Once the exclusive domain of the rich and famous, many of America's fine old resorts make impressive settings for association gatherings. And their histories--both true and imaginary--are sure to add a touch of class to any gathering. Here is a look at the legends and true stories that lend a distinctive air to several historic resorts.
The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. No aspect of The Greenbrier's long and interesting history is as cloaked in intrigue as that which came to light on May 31, 1992, when the Washington Post revealed the resort's best-kept secret: Since 1961, The Greenbrier had harbored a 112,000-square-foot secret underground bunker, which was built during the height of the Cold War to serve as a relocation facility for the U.S. Congress in the event of a nuclear war.
Planned by the Eisenhower Administration and built between 1958 and 1961, the bunker was maintained in a state of constant readiness until it was phased out in July 1995. The bunker is buried 700 to 800 feet into a hillside under the West Virginia Wing of the hotel, and it is surrounded by ceilings and walls that are 30 to 60 inches thick. The steel and concrete doors protecting each of the bunker's four entrances were designed to withstand a nuclear blast from 15 to 30 miles away.
Among the facilities found in the bunker is a self-contained power plant that could provide power needs for 1,000 people for up to 40 days; a kitchen stocked with provisions for 1,000 people for up to 60 days; two decontamination areas; and a storage room for gas masks, rubber suits, and equipment to detect radiation and chemical agents.
Hotel del Coronado, Coronado, Calif. Like other grand old resorts, the Hotel del Coronado has hosted many luminaries since its opening (in 1888). But only one of the Hotel del Coronado's guests continues to frequent the hotel long after her death. She is Kate Morgan, who checked into "The Del" in November 1892 to meet her estranged husband Tom. Tom never showed up, but four days later Kate's body, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her head, was found on the beach. Today, believers insist, Kate continues to be a presence at the Hotel del Coronado, where her spirit is said to inhabit Room 3312, generating strange and mysterious events.
One recent visitor, San Francisco attorney Alan May, was so taken with the tales of Kate Morgan's ghost that he stayed in her room, where, he says, he experienced her ghostly presence on various occasions. His account, and the results of his research into Kate's story, is told in his book The Legend of Kate Morgan: The Search for the Ghost of the Hotel del Coronado.
Don Cesar Beach Resort & Spa, St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. Also the locale of ghostly sightings--these of hotel developer Thomas Rowe and his unrequited love, Lucinda--this Florida resort has seen its fortunes rise and fall more than once since opening in 1928 during the height of "The Great Gatsby era." Styled after the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki Beach, "The Don" soon became the in place for high society, attracting notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, and Al Capone.
But when Rowe died without signing the will that would have left his "Pink Lady" to his employees, the resort became the property of his estranged wife, who let it go downhill. So much so that after the start of World War II, the U.S. Army purchased the resort for little more than one-third its original construction price, converting it first into a convalescent center for battle-weary airmen and then into a regional office for the Veterans Administration.
Abandoned by the V.A. in 1967, the once grand resort became a magnet for vandalism and remained an eyesore until it was saved from the wrecking ball by a preservation group. Its fortunes once again on the upswing, the "legendary castle on the beach" reopened as a luxury resort in 1973.
Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Pinehurst, N.C. While this 100-year-old resort is known best for the high caliber of its golf and the excellence of its golf school, during the early part of the century thousands of Pinehurst guests looked to someone other than a golf pro for pointers on their sport. From 1916 to 1922, famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley gave shooting lessons to an estimated 15,000 men and women visiting the resort. Oakley, the star of the "Buffalo Bill Wild West Show," worked at Pinehurst while her husband Frank Butler managed the Gun Club. She also gave shooting exhibitions during her stay at the resort.
The Balsams, Dixville Notch, N.H. Since 1960, the small community of Dixville Notch has enjoyed the distinc tion of being the first town in the nation to cast its ballots in presidential primaries and general elections. It is in the Ballot Room of The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel where voters gather at midnight on Election Day to exercise this democratic right. Once all eligible votes have been recorded the polls are closed and the results are tallied and announced to the nation and the world, giving The Balsams its allotted 15 minutes of fame.
The Homestead, Hot Springs, Va. This Georgian-style resort in the Allegheny Mountains owes its existence to Virginia's hot springs, whose purported medicinal qualities have lured the state's fashionable aristocracy to the area since the 18th century.
The Homestead traces its roots to 1766, when the original Homestead was built by Lieutenant Thomas Bullitt on the site of a hot springs that had been described as "warmer than new milk."
When Dr. Thomas Goode acquired the inn in 1832, he promoted the area's springs with advertisements boasting that the waters would cure various ailments, including gout, rheumatism, paralysis, and enlarged glands. While it was the purported curative properties of the area's hot springs that originally attracted upper-class Virginians to the resort, over time the springs grew to become social centers as well.
Today, guests of the Homestead can still enjoy the 104-degree water of the springs, which feed the the indoor pool and mineral baths at the refurbished Homestead Spa.*