Sunday, October 4, 2009

Appalachian Images: Fallout At The Greenbrier Hotel

The Greenbrier set isn’t exactly my crowd, if you know what I mean, yet I visited the Greenbrier Hotel twice last year. The first visit was to tour the underground bunker, built during the Eisenhower administration as a government relocation center for members of Congress in the event of a Cold War nuclear emergency. The second visit was simply to get another look at the hotel’s décor, particularly of the lobby bar for details I wanted to use in writing a short story.

The Greenbrier website describes the interior decoration as “décor unlike any in America.” I’ll say. All those bold Dorothy Draper and Carleton Varney designs stopped me in my tracks several times as I strolled through the hotel with my husband after we’d completed the bunker tour on that first visit. Occasionally I still have nightmares. Flashbacks. Not about the bunker, but rather about the décor. Those pinks and greens and large floral patterns provoke anxiety. And the green-swirl-patterned carpet of the lobby bar nearly dropped me to my knees with vertigo.

On that first visit we hadn’t taken our cameras inside the hotel with us, knowing we would not be permitted to take them on the bunker tour. The tour began at the West Tunnel, which was an entrance for vehicles behind a 25-ton blast door, and ended inside the hotel in the Exhibit Hall Foyer in the hotel’s West Virginia Wing where there was an interior portal. The bunker had been hidden in plain sight for more than thirty years, with part of it used as an exhibition hall (the 18-ton interior blast door was open and hidden behind a false partition), the hotel guests unaware they were walking into and out of the bunker area. The bunker housed a power plant, decontamination showers, a communications center which included a television studio, dormitories with rows of bunk beds, a clinic and dispensary complete with operating room and dental area, an incinerator (which could be also be used for cremation purposes), security and surveillance facility, cafeteria and kitchen, meeting rooms and an auditorium for the House of Representatives and Senate.

The existence of the bunker was made public in an article by Ted Gup of the Washington Post in 1992 when the facility had become obsolete. In fact, Gup makes a point that the usefulness of the bunker was always questionable. He writes, “Just how Congress was expected to reach the Greenbrier is unclear,” given that travel time from Washington, D.C. would have involved an hour by air or five hours by ground transportation, and would’ve been further complicated since the existence of the facility had been kept secret from all but a few key members of congress and “it would take far longer than that to round them up.” An even bigger question was whether Congressional members would actually go there since arrangements did not include spouses or family. How many members of Congress would actually be willing to leave their families behind?

Gup writes that at least once, “during the Cuban missile crisis – the Greenbrier facility was put on high alert.” I was in grade school during the Cuban missile crisis, but I remember well the anxiety of that era (including seeing homes being built with bomb shelters in the basements) and still carry that fear deep within me, as I’m sure most people of my generation do. We grew up with the threat of The Bomb, practicing duck-and-cover drills at our school desks and learning to be aware of which public buildings displayed Civil Defense Fallout Center signs. Somehow touring the bunker and seeing the absurdity and futility of that plan eased my old fears with the realization that there is no real plan – at least not for us regular folks. I was never destined to be part of the Greenbrier set, above or below ground.

However, one visit to the Greenbrier wasn’t enough. I had to go back – for research, for that short story. This time we took our cameras. We strolled around the grounds, which truly are gorgeous, particularly in autumn which was the season for our second trip. The outdoor infinity pool with the mountains in the background is stunning. The exterior of the hotel itself has always looked a tad institutional to me, though – and, in fact, it had been used as an army rehabilitation hospital during World War II. Inside the hotel, we splurged on lunch at Draper’s Café, where I had the best (and most expensive) fried green tomato sandwich I’ve ever tasted. Then we went in search of the lobby bar, to see if I could walk across that green swirl-patterned carpet without succumbing to vertigo. We walked through the upper lobby, which the Greenbrier brochures describe as “the Greenbrier’s living room . . . a series of lobbies and sitting rooms.” We got lost, wandering down hallways and rooms that opened onto other rooms. We photographed. I took notes. And we found the bar.

So, the story has been simmering for a while. I couldn’t get that carpet pattern out of my head, and couldn’t stop imagining what it might be like to try to walk across it after having a few drinks. I could envision someone having to crawl out of that bar on all fours. I’m a bit superstitious about saying too much before a story’s finished. Since there’s always a risk in talking too much about work in progress – of the story losing its energy before the work is completed – let’s just leave it that the details are in place. The characters are in the bar. The green carpet is swirling. And a photographer has just walked into that bar and started an argument between those characters.

Photo Credits:
Photographs of the Greenbrier Hotel copyright © 2008 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.


deonne kahler said...

I'm fascinated with images of urban decay, industrial landscapes, aging buildings, so I'm loving your blog.

Your research is inspiring. I tend to rely too much on memory for a sense of place, but my next project will likely be a novel set in the small Midwestern town where I was born - and only lived in the first year of my life. My idea is to go back there and live for a few months, taking notes and photographs. I may do it unless some other project leaps up and demands more attention.

Dory Adams said...

Hi Deonne -- glad you're enjoying the blog. It's certainly possible to write fiction without actually visiting the place where it is set (assuming it is set in a real town or hotel or whatever), but I think there is additional authority that comes through in voice and details when a writer has first hand knowledge of a place. (By the way, next week's post will have some great urban decay photographs for you.)

deonne kahler said...

I agree about not having to visit the place physically, I think I just want an excuse to immerse myself in that world for awhile. You can do that with most anything if you call it "research." (ha)

I look forward to your next blog post!