Cold War retreat for fun, games Open bunker: The end of the Cold War made a relic of Congress' bomb shelter underneath the Greenbrier resort. Now the bunker is open to visitors, and the resort wants to use it for a casino.

Sun Journal

April 07, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Larry Ickes ends his tour of the once-secret congressional bomb shelter built under the posh Greenbrier resort with a discussion of wallpaper.

Standing at the entrance of a hallway, Mr. Ickes gestures at the wall covering, a trellis-like pattern in kelly green and white. He eyes the wall. Suspiciously. He turns to the hotel guests. Knowingly.

"I think this was intentional," says Mr. Ickes, an accountant by trade, "to create a busy effect. They don't want you to focus on this "

With a sweep of his arm, he points to six hinges on the wall. The wall isn't a wall but the outermost part of an 18-ton door designed to withstand the enormous blast of a nuclear attack.

As many as 2,000 people have walked through that doorway since January, when the Greenbrier invited the public to view the shelter. The secret facility no longer a secret, the tenant gone, the exclusive resort found itself with a Cold War dinosaur.

What's a five-star, five-diamond hotelier to do?

Be creative. The Greenbrier restored much of this 1950s phenomenon to its Big Bomb readiness and offers guests a $10 tour. It flies in world-famous chefs who conduct cooking classes in the bunker's kitchen and rents out its 400-seat cafeteria for special occasion dinners. (Marcia Clarke, the prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson case, spoke at a recent fund-raising event in the cafeteria.)

If the citizens of West Virginia approve, the bunker will be transformed into a casino for the exclusive pleasure of the Greenbrier's overnight guests.

With concrete walls 5 to 6 feet thick, "we very quickly came to the conclusion there's very little you can do with it," says Ted J. Kleisner, the Greenbrier's president. "Nothing short of dynamite is going to disturb that space."

For three decades, guests of the Greenbrier -- and most of the employees -- strolled right into the body of the bunker. And didn't even know it.

They admired new cars in an exhibit hall with 20-foot-high ceilings (the designated meeting space for congressional staffers during a nuclear attack). They attended Christmas parties in a 440-seat theater known as Governor's Hall (the area designed for the House of Representatives). Only a handful of people on this mountaintop and in Washington knew about "Project Greek Island."

The facility was built without public announcement during construction of the resort's West Virginia wing. There, Congress would meet in the event of a nuclear war. That was the plan until four years ago, when a tenacious -- some here say unpatriotic -- journalist blew the bunker's cover.

In a day, the meticulously maintained shelter became a joked-about $14 million example of surplus government property.

Uncle Sam took two years to move out. It packed up the bunk beds, containers of freeze-dried food, sensitive communications equipment. Dismantled the hospital ward and decontamination unit. Hauled away crates of rubber suits and gas masks, battle fatigues and riot gear.

"What wasn't nailed to the ground, the government took, down to the last pencil," says Pamela L. Ritchie, the hotel's public relations chief. "Thirty-three tractor-trailer truckloads."

The Greenbrier was left with a windowless structure the size of two football fields containing an exhibit hall, two auditoriums, a power plant, a records vault, a cafeteria, 18 dormitories, 110 showers, 187 sinks, 167 toilets and 74 urinals.

"All we have to do is find large groups of people who don't mind sleeping in iron bunks and showering with their friends," Mr. Kleisner once joked to the executives of the CSX Corp., the conglomerate that owns the resort.

He already knew otherwise. He saw an opportunity to both preserve a vestige of America's Cold War history and prime the resort's competitive edge. He envisioned a gaming room in the opulent style of Monaco's Casino de Paris.

A casino would allow the resort, where guests still dine in black tie and lace, to expand its season. A study suggested that gaming would increase the hotel's winter occupancy rate, add at least 75 new jobs to the area and convert 120 current part-time workers to full-timers. With 1,600 employees, the resort is Greenbrier County's largest employer.

"It will also enable us to provide great evening entertainment -- not something as callow as the Las Vegas shows, entertainment that would be acceptable to the Greenbrier guest," Mr. Kleisner says.

The Greenbrier guest pays $345 a night to stay at the 6,500-acre resort wedged on the state's southwest border with Virginia. By day, guests relax in the sulphur spring waters, play golf and tennis, go skeet shooting, bowl in the indoor lanes. Afternoon tea is served in the first-floor lobby as a pianist and violinist play Schubert and Brahms.

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