New uses for old bunkers #4 – Former US Congress Bunker – Greenbrier Resort

“I envy you. You’ve been to Greenbrier! My favourite vacation was to go someplace where something really horrible happened, like the Salem witch trials or Wounded Knee, but to stay in a really nice hotel. So Greenbrier is of course the holy grail – a swank resort with its own bomb shelter museum.”

So writes Sarah Vowell, interviewing Richard Ross about his visiting and photographing the former U.S. Congress bunker built as a secret portion – the West Virginia Wing – to the exclusive Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia.

Following the end of the Cold War (and expose by the Washington Post in 1992), the bunker there was relinquished by the US Government in 1995, and now forms an underground annexe to this luxury spa resort.

For thirty years guests visiting this exclusive hotel were oblivious to the fact that the flocked wallpaper concealled thirty-ton blast doors. As Hodge & Weinberger (2008: 148) note, this bunker was ‘hidden in plain sight’ – for the West Virginia Wing included a giant exhibit hall and two meeting rooms. These were open to the public. But they were also within the ‘secret’ bunker. The only portion hidden here was the blast doors – concealed behind a false door and a screen masking the hinges, “and if someone noticed there was a gap between the fake door and the wall, it would be explained away as a storage area for tables and chairs.”

A curious onlooker, with knowledge of the US legislature, might also have spotted the significance of the number of chairs assigned to one of the two meeting rooms: 435, that being the number of U.S. House of Representatives – for this room would have served as the refuge of that organ of government.

And the room next door? 100 seats, the number of US Senators.

The Greenbrier bunker is now open for tours (and accommodation as a portion of the hotel). ‘Backstage’ areas now serve as secure document stores.

Helms (2007: 268) points out that: “to protect paying Greenbrier guests from trashy proles who just want to visit the bunker, non guest visitors meet at a location in downtown White Sulphur Springs and are bused to and from the bunker”.

This has an odd echo with the clandestine arrangements (also reported by Helms) by which the bunker’s secret maintenance team – working through a front organisation called “Forsyth Associates” – would be smuggled into the complex only between the hours 1am to 4am each night during the Cold War era, the hotel’s staff being told that the these operatives’ role was to maintain the hotel’s telephone, television and electrical systems.

The Greenbrier Resort’s website lists the bunker (and its tours) as a feature of this exclusive venue – which it banners under the strapline “America’s resort”. Should that read ‘last resort’?

Helm, H. (2007) Top Secret Tourism, Feral House: Los Angeles.

Hodge, N. & Weinberger, S. (2008) A Nuclear Family Vacation – travels in the world of atomic weaponry, Bloomsbury: London.

Ross, R. (2004) Waiting for the end of the world, Princeton Architectural Press: New York

See also: http://www.greenbrier.com/play-here/the-bunker.aspx, the Channel WCHS8 short video tour at http://www.wchstv.com/traveling/2006/twv060720.shtml and further info at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13846839/ns/us_news-security/t/cold-war-monument-reopens-west-virginia/

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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