Into the Brier Patch

Ever year, the President of the United States delivers an address to Congress called the State of the Union. Most members of the American legislative and executive branches attend the speech, but not all.   In case a disaster or similar were to strike the Capitol during the speech, the government would be left without anyone to lead a successor government. In order to maintain some (even if minimal) continuity, members of the President’s cabinet draw lots to see who watches the speech on TV.

During the Cold War especially, such contingency plans were sensible if not required. And in the late 1950s, when West Virginia’s Greenbrier Hotel (below) — a favorite of presidents past — decided to build a new wing, Congress secretly stepped in.

The Greenbrier was founded in 1858 and, over the course of the next century, found itself host to 26 presidents (with Eisenhower most recent) — as well as a Civil War incursion or two. But the hotel’s role in American history will forever be tied to covert security plan called Project Greek Island.  As the Greenbrier built its “West Virginia Wing,” it surreptitiously also created an underground bunker beneath it. Encased in reinforced concrete, the bunker was designed to withstand a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. only 250 miles away. Its purpose: to house Congress if evacuation from the capital were required.

Greek Island was not just a stand-alone chamber of Congress, either — it was a full-scale solution. It contained a hotel-like dormitory with an industrial kitchen with thirty years of supplies stockpiled. As senators and representatives would be expected to remain at the Greenbrier, Congress also built a hospital there. And to keep the Congress members safe, the shelter’s location had to remain a secret — so its broadcast area came with a series of backdrops designed to make it look like Congress was still in DC.

Another trick? Staffing the site. Because the bunker needed to be available — and fully staffed — with very little notice, the employees had to be hidden there as well.  To accomplish this, Congress set up a dummy corporation called Forsythe Associates and, in turn, Forsythe Associates provided audiovisual services to the Greenbrier.  In reality, these employees were trained to man the shelter when needed, hidden in plain sight.

In 1992, a Washington Post exposé unveiled the Greenbrier’s hidden secret, and Congress soon after decommissioned the hideaway.  During its three-decade run, it was never used.  And in the end, it became a tourist attraction — with tours given by former Forsythe Associates workers and others.

Bonus fact: Sometimes, as above, hotels are turned into bomb shelters. But in the case of the Null Stern Hotel in Switzerland, the opposite was true. In 2008, a team transformed an unused nuclear bomb shelter into a zero star hotel, under the tag line “Where the only star is you.”  The hotel closed a year or so later but the founders may reintroduce the concept elsewhere.

From the ArchivesThe President’s Secret Train Station: How the President can escape from Manhattan — if he really needs to.

RelatedA bomb shelter of your very own.  Only one review, and three stars at that — but the review is probably worth reading.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.