Everything is Grand

A reminiscent, historic stroll through The Greenbrier, 
‘America’s Hotel’ since 1778 and hotelier of 26 U.S. presidents

By John D. Adams and Robin Jay

Greenbrier-frontIn the summer of 1778, when Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Ben Franklin were celebrating the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, not far away – in the ‘village in the wilderness’ – savvy Americans traveled to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to ‘take the waters for restored health’ and to cool off. Guests, then, stayed at The White Hotel.

It was a modest venue with two small cottages. But soon, prominent politicians, dignitaries and diplomats caught wind and visited, sending word-of-mouth rampant. By 1858, ‘America’s most fashionable resort’ was expanding significantly – in both size, stature and amenities, and in 1914 (by now renamed The Greenbrier) served as the Easter destination for President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and the October honeymoon sanctuary for Joseph and Rose Kennedy.


Carleton Varney

Today, on a sunny afternoon, discussing the illustrious history of ‘America’s Hotel’ has the venerable Greenbrier interior designer Carleton Varney strolling along memory lane. Indeed, what has attracted affluent guests to this classical southern manor house for a century has less to do with the natural springs and more to do with the immaculate, white-glove service and classically refined furnishings. “It is hard to believe that my staff and I have worked on The Greenbrier for 50 years,” he marveled in an exclusive interview with John D. Adams for South Florida Opulence. “You don’t often see that devotion to quality that we still care about at The Greenbrier.”


Dorothy Draper

Dorothy Draper
Varney has become known for his “grand style” use of vibrant colors and patterns, much like his mentor, Dorothy Draper. A doyenne of New York society, Draper became a groundbreaking interior decorating entrepreneur, most remembered today for her dramatic reimagining of The Greenbrier. “Mrs. Draper was the very first designing lady to license her designs and products for china, fabrics, greeting cards, furniture – even automobiles,” remarked Varney.

Certainly, Draper was the Martha Stewart of the 1920s. Her reputed confidence, as much as her taste, provided her the opportunity to control all aspects of The Greenbrier’s reimagining – down to the designs for menus, matchbook covers and even staff uniforms. With her adventurous use of vibrant colors, floral patterns and bold contrasts, Draper became a design icon and went on to become president/CEO of Dorothy Draper & Co., the position today that is fittingly held by Carleton Varney. By embracing her philosophy, “the use of bright colors and the rejection of all that is impractical, uncomfortable and drab,” Varney continues Draper’s tradition of grand style.

“Doesn’t the entrance say it all?” asked Varney. “Jefferson blue walls, white trim and a custom carpet featuring the iconic Spring House, which is capped by the Goddess Hebe… Mrs. Draper’s first impression of the hotel was to keep the spaces in continuity but open them up with beautiful doorways, trellises and over-doors,”  Varney said. “One of the things about the ‘Draper Look’ is to concentrate on details. Always look up, because when you look up, you see all of the magical details that make this hotel special.”


(Clockwise l-r) The harlequin-floored foyer of the State Suite at The Greenbrier. This Presidential Suite staircase has been climbed by countless presidents, heads of state and celebrities; the regal sitting room of the Presidential Suite.

A Legacy

The resort has continued to grow over the years. Varney, along with his associate Brinsley Matthews, redeveloped the Virginia Wing, including a collection of rooms that became known as the Windsor Club. “The Duke and Duchess of Windsor first visited the hotel during its reopening in 1948,” said Varney. “All the rooms have been designed with canopy-draped beds, custom carpeting and colorful upholstery.”

In the two-story Presidential Suite, walls of the entryway are covered in Cymbidium Orchid wallpaper with matching draperies continuing into the drawing room. The staircase, climbed by celebrities, heads of state and presidents, is carpeted in red, and floats along triple-height windows that overlook gardens.

Last January, The Greenbrier celebrated Varney (who maintains offices as Curator) with a special birthday party and a “Cocktails with Carleton” event in the resort’s State Suite, which boasts one of the most impressive entrance foyers on the property, showcasing The Greenbrier’s traditional black and white marble tile. At that event, Varney emphasized his philosophy, so fitting in the resort resonate with his sensibilities. “There are no rules to working with color,” remarked Varney. “Think of a beautiful garden and all the different colors that work together without effort, the chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies and variations of greens. The world is meant to be seen in color.”

To learn more about The Greenbrier, Dorothy Draper or Carleton Varney, visit www.greenbrier.com.

Everything is Grand