As nice as Really Nice can be!

January16/ 2000

…… Lets take a break from Obama’s bowling and brackets.  Today BobLee pays his sincere respect to quite a special place – The Greenbrier Hotel.   The venerable 5-star resort in West Virginia declared bankruptcy last week.   It was part of a young BobLee’s life journey in the mid 70s …..

If you ever stayed there, you never forgot the experience.  There are a lot of “Mounts” but Rushmore is special ….. there are a lot of fancy resort hotels …. But The Greenbrier was special.

I decided in the early 70s that I wanted to be in the “big time” luxury hotel business.  I was not aware at the time that I was (1) NOT a people person …… (2) NOT a team player ….. and (3) did NOT play well with others.  Since when did having any of the essential aptitudes for a career ever stop anyone from chasing an occupational rainbow.  Full speed ahead …..

I figured I could learn faster and “the right way” by starting at the best place.  All my research pointed to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and a Grand Dame of a place called The Greenbrier.   I would later hold court in shinier lobbies (including one with its own waterfall and another one with a riverwalk) and would host assorted VIPs and VIP wannabees but none of the rest of’em had the panache of “The G”.

Over the years, I became somewhat jaded and cynical over chilled forks, raspberry sorbets and haughty concierges.  Thinking back thirty years I recall The G as “as nice as really nice can get”. 

In its heyday of the 50s-80s, The Greenbrier was among a select group of independent hotels such as Palm Beach’s The Breakers and Colorado Springs’ The Broadmoor and The Homestead just over the state line in Virginia.  These “grande hotels” had their inception in the days of fancy railroad travel with railroad companies as their owners.  The CSX Corp (C&O Railroad) owned The Greenbrier.  With due respect to Hyatt, Fairmont, Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and their ilk ….. these “destination resorts” had a definite “wow factor” all their own.

White Sulphur Springs was/is a 5-Star milltown.  Of its 2,000 hardscrabble citizens, 1,200 worked at the hotel.  There were often 2-3 generations of a family employed at any one time.  A job at The Greenbrier was “for life” and the annual employee recognition banquet didn’t even invite you unless you had at least 20 years time on grade.

Management did not have to preach Greenbrier quality standards.  Longtime employees made sure the rookies “understood”.   The term “service attitude” had only one standard at The G.

I was only there a little over a year myself, but plenty of memories.

•    The G was built before oversized beds became the norm so the physical layout of guest rooms did not allow for Queens. Kings or in many cases even “Double”.  Twins would be pushed together and mattresses turned to accommodate conjugal coupling.  It was great fun to check a honeymoon couple in and count the minutes before the bellman would call to request “pushing the beds together”.

•    The G was in an Allegheny Valley where cable TV was many years away and satellite was unborn.  No in-room TVs ….. actually we could bring in TVs but management preferred guests spending $$$$ in the restaurants and bars.

•    The bellstaff was all black gentlemen.  The “rookie” on the staff had been there 5 years.  The lack of reverse diversity was the way they wanted it.  These guys were “pros”.  I worked with fine bellstaffs at other hotels but nothing like these guys.  This was the 70s and these guys could “step & fetch it” and “yessa boss” all day long and take home $75,000/year in unreported tips.

•    For aspiring chefs, an apprenticeship at The G was better than a full scholarship to The Culinary Institute.   The loading dock was always full of guys with chain saws creating intricate ice and butter sculptures.  A German gentleman named Herman Rousch was VP of All Things Culinary.  Mr Rousch at 6’6″, ramrod straight, in his chef’s toque was one impressive sight.

•    The Tavern Room was famous for its French Onion soup with a 3” layer of cheese on top.

•    Room rates at The G were MAP – Modified American Plan meaning breakfast & dinner included (if taken in the main dining room).  I’m not sure what rates were in recent times but $400/night would not surprise me.   “High Tea” at 4 PM in the Main Foyer was complimentary.

•    NYC designer Dorothy Draper had designed the elaborate interiors of the public space.  By the 70s Dorothy had either bought the farm or was drooling oatmeal in The Hamptons.  Her protégé Carlton Varney would flutter in once/month with scarf flying and a retinue of go-fers in his wake.

•    The G became famous for its Dr Strangelove Bunker ….. an elaborate bunker hideaway was carved out beneath the hotel to house all of Congress in case of a nuclear attack on Washington.  The logistical issues related to this were numerous but the luxury bunker does indeed exist to this day.

•    Yours truly once checked in Jim Nabors and his companion, “Mr Cadwalleder”.  And yes. The bellman called down to have the beds pushed together …… “say it ain’t so Gomer

•    The circular main drive was always filled with sparkling clean luxury automobiles.  Everyone was valet-parked but only “upper-end” models merited a spot on the main drive.  Fords and Chevys need not apply.

•    In the 50s, golf legend Sam Snead played “out of The Greenbrier”.  Sam was making $$$ thru all sorts of side schemes.  Management finally got wise to Sam’s scams and they parted ways.  He ended up at the “enemy” – The Homestead.

Last week’s bankruptcy filing was not unexpected.  High-end destination resorts are not very flexible in difficult economic times.  For one thing, a highly trained discriminating staff has real trouble dealing with mouth-breathing hairballs as guests. Oh ….. and The Greenbrier has NINE different unions on-site.  Labor was 70% of gross revenues where the industry standard is 40%.

Marriott Corp is expected to buy the property once the bankruptcy is complete.  Marriott is a fine hotel management company …… but the Era of Grand American Resorts is officially over ….. They were special.


What’s THE Finest Hotel you’ve ever stayed in?


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