From Classic to Trendy: Greenbrier Shoots Craps

Had it not been for its rejuvenating mineral waters, White Sulphur Springs might be just another place on the map. But when The Greenbrier — dubbed “America's Resort” — opened its doors in 1778, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia suddenly became a special place to visit for recreation and relaxation, business and pleasure, croquet and afternoon teas. The Greenbrier, it was said, was without equal anywhere in the U.S.

In his introduction to “History of the Greenbrier,” Robert S. Conte, the resort's historian, writes, “The long and glamorous history of this venerable resort is, in short, living testament to William Faulkner's famous words, ‘The past is never dead, it's not even past.’” There is irony in the Faulkner quote, as you will see in our interview with Carleton Varney, president, Dorothy Draper and Co.

From the late 1930s until 1963, Dorothy Draper was the “It” designer, insisting on overseeing every square inch of interior design wherever she worked to include the Greenbrier: from matchbooks to wallpaper, floor coverings to restaurant menus, everything was stamped, figuratively and literally, with the Draper signature. When she retired in 1963, she bequeathed her technique and touch to her protégé, Varney, who had joined the firm in 1960, at age 22.

Over the years, the 721-room resort evolved and expanded, evoked and excited. However, it never, until recently, opted to noticeably change its appearance to appeal to what it perceived to be the next generation of guests. In 2000, Mobil stripped the resort of one of its five stars: The Greenbrier had (horrors!) no phones in its bathrooms or flat-screen TVs in the bedrooms, two of several boo-boos Mobil inspectors noted.

Since then, regaining that star has become a priority. Nothing has worked so far: not flat-screen TVs in bedrooms; not the redesigning and renaming of two restaurants (Hemisphere and 38°80), themselves the symbolic battlegrounds of change, each characteristic of designs antithetical to the Draper & Company touch.

According to a former employee, the Greenbrier remained intractably the Greenbrier and that may have been part of the problem: a cocky complacency had set in over the years, all but blindfolding owners and management to what was going on elsewhere in the industry. Years before and after losing its top rating, spectacular resorts cropped up everywhere and, by comparison, were thought to be superior in design and service. The bar had been raised and the Greenbrier never felt compelled to reach for it. The Greenbrier was the Greenbrier.

Ever since assuming design accountability from Draper — adroitly following in her footsteps, but allowing space and flexibility for his own variations — Varney has been involved in every design change and permutation at the Greenbrier, taking pains to remain true to his design intelligence, the mission of the company and the Draper “brand.”

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