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The Greenbrier Spa at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

Julie Register experienced this 230-year-old springs resort in September 2011 on her Driving Tour of the Historic Springs of the Virginias

The Springhouse at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia*


I had known about The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia for years before my first visit two years ago. I knew it was "an historic, 6500-acre resort that has hosted distinguished guests from around the world since 1778." I knew the sulphur water from the aromatic springhouse was the original attraction at the resort. I knew the sulphur water soak I had in the spa was a treatment offered for over a century. But I didn't really know The Greenbrier's standing in the history of US springs and spas until I went on my Driving Tour of Historic Springs in West Virginia and Virginia this fall. I didn't know that White Sulphur Springs was the primary destination of the Springs Tour that wealthy southerners took every summer in the early 1800s (It wasn't called The Greenbrier until ~1914). I found more information about this resort in the reference books I read (listed at the end of the article) than on any other springs resort on the tour. In addition to the benefits of taking the water, White Sulphur Springs was the fashionable place to see and be seen. Before the Civil War, five sitting presidents stayed there demonstrating the resort's reputation as the favored gathering place for the nation's most influential and powerful families.

Lithograph of White Sulphur Springs from Edward Beyer 1857 Album of Virginia
Lithograph of White Sulphur Springs from Edward Beyer 1857 Album of Virginia

In his 1834 book, Letters Descriptive of the Virginia Springs: The roads leading thereto, and the doings thereat, author Peregrine Prolix (aka Philip Holbrook Nicklin), provided the following amusing description of the resort:

"The water has the pleasant flavor of a half-boiled , half-spoiled egg, is very clear and not cold enough to please the taste of a Philadelphia cockney. The spring is covered with a handsome dome supported on columns, and is contained in an octagonal marble case about seven feet long, five feet wide and four and a half feet deep, the bottom being formed of the rock from which the water gushes. It is very beautiful and tempting, and cures the following diseases, according to popular belief: Yellow Jaundice, White Swelling, Blue Devils and Black Plague; Scarlet Fever, Yellow Fever, Spotted Fever, and fever of every kind and color; Hydrocephalus, Hydrothorax, Hydrocele and Hydrophobia, Hypochondria and Hypocrisy; Dyspepsia, Diarrhea, Diabetes, and Die-of-anything; Gout, Gormandising and Grogging; Liver Complaint, Colic, Stone, Gravel and all other diseases and bad habits, except chewing, smoking, spitting and swearing. It contains sulphureted hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen; sulphate, carbonate and muriate of lime, sulphate of magnesia, and a very strong infusion of fashion. The latter being an animal substance, its quantity cannot be precisely ascertained; it is supposed, however to be gradually increasing, and no doubt contributes greatly to the efficacy of the water. When submitted to the ordeal of analysis, it vanishes in smoke."

The resort was so popular at that time that there were never enough accommodations. People queued at the gate for days and weeks waiting to get in. The food, when available, was not stellar. In The Springs of Virginia: Life, Love, and Death at the Waters 1775 -1900, Perceval Reniers described the "Calwell System" that the proprietor put into place to address these shortcomings:

"The hogs were now confined in other pastures, no longer permitted to root under the cabins where beauty or dyspepsia fought for sleep. ...The culinary department could take on even the largest picnics without breaking down. Which is to say, there had been some advance since the day a decade before when J.P. Kennedy had pronounced it par excellence the most ingeniously uncomfortable spot on the continent. It was something but it wasn't enough. Voices of complaint rose from hundreds of throats and hundreds of pens dipped with the bitter ink of protest. ...Such lack of appreciation could be vastly annoying to a proprietor who had admittedly build up the greatest, the most picturesque and the most popular Springs in the South, who could point with pride to the crowds clamoring at the gate. Patently the kickers were ingrates and deserved what they got. What they got was the Calwell System.

"It was a good system because there was no answer to it. When a guest came to the be-cued Calwell with the usual tale of woe about not getting anything to eat or not having his room changed, the suave old gentleman very politely suggested the guest must surely be laboring under a misapprehension. He was not being charged anything for his food or for his room either.

"You are paying me $9 a week for the use of the water; I am giving you your food and lodging free." He was sorry if the guest didn't like the food or thought the quarters unfit for habitation but after all when he was getting them for nothing what had he to complain about?

"The Calwell System of charging for the water and throwing in everything else helped to bring prosperity to many of the surrounding resorts. Those who took umbrage at the system or couldn't stand having their comforts curtailed took refuge at the Sweet, the Red Sweet, the Salt, the Blue Sulphur, the Warm, the Red Sulphur, the Rockbridge Alum, the Healing, the Farquier White, the Hot (if they were ill) and many others which were springing from the earth."

Cottages at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
Cottages at White Sulphur Springs*

Edward Pollard described the bathing house (spa) at White Sulphur Springs in his 1870 book, The Virginia Tourist. Sketches of the Springs and Mountains of Virginia; Containing ...Accounts of its Mineral Springs and a Medical Guide to the Use of the Waters (pages 231-232).

"Impressed with the great value—in fact the absolute necessity to some invalids—of the baths in connection with the drinking of the water, the proprietors of the springs have recently enlarged and remodeled their bathing establishment, so as to make it satisfactory in every respect. The bathing- house is large, affording ample accommodations. The rooms are spacious, airy and comfortable, and in addition to the usual tub-baths there are erected douche baths, for the application of streams of hot or warm water to parts of the body; and there are also set apart rooms for the administration of sweating baths.

"The company at the White Sulphur has always been distinguished for its numbers and culture, although we cannot go as far as the description of Doctor Moorman— in which there is an unpleasant evidence of the afflatus of the advertisement—and designate the place as "at once the Athens and the Paris of America." Heretofore, these springs have had a larger patronage than any other watering-place south of the Potomac. Their reputation for gayeties and fashionable display stands in stead, or in preference, of even more solid attractions to draw a crowd, of which the invalid element is by no means the larger."

In 1910, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway purchased the resort property. By 1913 the railroad had added The Greenbrier Hotel (the central section of today's hotel), a new Mineral Bath Department (the building that includes the Indoor Pool) and an 18-hole golf course (now called The Old White Course). The obsolete Old White Hotel was removed in 1922, which led to a substantial rebuilding of The Greenbrier Hotel in 1930. This refurbishment doubled the number of guest rooms to five hundred. After WWII, there was a comprehensive interior redecoration by the noted designer Dorothy Draper in 1946. The origin of The Greenbrier's distinctive décor today goes back to this redecoration. Jack Nicklaus redesigned the Greenbrier Course for the 1979 Ryder Cup Matches. In 1999, The Meadows Course evolved when Bob Cupp redesigned, rerouted and upgraded the older Lakeside Course, a project that included the creation a new Golf Academy. New programs such as the Falconry Academy and the Off-Road Driving School were established. An infinity edge outdoor pool opened for the summer season of 2004. A challenging new version of the Old White Course was created in 2006, which was based on an historic restoration inspired by the original C. B. Macdonald design.


The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
The Greenbrier*

Map of The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
Map of The Greenbrier*

On May 7, 2009 (just 2 months before my first visit to The Greenbrier), Jim Justice, a West Virginia entrepreneur, purchased The Greenbrier from the CSX Corporation which, through its predecessor companies the Chessie System and the C&O Railway, had owned the resort for 99 years.

Map of The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
The Casino at The Greenbrier*

Mr. Justice has revitalized the resort with a new entertainment venue that includes a casino, shops and restaurants (opened on July 2, 2010). The Greenbrier Classic was added to the PGA tour in the summer of 2010. On August 24, 2011, the creation of The Greenbrier Medical Institute was announced. The $250 million Phase I will include five buildings including a relocated and expanded executive health Greenbrier Clinic, a Jim Andrews sports medicine center, a cosmetic surgery and lifestyle enhancement academy, a sports performance and training facility and a boutique hotel with 20 VIP suites. On September 27, 2011, The Greenbrier announced the opening of The Windsor Club, a collection of 26 guestrooms on two levels, including the seven-bedroom Presidential Suite. Each room features antique furnishings, canopy beds with 400-thread-count Filo Doro Italian linens, a personalized pillow menu, state-of-the-art in-room technology and amenities. Some of the rooms have gas fireplaces. 

During my visit on my Driving Tour of Historic Springs in West Virginia and Virginia this fall, we stayed in a large, very comfortable room in the West Virginia Wing of the large hotel complex (last time we stayed in one of the historic cottages). I couldn't help but wonder what the guests of 19th century would have thought of our room.

Our room in the West Virginia Wing at The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
Our room in the West Virginia Wing at The Greenbrier
The dressing area in our room in the West Virginia Wing at The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West VirginiaThe dressing area in our room in the West Virginia Wing at The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
The dressing area in our room in the West Virginia Wing at The Greenbrier

We spent time at the outdoor, infinity edge pool. It was the last day of the season that it would be open. The weather was perfect.

Outdoor Infinity Pool at The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs West Virginia
Outdoor Infinity Pool at The Greenbrier

We stopped by the springhouse. The lack of sulphur odor was noticeable . I remember reading about the apparent lack of sulphur in the water noted by one authors of the reference books I read and the arguments that ensued.

We spent the better part of a day in The Greenbrier Spa, which later was awarded with the Forbes 5-Star rating for 2012 (November 2011). While we were at the spa, I asked Spa Director Veronique Paquet about the lack of a sulphur aroma near the springhouse. She said that the amount of sulphur varies as a result of rain and other conditions, and sometimes it was not as noticeable. (She later sent me a recent analysis of the water to verify the presence of sulphur in the water comparable to historic levels.) During our chat, she told me about the new line of spa products she had been working on - Sweetgrass Pine - and the walk she took that inspired that combination. She said they would soon be available as amenities for the guest rooms at The Greenbrier.

The Greenbrier Spa's new Product Line - Sweetgrass Pine
The Greenbrier Spa's new Product Line - Sweetgrass Pine*

While the property continues to evolve and meet the needs of the current guest, I am glad they still provide spa treatments that are rooted in the history of the resort. On my last visit, I had The Greenbrier Treatment. I enjoyed it so much, I had to experience it again on this visit.

Massage Treatment Room at The Greenbrier Spa
Massage Treatment Room at The Greenbrier Spa

The treatment normally begins with a sulphur soak, which is followed by a few minutes in the steam room or sauna, a Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray and a full body massage.

Sulphur Soak at The Greenbrier Spa
Sulphur Soak at The Greenbrier Spa

Due to some technical difficulties with the tubs, I had the massage first. By the time it was done, the plumbing issues had been taken care of. I was already very relaxed by the time I climbed into the warm tub. It felt great, but lacked that sulphur smell masked by rose that I remembered from the first visit. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray at The Greenbrier Spa
Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray at The Greenbrier Spa*

The grand finale was the Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray. My therapist, Jenny, turned on the Swiss Shower and instructed me to stand in the center of the sprays. She manned the Scotch Spray and aimed the water along the muscles of my legs, arms and back. It was a terrific massage. I could have stood there for hours. Jenny said the water spray helps to break up toxins and cellular blockage in the body. I can't imagine coming to this spa and not having this treatment. Incidentally, Jenny's family has worked at the Greenbrier for generations. Apparently, that's fairly common. It is also not unusual to have multiple generations working at the resort at the same time.

Women's Lounge at The Greenbrier Spa
Women's Lounge at The Greenbrier Spa

The spa is located near the indoor pool area, the salon and the Rhododendron Café. The first section of the spa opened in 1987 and a major renovation was made in 2001. The spa is 40,000-square-feet and has 6 soaking tubs, 22 treatment rooms, 12 facial room, 6 wet rooms, 3 chroma baths, Swiss shower, scotch spray, relaxation room and outdoor garden area.

Women's Garden at The Greenbrier Spa
Women's Garden at The Greenbrier Spa

After the treatment, we relaxed in the outdoor garden for a while. We eventurally decided it was time for lunch. Unfortunately, the spa isn't really equipped to handle spa meals and doesn't allow meals in the garden or lounge. The spa staff did help us order box lunches from the room service menu and told us we could eat them at a table in the closed Rhododendron Café or take them out to the pool lounge area. We chose the latter. While it was a lovely day out, it wasn't very private and not the ideal place for lunch in our spa robes. My grilled tomato sandwich was very good, but the healthy options on the menu were limited. Perhaps improved spa dining is on Mr. Justice's to-do list for the future.

I want to thank Dr. Robert S. Conte, The Greenbrier's Resident Historian (since 1978), for loaning the following books to me that have enabled me (and you) to learn more about the springs that I visited:

Letters descriptive of the Virginia springs: The roads leading thereto, and the doings thereat, 1834 & 1836 by Peregrine Prolix
Springlore in Virginia

by Marshall Fishwick

A number of these books and others about the history of these springs are available on PDF that you can read by clicking on the title:


More Information

The Greenbrier Spa at The Greenbrier
Address: 300 West Main Street
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia 24986
Resort Phone: 304-536-1110
Resort Toll Free: 800-624-6070
Spa Phone: 304-536-7745
Spa Toll Free: 800-453-4858
Spa Email: spa_reservations@greenbrier.com
Web Site: http://www.greenbrier.com/

Related Resources
DiscoverSpas.com Listing for The Greenbrier Spa at The Greenbrier
Julie's 2009 review of The Greenbrier Spa
Discover More Spas in West Virginia
Interesting articles about "The Bunker" at The Greenbrier

The History of the Greenbrier: America's Resort by Robert S. Conte
The History of the Greenbrier: America's Resort
by Robert S. Conte

Greenbrier Cookbook Favorite Recipes from Ameicas Resort
Greenbrier Cookbook Favorite Recipes from Ameica's Resort
by Martha Holmberg

Scheduling Appointments - As The Greenbrier spa is one of the top spas in North America, it is strongly recommend that spa and clinic appointments be arranged when booking your room reservations.
304-536-7745 or 800-624-6070
Inside resort — dial 7745
Arrival to the Spa - To maximize your experience, please arrive 20 to 30 minutes prior to your first scheduled appointment. This will allow you time to relax and let your mind enter a peaceful, tranquil mode. Please remember that each service is scheduled precisely and will end on time so that the next guest is not delayed. Please be in your robe and relaxing in the relaxation room at least 10 minutes prior to your scheduled service.
Spa Attire - Complimentary use of robe, slippers and lockers is provided for all spa guests. The staff is professionally trained in proper draping to ensure your modesty is never compromised.
Considerations- To preserve the peaceful and tranquil mode, please turn off your cell phones and pagers. The spa is a smoke-free and alcohol-free environment.
Steam and Sauna - Use of the steam and sauna facilities is complimentary with spa services on the day of the service. Daily steam and sauna passes may be purchased for other times.
Gratuities - For your convenience, a 20% gratuity will be added to all spa services.
Cancellation Notice - A 24-hour notice is requested to avoid charges for cancelled services. Packages are non-refundable.
Medical Concerns - The spa encourages you to disclose any pertinent health conditions that may affect your Spa experience. For individuals expecting, the spa requires authorization from a physician prior to massage and body services.
Fitness Classes - All fitness classes require pre-registration. The spa recommends that you register for fitness classes when making spa treatment reservations.
Spa Specialist - The Spa offers for your convenience, a one-point contact. The Spa Specialist will assist in making your group and special occasion bookings a success. Take away the stress and let the Spa Specialist take care of your spa requests. Please call 800-624-6070, ext. 5314 or dial direct 304-536-5314 for your Spa Specialist.
Spa Boutique
- Now you can recreate your spa experience right at home. Upon completion of your treatment, the Spa Therapists will share with you information on the products used. All of these products are available for purchase at the Spa Boutique.
Age Requirements
- For massages, body treatments and soaks, the spa has an age requirement of 16. Guests under the age of 16 are welcome to enjoy nail and facial services.

Photos copyright 2009, Julie Register
unless marked * which are courtesy of
The Greenbrier



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