The Greenbrier Resort's Revival
Published: August 2011
By Aimee Lee Ball
With its vivid Dorothy Draper interiors and lavish antebellum air, the legendary Greenbrier resort
serves as the perfect backdrop for fall’s most vibrant new looks. T+L travels to
West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains to learn how this classic hotel got its groove back.
The queen of interior design for a large part of the 20th century, Dorothy Draper was known for blowsy floral patterns, baroque plaster pediments, shimmering chandeliers. The Greenbrier resort, in rural West Virginia, was the improbable jewel in her crown. And in many ways, it still is.
Travelers have been drawn to this remote valley in the Allegheny Mountains for more than 200 years, seeking the curative powers of the white sulphur springs discovered by the Shawnee. The original Greenbrier hotel, known as the White, and its behemoth (700-room) successor welcomed Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, Dolley Madison and Davy Crockett, Jimmy Hoffa and Bing Crosby—who often arrived in private railroad cars at the depot across from the main entrance. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor danced in the ballroom; more recent royalty included Bill Gates.
When Draper was hired to redecorate after the Second World War, the Greenbrier had just finished service as a 2,000-bed military hospital. Her objective was to create a large country house catering to the comfort and pleasure of guests—a way of life she understood as the daughter of one of America’s wealthiest families. She retained the Greenbrier’s distinctive wide hallways (a tradition from the hotel’s earliest incarnation, when they accommodated hoop skirts) and dressed the afternoon-tea staff in uniforms that recalled 19th-century parlormaids. She used what she called “masses of beautiful color” with no fear of mixing patterns. (For the grand opening, she was said to be outraged at a gardener watering the lawn with a black hose when she had specified red.) One review of the hotel called it “Dorothy at her flaming best.”
But two years ago, with a tired reputation and drooping occupancy, the Greenbrier was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A local billionaire named Jim Justice bought all 6,500 acres for the bargain price of $20 million, determined to resurrect the glory days. With a new sushi bar, luxury clothing stores, and the Black Eyed Peas in concert, the Greenbrier is gingerly embracing the 21st century.
Some changes have been controversial, including the casino dubbed “Monte Carlo meets Gone with the Wind.” Today, women in little black dresses are offered big black napkins in a steak house where Wagyu beef is ordered by the ounce. Guests can get a hot-stone massage at the spa, practice the real sport of kings with the resident falcons, or tour the Bunker, a secret Cold War–era fallout shelter for members of Congress. Starting next summer, there will be train service from Washington, D.C. The restored 1950’s Pullman cars will be met by horse-drawn carriages.
But the “Draper touch” is still in evidence, providing continuity for families who’ve been visiting the Greenbrier for generations. Her protégé Carleton Varney keeps a vast inventory of her designs in circulation, and there’s an upholstery shop on site that can whip out a replacement for any sofa or bed skirt that’s starting to look shabby. The turquoise striped walls, black and white checkerboard floors, and “Fudge Apron” floral chintz constitute a classic meme that continues to inspire people like Meredith German, a 34-year-old designer of accessories and jewelry who grew up nearby, eating Sunday lunch in the Greenbrier dining room. “Those cabbage roses are in my blood,” says German, who now shoots irreverent “look books” for her Meredith Wendell collections at the resort—belts wrapped around fringed velvet chairs or handbags perched on a golf cart at one of the four championship courses. “At one photo shoot, a bellman walked by a model lying on the floor and commented, ‘She must have had a rough night.’”
Surely Dorothy Draper would have approved.
Doubles from $359.