Greenbrier's new owner aims for return to glory

The north entrance is now being used as the main entrance until June 18, when the casino
and main entrance will reopen.


The north entrance is now being used as the main entrance until June 18, when the casino and main entrance will reopen.

The hall leading to the Victorian writing /reading room


The hall leading to the Victorian writing /reading room

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - "Shhhh it's sleepy time in the South."

That gentle reminder goes up on signs between 8:30 and 9 p.m. in the corridors of The Greenbrier and is printed on the nightlights that are plugged in with the evening turn-down service. It's a tradition dating back to 1948 and the beginning of the Dorothy Draper era. The high-society interior designer was hired to spruce up the resort after it was used as a hospital during World War II. She left the hotel with a bold new personality, using color and patterns to paint a picture that reflected luxury, elegance and a sense of history in every detail.

Those "sleepy time" signs nearly signaled a permanent lights out for The Greenbrier. Changing leisure-time tastes and a decline in clientele with the recent economic downturn forced parent company CSX Corp. to file for bankruptcy last year. Once a five-star hotel, The Greenbrier dropped to four at the start of the millennium. A renovation and upgrade in 2007 failed to bring it back. But one man is on a mission to reclaim Greenbrier's glory and that lost star.

West Virginia coal baron Jim Justice stepped in and, like a local superman, saved the day. He stopped bankruptcy proceedings, which appeared headed for a deal with Marriott, the hotel chain.

"Having it be part of a chain would be like sandblasting Mount Rushmore," he said.

He said The Greenbrier has always made good use of its 6,500-acre property, starting with a sulphur spring known for its curative powers since 1778.


The Harris hawk swoops down, talons forward, and lands as light as a feather on your arm. Falconry is one of the many country pursuits guests at The Greenbrier have available to them. It was added to the list in 1994.

If clay pigeons are more your thing, the nearly century-old Greenbrier Gun Club offers skeet, trap and a 10-station sporting clays course for novice and experts alike. Other outdoor activities include horseback riding, hiking, fly-fishing, tennis, white-water rafting, mountain biking and golf, with three 18-hole courses.

The spa offers the Greenbrier Signature treatment that includes a Scotch shower, a steam or sauna and a Swedish massage. Facials, massages and pure pampering are part of the spa experience.

Croquet, carriage rides and Bunker tours are some of the other less-demanding pastimes. The Bunker, which was secretly built during the Cold War to shelter members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack, was made public in 1992. For the more distant past, guests need only walk over to the Art Colony Cottages, Paradise Row and Baltimore Row, where the cottage of Robert E. Lee and the President's Museum stand.

Everyone from royals to regulars, presidents to pedestrians came to The Greenbrier. Among them were Princess Grace of Monaco and her family, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Presidents Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. These stars helped put the West Virginia resort on the map.

"So here was a company, CSX, that owned this hotel for 100 years and did a tremendous amount for our state, and they were in a terrible labor dispute," Justice said. "Then there were all these hardworking good West Virginians that were going to lose their jobs."

When it was announced to the employees that he had taken over The Greenbrier and was hiring back the 600 employees who had been let go, he received a standing ovation.

"It was a good day to be Jim Justice," he recalled, smiling.

It's been said about him, "he's as common as an old shoe."

"That's not very flattering, but it's probably right," confesses the 6-foot-7 former college golfer.

However, it's not the common touch he wants to emphasize at The Greenbrier. A major revitalization is under way.

The main entrance was torn up to build a 90,000-square-foot casino, a bigger and better portico, more shops and top-of-the-line restaurants. He retained the services of interior designer Carlton Varney, who owns Dorothy Draper Inc.

"Carlton says, 'There is going to be no place like it in the world. The world's going to come here.' And I believe him," said Justice.

Rolling the dice

With the sounds of cranes and jackhammers behind him, Justice surveyed the work and discussed the massive renovation project.

"It's going to be an entertainment area. It's not going to be a casino like you think of in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. It's even going to be better than Monte Carlo. I just sent a whole team of people there, and they came back and said we think we are going to be the best place in the world."

There will be a strict dress code and no-smoking policy. The area will include eight mezzanine-level shops, the Twelve Oaks lounge and the Infusion Sushi Bar.

Carlton's Cafe, a nod to the designer, will be a coffee shop with desserts and pastries. A new grand staircase will lead down to the lower-level casino and include a water feature.

The iconic Draper's Cafe now at the north entrance will move up a level and be called the Forum. In its place will be an intimate brick-oven Italian restaurant.

Already in place is the Tavern Casino, which replaced The Old White, an bar restaurant where many deals were made.

"A lot of the old guard were very upset when The Old White was replaced, but it had lost its appeal with a new generation of guests," noted an employee.

The Tavern Casino is a small gaming area with a bar and food service under the new steakhouse, Prime 44 West. With an open kitchen and chefs table, the restaurant includes intimate booths and tables. They served a Wagyu beef, described as American Kobe, that could wake up the carnivore in the most ardent vegetarian.

They are also in the process of creating the Greenbrier Express, a 210-passenger steam engine that would pull out of Union Station in Washington, D.C., and take guests to the door of the fabled resort.

"I don't want this to be a gaming destination. I want this to be a place to come when they are tired of going to all those other places," Justice said.

When the casino opens, invitations will go out all over the world.

"There is no other Greenbrier and they will come, they will come from everywhere," he insisted.


© 2010 Knoxville News Sentinel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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