After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the first time President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney met together in the same room took place the following January at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. They came to the Greenbrier not because of the famed resort's history, not because of its presidential record (at last count 26 presidents have visited) and not because of the graceful beauty (the hotel's iconic classical facade is one of the most famous in the world) -- but because of the bunker.
Famous five-star resorts can boast about having the most expensive room, best beach, tastiest delicacies, grandest views, even the largest ballroom, but the Greenbrier has something no other grand resort in the world has -- a top-secret Cold War fallout shelter built to house the country's entire legislative body in the event of a nuclear war.
Constructed in 1958, almost used during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, exposed in a news story in 1992 and finally decommissioned in 1995, the bunker is open to visitors today. The two questions that come quickly to mind are how did this huge underground bunker -- 112,544 square feet on many levels -- come to be and how could anything this big remain a secret, especially in a place visited by so many people from all over the globe?
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played golf at Greenbrier, was looking to put in place a "continuity of government" program in case of nuclear war -- in other words, a locational plan so the U.S. government could continue to function in case of attack. To him, the Greenbrier, tucked away in the wooded, hilly Allegheny Mountains, was a good bet. The government was able to disguise the construction because it paid for an expansion of the resort, making the development work seem to the casual observer to be simply the construction of a new wing.
Of course, there was that big, deep hole in the ground and 5 feet of concrete above and below the bunker, but somehow that could always be explained away. Inside the resort, the huge 18-ton door to the shelter was neatly disguised by false walls and busy wallpaper. Fake service crews at the resort maintained the bunker through the Cold War years.
Down the road, the small, quaint town of Lewisburg, the site of a small battle during the Civil War, boasted an airport with the largest runway in the state -- so long it could even handle Air Force One if need be. And for many years Interstate 64 jutted west from I-81 and stopped at White Sulphur Springs, although it now it goes west through the capital city of Charleston. An Amtrak train still stops across from the resort. If Congress needed to evacuate Washington, D.C., there needed to be many options.
The Greenbrier Resort is a storied property. Visitors started coming to the local sulfur springs as early as 1783. Cottages were built on the property in the early 1800s. The first large hotel was used as a hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and Robert E. Lee lived in a cottage on the property during his later years. It still stands, as does a gazebo over the original spring.
Today the spa at the resort offers a Sulphur Soak, which I decided to try. The water was dense and buoyant and supposedly a kind of exfoliant. It older times people also drank the water, but that is now prohibited by federal regulations.
Besides presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, literary figures and Hollywood celebrities have come to the Greenbrier, including Princess Grace of Monaco, whose portrait now hangs in the north lobby. Edna Ferber met George Kaufmann to write one of their many plays here. Prime Minister Nehru of India visited. The Duke of Windsor danced with his wife, Wallis Simpson, in the ballroom, and Debbie Reynolds honeymooned here with Eddie Fisher.
Despite all that history, it was the bunker that really attracted my interest. There are tours, but some of the bunker also has been incorporated into the functions of the hotel. The main columned area is now used as an exhibition hall, and the two rooms that would have functioned as the nuclear home-away-from-home for the Senate and House of Representatives are now meeting halls. The old galley is a culinary school where Chef Richard Rosendale, who won the Bocuse d'Or USA and will be competing for the international Bocuse d'Or in France, has a test kitchen set up so he can practice for the competition.
The bunker was designed to hold 1,200 people and included dormitories, medical rooms, decontamination areas and storage spaces that held food for about 72 days. A 433-foot-long tunnel leads to one of the three main doors, all massive iron walls on gigantic hinges.
Originally there were dorm areas for men and women with everyone treated equally. Then over the years the leaders of the House and Senate decided they should have accommodations separate and better than their brethren.
Besides a wing of the hotel, there was something like 35.5 acres of land above the bunker area that was left fallow and open to natural growth. Once the bunker was decommissioned, the Greenbrier's development department allowed homes to be built on that land.
The expose revealing the bunker was done by a reporter with the Washington Post, which was set at the printer for the weekend magazine. Somehow a reporter at the Washington Times heard about the Post story and rushed out a smaller version to scoop its rival. Until then, it was a government secret that held for about 35 years -- a feat that might not be possible in today's age of Twitter and Facebook.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: I flew from the West Coast to Baltimore-Washington Airport and then took a tourist route through central Virginia. It's about a five-hour drive. My companion flew into Roanoke Airport, which was about an hour away. As noted, I-64 goes right past the resort and Amtrak arrives right at the gates of the resort three times a week.
The Greenbrier, one of the world's most iconic hotels, is one of the oldest in the United States. Located on 6,500 wooded and mountainous acres, the resort boasts three golf courses, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, and 50 other recreational activities that include falconry, trap and skeet shooting, croquet, horseback riding and an off-road driving school. There are 682 rooms in the main resort plus 96 guest and estate houses. One of the resort's old-school quirks is that men must wear a jacket and tie for dinner in the main dining hall: wwwgreenbrier.com.
The Greenbrier hotel and resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., once housed a bunker where both houses of Congress could convene in the case of a nuclear war. Photos courtesy of Steve Bergsman.