A Weekend at The Greenbrier with Carleton Varney

A visit to The Greenbrier is a magical step back in time to a world full of elegance and glamour.  I recently returned from the Dorothy Draper Design Weekend, and it was such an amazing experience I am already planning our next trip! Located in Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, The Greenbrier  has been America’s Resort since 1778 when visitors traveled to “take the waters” of the area.  The current Greenbrier was built in 1913 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. And of course, in 1946 the legendary Dorothy Draper was commissioned to redecorate the hotel, and to this day her trademark vibrant colors, bold patterns, florals, and dramatic architectural details remain.

Just three hours away from Washington D.C., The Greenbrier has played an integral role in governmental affairs over the years. During WWII, it was converted into a 2,000-bed military hospital. The Greenbrier is also the site of a massive underground bunker that was meant to serve as an emergency shelter for the United States Congress during the Cold War. Fortunately it was never used, and today it is decommissioned and open for tours. A total of 27 presidents have stayed at the hotel, and the memorable moments from their stays are on display at The Presidents’ Cottage Museum.  The Presidential Suite was used when President Dwight D. Eisenhower held the North American Summit Conference here in 1956. In addition, it has been the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco, and many other notables of society.

There is never a shortage of activities to pursue at The Greenbrier which you can read about in detail here.  During my weekend stay, I enjoyed a carriage ride, bunker tour, and massage at the spa. My family will accompany me during the next visit, and my husband is looking forward to off-road driving, sporting clays, falconry, and the casino while our son will enjoy the Adventure Zone and indoor pool.  Breakfast in the Main Dining Room is not to be missed, and I am dreaming about Dorothy’s Chicken Salad, peach soup, and banana split at Draper’s Cafe! A delightful afternoon tea is complimentary from 4:15 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. daily.

The highlight of the weekend was a Q&A with the renowned Carleton Varney, Dorothy Draper’s protégé, and president/owner of Dorothy Draper & Co. Inc. And I was able to spend some time with him one-on-one afterwards! Excerpts from these conversations follow…

Conversations with Carleton:

Mr. Varney discussed the the important role our past plays in creating memorable rooms.  “How do you remember the rooms of your past?” he asked. “What was in the room? Tell me about the color… did it have an old gas stove?  What were the windows like? In that very first room you remember is the foundation of your taste. There is not good taste or bad taste, there is just taste.”  Varney explained that we also have the ability to eliminate those very first rooms remembered because we may interpret our past homes as being completely opposite of anything wanted for the future.

“Everything in the room in which you live must make use of all the senses,” he said. And our homes tell a story. “Who are you? What makes your home special to you? Where did the things come from? These are the things that give a home character,” he said. “Decorating is not about living in a model room of a department store. It is about you and the very first room you remember and where you are now… because you will change. We don’t have to live in the past, but we should appreciate the special characteristics of the past that have been so important to our upbringing.”

“Dorothy Draper always said great decorators are not trained, great decorators are born,” shared Varney. “They have in their head the visual fantasy and the ability to look at a space and envision the potential and determine how the space can change… how it can look prettier, how it can look happier.” And Carleton Varney always likes happy! Happy homes, happy interiors, happy people, happy families.

“When I came into this business, we were not a beige culture… Now it is all very different. Things used to be happy,” he said. “People think the Ritz Carleton represents elegant living of today – there are crystal chandeliers, matching lamps, blue damask upholstery, marble bathrooms… It is all a formula to create what they want you to believe is elegance. It is systematically done, but it has no patina. When you come to The Greenbrier, there is a sense of history. You remember that there was a time before now, and you think about who previously walked the halls. You walk into The Greenbrier and you say, ‘Wow!’ It is a Kodak moment, and as you walk through everyone finds a different Kodak moment to experience,” he said. “You will always remember what The Greenbrier looks like. We don’t want you to come and feel like home… You are coming to a special place for an adventure. This is an adventure with all the cozy touches of home.”

“Dorothy Draper wanted to make everything romance and roses… Dorothy was very much a romantic,” he said. And how has Dorothy Draper continued to remain relevant and fresh decades later? “When I listen to the Millennials, Dorothy Draper represents glamor to them. That is the thing that this world is losing, and everyone wants to have a piece of it whether it is a chair, a chandelier, or a mirror. There is something about glamour that everyone still wants, and there isn’t much left of it.”

How can we ensure future generations maintain respect for the past? “Millenials say ‘Oh I don’t want my mother’s antiques, I don’t want her silver.’ But that is not really true,” said Varney.  “They say no, but they don’t really mean it…  They feel that by saying no that they are ‘with it’ and if they say yes, they are not playing in the same club as their friends. They don’t want to say ‘this is from my mother’. I hope this changes because the value of what they are buying is worthless. It is a disposable world. This has become a plastic world – blowup furniture, everything plastic.  We must make them aware of the importance of what once was.”

And I couldn’t agree more! The Glam Pad is dedicated to embracing traditions and our past whether it is through decor, entertaining, attire, or manners. Dorothy Draper and Carleton Varney are legends who have played an integral role in design. We must ensure that the beauty they have created continues to live on through the generations to come.

The Greenbrier’s complete history is chronicled in great detail supplemented by photographs from the resort’s archives in The History of The Greenbrier: America’s Resort. With approximately 1 million square feet, everyone captures different Kodak moments at The Greenbrier, as Mr. Varney said. I spent countless hours exploring the resort in awe taking as many pictures as I could. Below and above are my own Kodak moments… 

The Victorian Writing Room has been called the most photographed room in America.

The Mae West fan featured in the films “I’m No Angel” and “Every Day’s a Holiday” Gifted from Carleton Varney to The Greenbrier in 1996.

The newest tradition at The Greenbrier is a complimentary champagne toast nightly at 10:00pm featuring a signature dance choreographed to “The Greenbrier Waltz.”

This chandelier was originally in “Twelve Oaks” from Gone With the Wind.
Zuber’s Views of North America and The War of American Independence  grace the grand staircase.

If you have never been to The Greenbrier, you simply must go! I cannot more highly recommend it, and for anyone interested in interior design, the Dorothy Draper Design Weekend is not to be missed. Please visit The Greenbrier for additional information.


  1. Andrea! This is my favorite of all your posts – and you know I read them even when on vacation in Paris! Your commentary is so informative (of course we’re all looking for glamour or what we think may be glamour which might explain the Kardashians and real housewives popularity?). This is glamour and artistry and drama. Can you tell us more about what Mr Varney meant about the first room we remember? Does this mean the one you actually remember or the one which gives you butterflies? And how does/should that inform our current homes and lives? Gosh so much of interest and value here…. Thank you!

    Xoxo Elizabeth

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      Thank you so much for the compliment! I interpreted Mr. Varney’s words to mean the first room you personally experienced that particularly moved you – whether from a childhood home or a special place visited. And he will ask people to recall from memory every last detail, drawing upon all five senses. Your taste and style may evolve over the years, but that very first room you remember makes an important imprint that, he says, is the foundation of your taste. I find this particularly useful advice in an era where so many fads come and go… I go back to that first room, and it is like chicken soup for the soul! 🙂

      The Glam Pad

  2. Andrea! Spectacular posting on a truly iconic place!

    The Greenbrier is like Wasp Elegance on steroids- WOW !

    One can picture Fed and Ginger there- and I LOVED the shot of YOU !


  3. One of my most favorite places in the world! First visited in 1992, the year my daughter was born, and most recently in 2014, with my daughter just before her wedding.
    Dorothy Draper’s style is so timeless and inspiring. I am in the process of having my own Espana chest lacquered and gold-leafed before finding a place of honor for it in my home.
    So glad you got to spend the weekend there!

  4. WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO….JUST BEAUTIFUL! This decor is timeless and elegant! Give me color not a sterile blank interior.

    • Hi Nancy,

      Thank you! Mr. Varney told us that Dorothy Draper used to say, “Show me nothing that looks like gravy!” 🙂

      The Glam Pad

  5. Nice to see that the Greenbrier has not changed since my visit in the 1980’s. Loved your excerpts from the Carlton Varney discussion. Had to grin when the “Quiet Please” sign popped up! I travel for my job and more hotels should have reminders like this.
    Thank you for your posts. You are the only person I follow and you never disappoint!

    • Hi Nancy,

      The Greenbrier is truly a magical place. Thank you for the kind words! They mean the world to me!

      The Glam Pad

  6. Well this was just what I needed! Even here in California it has been a long Winter…I love the Greenbrier! What Carlton Varney said about the first room you remember really resonated with me and made me aware of why I decorate the way I do and why I love it…My Grandmother’s bedroom walls were Cabbage Rose wallpaper with Sprigs, three sets of glass French doors going to the gardens, a dressing room with bathroom and closet on either side…to me it epitomized glamour and is still my first memory room….

  7. Be still my heart. My dream design would be what Dorothy Draper and Carlton Varner has so richly and beautifully done at The Greenbriar. It leaves me breathless. Thank you so much for given us a glimpse of what true beauty is.

  8. This is one of my favorite corners of the world. I went twice as a kid with my parents and once more with my husband while we were pregnant with our first child. I have always dreamed of going back with the family but that has never happened. Your post has refreshed my desire to make this trip again and I would love to take the Dorothy Draper design class that is offered there. Lovely post. Thank you for sharing these photos.

  9. Loved this post as it is my favorite place to go as we live in Virginia and go several times a year. Your pictures were excellent. You were correct in saying one must dine in the main dining room, it is part of the experience for sure. Also, I must tell you how much I enjoy your posts in general. Keep them coming as I always look forward to reading them!

  10. What a lovely article!! I completely agree with every word. Symmetry is essential in good design. Adding little off touches doesn’t hurt, but the symmetry at the Greenbrier is undeniable in each and every setting. I think the best designers still love balance and understand that less is more. I also appreciate that fresh flowers can enhance a room more than all the expensive antiques and decorating elements combined!

    Thank you for appreciating this design jewel!!

  11. Not too much could be better than Carlton Varney at The Greenbrier! Andrea, “Thank you” for taking us all on this wonderful trip with you. Ms. Draper would have had such a grand time too!!!


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