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The Greenbrier goes modern

Lynn Swann remembers the day The Greenbrier — the resort that has hosted presidents, royalty and the well-heeled for nearly 150 years — lost a distinction it had held almost four decades.
Guests dine at the new restaurant Hemisphere at The Greenbrier resort and spa, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Guests dine at the new restaurant Hemisphere at The Greenbrier resort and spa, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Jeff Gentner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lynn Swann remembers the day The Greenbrier — the resort that has hosted presidents, royalty and the well-heeled for nearly 150 years — lost a distinction it had held almost four decades.

On Jan. 11, 2000, the editors of Mobil Travel Guide stripped away its coveted five-star rating, proclaiming the historic hotel no longer stood among the few dozen considered the world's finest.

The Greenbrier had failed to keep up with the times, lacking radios, telephones in the bathrooms and suitable TV stands. Though still a fine hotel, Mobil decided, it was no longer perfect.

"It was personally devastating for a lot of the staff here," recalled Swann, a longtime employee and manager of public relations. "Our staff takes a lot of pride in this property. When they are welcoming guests, it's like they are welcoming them into their home. It was heartbreaking."

Work to regain the fifth star began immediately, surging into overdrive last winter with a $50 million renovation. Paul Ratchford quit California's Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay to become The Greenbrier's president and guide the resort to its future.

The changes number in the dozens, though many are subtle. The main lobby still has its distinctive black and white tiling, but there is music now, recorded and live. Bowls of exotic flowers have replaced potted plants. Smoking is allowed only outdoors, guests can bring small pets into the cottages, and there is wireless Internet access.

Overnight guests are greeted with wine and bottled water, then given cards rather than metal keys to their rooms, where new linens and flat-screen TVs await in all 721 rooms — along with more extensive redos like bigger bathrooms in 63 rooms.

"It was important that the relevance of the property was accepted with the next generation," said Ratchford. "The Greenbrier is a very historic national treasure, but we had been unable to pierce the market share of a younger demographic that might have come here with their parents or grandparents in previous years but would not necessarily consider us for a return visit."

Street signs help visitors navigate the sprawling grounds, sprinklers appear as tiny black discs high on the wall, and wood-paneled elevators sport beveled mirrors and brass railings. Tennis courts are now royal blue, suggestive of the U.S. Open.

The former Tavern Room restaurant is now 38-80, a world music cocktail lounge named for The Greenbrier's approximate latitude and longitude. Its Moroccan-inspired decor features star-shaped lanterns, limestone walls and elaborate tile work on the ceiling.

And The Old White Lounge with its crystal chandeliers and floral drapes has been replaced by Hemisphere, which offers a gourmet tasting menu with tiny portions served over several hours. It's another decorating departure, featuring a granite water fixture and iridescent glass floor tiles in red and cream, along with rich butterscotch walls and modern fabrics in fuschia, orange and lime.

Kevin Dott, assistant director food and beverage, hopes Chef Michael Voltaggio's artistic creations and open kitchen, where guests are invited to linger, will attract a kind of traveler The Greenbrier has never sought — the foodie.

"This is a little more contemporary, something you'd see in the major culinary cities in America," he said.

"Finding it here is a bit of a surprise to our guests."

White Sulphur Springs has been a spa town since the 1770s, and The Greenbrier dates to 1910. The town is just a four-hour drive from Washington, D.C., and Amtrak service from Chicago still drops guests off at a station right across the street from the resort.

With direct flights between New York and the Greenbrier Valley Airport, guests come from even farther away for annual events like the Sam Snead Festival, named for the legendary golf pro, and a food writers' symposium hosted each May.

Statewide, West Virginia attracts visitors not just from the Mid-Atlantic and nearby states like Ohio, but also from as far away as Florida. Officials say the state's nearly $4 billion tourism industry is up 6 percent since 2005. Attractions include outdoor activities like whitewater rafting, biking and skiing, as well as gambling at its four racetrack casinos, three of which will soon be offering blackjack, poker and other table games.

Peak season at The Greenbrier is May to October, with fall foliage and the holidays drawing crowds. But the resort is expanding menus, packages and spa offerings to boost offseason business.

The Greenbrier Center for Health Living is scheduled to open by January, an outgrowth of a little-known clinic that has long catered to Fortune 500 clients in need of physicals. The clinic dates to 1948, and in the 1950s, some of its doctors were designated to provide medical care for the resort's once-secret nuclear fallout shelter.

That decommissioned bunker, built to house members of Congress in case of attack, is now open to the public for tours.

Also open to Greenbrier visitors who are not staying overnight are the resort's restaurants, spa and golf courses, along with horse carriage rides and falconry lessons.

Mary Tabacchi, a professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y., said updating historic properties can be risky.

"The property is old, and I like it because it's old," she said. "They had a client that liked the old regular things, and there's always a risk when you change that you might lose your old clientele."

But she added that "the idea of what they're doing sounds good. They were verging on being shabby chic.

"The Tavern Room had lost its luster. When the weather's not good, there's not a whole lot to do there besides going to the spa and eating, so if it's going to work anywhere, it will work there," she said. "In wintertime, I could see sitting there comfortably and doing the tasting menu" at Hemisphere.

Balancing the need to modernize with the need to retain longtime clients is the key challenge for Ratchford and designer Carleton Varney, a protege of The Greenbrier's original decorator, the legendary Dorothy Draper.

The 63 overhauled guest rooms have new furniture and bigger bathrooms, many with separate shower and soaking tub. They still have rich fabrics and floral motifs, but patterns and colors are softer.

"I get letters every day saying, 'Please don't turn the Greenbrier into a Ritz-Carlton,'" Ratchford said. "And we didn't because Carleton Varney has been the decorator here for 40 years. Carleton designed those rooms with what he thinks Dorothy would have done today."

He'll soon do the same with the Main Dining Room, where coats and ties are required. The dress code has been relaxed elsewhere to resort casual, but Ratchford said the dining room will remain formal.

The green and black chandeliers won't change, but furniture and fabrics will. Outdoor and elevated seating will be added, along with a wine and coffee bar.

"You need to have some areas that preserve the heritage and history of this place, and I think our public areas do that," Ratchford said. "Then you need to have a little bit of fun and take some risk in some of the areas you feel are required to attract new customers."

Art Heal, 69, a longtime visitor from West Pittson, Pa., said the new management "is right on target.

"They catered to a certain crowd, but now, sadly, that crowd is dying off, and you have a new crowd, and they have to cater to them, too. The new crowd expects things to change," said Heal, who discovered 38-80 with his son while their wives were at the spa.

"I'm personally amazed," said Chuck Heal, 37, of Lewisburg. "There was never anything wrong with The Greenbrier, but this is an improvement. This is a gem."