Some hotels stand out from the crowd. They might be ultra-luxurious or have great historical significance. But I got the chance to visit one with a remarkable secret hidden in its basement.
The Greenbrier Hotel lies in White Sulphur Springs, a town in West Virginia, 250 miles southwest of Washington DC. It looks impressive. Eric Hastings from the hotel told me the huge, white, neoclassical building was designed to look like a European palace, standing at the end of landscaped gardens. And the enormous structure holds over seven hundred rooms.
“You make that turn into our driveway and see this massive building,” said Eric. “Our guests’ reaction is usually – ‘they don’t really build them like this any more.’” The sense of grandeur continues with the public spaces and guestrooms. “The Dorothy Draper decor has been a signature of the Greenbrier since 1948, with its bold use of colour, patterns, floral prints, black-and-white chequered floors and green and white stripes,” said Eric.
But there’s a big question. Why is such a massive hotel here? White Sulphur Springs has a population of just over 2,000.
The reason was only made public in the 1990s when reporters revealed the top-secret government project that lay underneath the resort – a fully functioning nuclear bunker, designed to be used by the government in the event of a war.
Eric told me that people have been travelling to West Sulphur Springs since 1778. “It’s all about the water and its medicinal uses. It’s the backbone of our history,” he said. “The first people came on horseback or in covered wagons and it was difficult to get here because we’re at an elevation of 2000 feet. They stayed in tents at first, but then permanent structures and a dining hall were built.”
The hotel was chosen for its secret use because it was on a railway line. The company that owned it had a good relationship with the government since the building had been used as a military hospital in the Second World War. “In the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear war was real, it was decided that there needed to be a top secret facility for Congress in the event of a nuclear strike on Washington DC. The government picked the Greenbrier as it was less than four hours from the capital. They built a massive, underground, top-secret bunker in 1968. It was operational and ready-to-go for 30 years and remained a secret until the 1990s.”
You can go on a guided tour and see the dormitories that were maintained for politicians as well as the massive underground debating chamber. You’ll also get a pack of postcards and pamphlets from the era. It’s worth doing.
I found it incredible that the secret didn’t leak out for decades – especially as this remained a fully functioning hotel – until Washington Post reporters broke the story. “Remember there were people who worked exclusively on the bunker at the Greenbrier,” explained Eric. “Their cover was that they were TV repair men. If you were a painter, electrician or pipe fitter, you passed a security clearance and you were allowed to work in the bunker. So whilst it was top-secret, people knew there was something there, but didn’t really know what it was. The big secret was that it was for Congress. Some people thought it was a communications centre for the military. Very few people knew its real intention.”The tour of the bunker is both fascinating and chilling. “You’ll see the giant blast doors – huge massive doors that would seal the bunker in the event of a nuclear attack. You’ll also see the huge underground exhibition hall.” This was part of the cover story for the facility, Eric told me. “People were told that the hotel was building more events space. The staff historian would have discussions with people in that exhibition hall about the existence of the bunker and he could convince them there was no bunker. It’s incredible – they were actually standing in the bunker whilst they were having the conversation! There’s a mini museum of artefacts and a secret passage that the ‘TV repair men’ used.”
Find out more at Greenbrier.com.