is about golf, of course, tennis, of course, not the bowling alley, though there is one, nor the casino, recently added by the local West Virginia boy made billionaire, who bought the place for $42 million and then spent a fortune reinvigorating and re-imagining it into the fantasy place it is today. He put in a basement casino, shops, restaurants, turned it into even more of a cruise ship than it was before. I think it once had dignity. Now it has pizazz. The place is not about the pool, which I had all to myself for three days running. Built in 1912, a hundred years ago, even before the hotel itself was completed, it is long, slim, tiled in tiny hand-laid one-inch tiles. Its first coach and lifeguard was Charles Norelius, an Olympic contender, who trained his daughter Martha here. She went on at age 15 to win a 1924 Gold medal in the 400-yard freestyle, and then repeated the feat in 1928. Thrown out of the AAU in 1929 and stripped of 5 of her medals because she gave an exhibition in Miami in which professional swimmers also took part, she turned pro and won a big award in Canada soon after, met her first husband, had two kids with him, remarried, had three kids with him, and died in St. Louis at the age of 47 following a gall bladder operation. Her father outlived her. They wrote a book together called Swimming. The pool is 80 meters long, 52 laps to the mile. About 1/3 of the way along its length, measured from the shallow 3-feet-deep end, it quite precipitously drops down to 8 feet deep, and at the deep end it goes to 9 feet. Swimming over that drop-off makes you feel as if you were taking off in an airplane, or that you were the airplane, rising in the air. But the place is not about the pool. It’s about the whole history of the place. The arrival of the first white settler in 1778. The sulphur springs. The establishment of a summer resort in the 19th century. The acquisition of the property by the C&O railroad in 1910 to establish a destination because its railroad ran past it. Its use as a military hospital during World War II. The revamping by the famous interior decorator,Dorothy "Never be afraid of color" Draper, in 1948. The building of the bunker in the late 1950s and early 1960s under cover of adding a new wing. The abandonment of the bunker in 1992, after it was outed by the Washington Post. The near bankruptcy in the Great Recession just past. The place is about the décor. No surface has gone untouched by clashing color combinations and incompatible patterns. The result is exhilarating, crazy, and delightful! Floors of black and white marble tile laid on the diagonal, of course, elaborate chintz drapes and matching or contrasting or completely unrelated upholstery, striped walls of white and hunter green or pink or aqua or yellow, walls stenciled or papered with cabbage roses and rhododendron, enormous Czech crystal chandeliers, very dramatic, some would say - some did and do say - vulgar, very vulgar. But the Greenbrier takes its décor very seriously: it's really one of its main attractions. Draper's partner and successor, Carleton Varney, has an office at the Greenbrier and comes down frequently to make changes large and small. Here is the symbolic fact: the Greenbrier has 20 full-time upholsters on staff! This weekend the place was about my sister and me. We had some serious bonding to do and we had a wonderful time doing it.

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