For years, the best-kept secret at West Virginia’s stately Greenbrier hotel was its huge under-ground bunker designed to shelter Congress in the event of nuclear catastrophe. But after its existence was unmasked in a 1992 Washington Post article, the distinction now goes to the property’s 14-room, two-story Presidential Suite.
Yellow cabbage roses and pink orchids might seem like a bizarre decor choice for heads of state. But not when you consider that the suite was designed by Dorothy Draper, the society decorator who stamped many a mid-century hotel interior (The Carlyle in New York and D.C.’s Mayflower) with her prismatic, maximalist patterns and was prone to aphorisms like “Above all, never be afraid of color!”
There’s also the fact that the rooms weren’t actually created for a U.S. president but for an American royal, Baltimore native Wallis Simpson, and her husband the former King Edward VIII—a.ka. the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (Though Simpson’s bedding and dethroning of a British monarch arguably dealt England a slap not felt since the Boston Tea Party.)
The Windsors were friends of Greenbrier owner and Palm Beach regular Robert Young and his wife, who hired Draper to perform a massive redo of the property after it was turned into a military hospital during World War II. (The original main building, known as the Old White Hotel, was constructed around a famously health-boosting sulfur spring in 1858, while the Tara-like addition didn’t come until 1913.)
Draper’s splashy design— with its black-and-white-tile floors and floral chintzes—was unveiled in April 1948 at a week-longbash attended by a Social Register checklist of Windsors (who stayed in their custom-designed suite), Vanderbilts, Astors, Hearsts… and Bing Crosby.
It was a fitting coming-out party for a resort that had once drawn the country’s elite to its lawn socials and formal balls, and which was so closely identified with a certain kind of Southern civility that Confederate General Robert E. Lee crossed a tension-filled ballroom to pull up a chair at a table of former Union officers just two years after the Civil War ended.
This aura of genteel diplomacy held on as the Presidential Suite finally earned its name: In 1949, Indian prime minister Jawaharal Nehru stayed there with his daughter, Indira; in the 1950s, President Eisenhower held state dinners in the rooms (and allegedly hatched plans to build that Cold War bunker there); the Russian ambassador to the United States under Khrushchev spent the night in 1959, while Senator Hubert Humphrey used it as an office to plot Johnson’s campaign strategy in 1964.
(Nixon, meanwhile, preferred to stay at the hotel’s quainter Top Notch cottage.) These days, the $25,000-a-night suite is more likely to be used for corporate entertaining than for state visits (although the prince of Qatar is rumored to have rented it).
And while Draper’s longtime protege Carleton Varney has periodically upgraded the fabrics and wallpapers, the spirit of the rooms has been preserved over time—like, frankly, everything else at The Greenbrier, with its red-jacketed coachmen, falconry and hunt clubs, and formal dress code at dinner. “It’s such a special, ceremonial place,” Varney says with a wistful sigh. “Times have changed out there. Now it’s all tattoos.”