Greenbrier's historic Blue Sulphur pavilion
BLUE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Off a narrow and twisting country road, remote even by Greenbrier County standards, a massive Greek-style pavilion stands towering over a cow pasture.
The casual traveler might wonder what the multi-columned, wooden-roofed structure is and how it got there. But to members of the Greenbrier County Historical Society and the architects and engineers hired to inspect the 19th century pavilion, the question is more basic: Can it be saved?
"It's a challenge," said Michael Mills, head of the Mills Group in Morgantown, an architectural firm that specializes in the preservation of historic buildings. "It's in pretty rough shape.
"It's sitting in the middle of a flood plain," Mills said. "It's a spring."
Blue Sulphur Springs, to be exact. Mills said the pavilion was built over a natural spring, one of a series of mineral springs in Southern West Virginia that were thought in the 18th and 19th centuries to have curative powers.
Built between 1834 and 1838, the pavilion was part of Blue Sulphur Springs resort, a spa and resort north of Alderson that in its heyday featured a three-story, 200-room hotel.
"The resort was built here because of the water," Mills said. "It was as big as The Greenbrier."
The spa's staff physician, Dr. Alex Martin, believed the sparkly blue water produced by the spring cured ulcers and hepatitis and calmed the nerves, according to historic accounts. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Washington politicians and wealthy landowners would trek to mineral springs like White Sulphur, Blue Sulphur and Green Sulphur springs to immerse themselves in the waters and drink the strong-tasting spring water.
Guests who visited the Blue Sulphur Springs resort before the Civil War included presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, Robert E. Lee, Henry Clay and Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I of France.
At one time a sprawling complex that included the pavilion, the hotel and a series of bathhouses, Blue Sulphur Springs was a thriving tourist destination in the 1830s and '40s. "It was part of the culture of the day," Mills said.
But competition from The Greenbrier meant fewer visitors, and the resort was sold and converted into a college for Baptist ministers. Then, said Mills, "The Civil War came, and a regiment from Ohio burnt it to the ground."
The pavilion, standing over a 4-foot-deep basin where guests dipped their cups to taste the spring's curative waters, was all that was left standing of the once-proud resort.
Photographs show visitors still coming to the pavilion in the 1920s. Mills said a new roof, different from the original design, was added to the structure in 1906.
The pavilion was still being used privately as late as the 1960s, when a shingle roof was put on. Mills said part of his job was digging through the old alterations and trying to figure out what the original structure looked like.
"When we come do a building like this, we really try to immerse ourselves in the condition of the structure," he said. "We're just now unpeeling the onion."
So far, Mills has discovered that the pavilion appears to sit on a stone foundation, with a layer of slate to serve as a waterproof barrier. On top of the slate is a foundation of brick, topped with sandstone blocks on which stand 12 cement-clad brick columns.
The roof sits atop the columns, sheltering the 32-square-foot basin.
But the neglected wood of the roof structure deteriorates with every year, and the bricks that hold up the columns are crumbling. Large sections of the brick foundation have crumbled away completely, leaving gaping holes beneath the sandstone.
Mills wonders how the massive pavilion is still standing. "It's a mystery," he said.
Margaret Hambrick, president of the Greenbrier County Historical Society and a member of the preservation group Friends of the Blue, said the pavilion and two acres of pasture land surrounding it were donated to the group by the current property owner. Friends of the Blue and the historical society hope to restore the pavilion before it topples to the ground.
"It's been here for nearly 200 years," she said. "We'd like to keep it for the next 200."
Earlier this year, the pavilion was named as one of the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia's most endangered properties, making it eligible for special funding to help save threatened structures. The Mills Group and archeologists Cultural Resource Analysts Inc. were awarded a $59,000 contract to study the site and determine if the pavilion can be restored.
Hambrick said hopes are to restore the pavilion, reopen the site for public use and hold several special events at the location every year. Once restoration is complete, visitors may even be allowed to sample the sulfur-tinged waters of the basin.
Mills said his hunch is that the historic pavilion can still be saved and restored to its original glory. How much work will be involved and the cost are yet to be determined.
But he said time is of the essence.
"You can't wait five years, because it might not be here," he said.
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1215.