Sunday, April 29, 2012

Once Upon a Pavilion in West Virginia

An early spring snowfall blankets the White Sulphur Spring.
PERHAPS NO IMAGE OF WEST Virginia hospitality is more enduring than that of the pavilion at The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs. Since the 1830s, the dome that shelters its famous mineral spring has come to symbolize the brand of gracious accommodation for which the southern Allegheny Mountains of the state are renown.

But the pavilion at White Sulphur is only one of several that decorate such springs in the Virginias. I asked Dr. Robert S. Conte, resident historian at The Greenbrier, what he knew of the tradition. Conte and author Stan Cohen have traveled the region together before, seeking out such landmarks. Conte says these buildings appear to take two forms, depending upon their function. Those that shelter springs in which the visitor is expected to bathe are usually enclosed by bathhouses. Those in which the water is imbibed most often take the form of the pavilion.

Endangered pavilion
at Blue Sulphur Spring
Why a pavilion? Why the columns? Conte says it's no surprise that mineral springs would attract attention in a classical form. "If you think about it, springs are pretty miraculous. They're places where a life-sustaining force issues out of the ground. And in this case, we're not talking about just any water."

Mineral springs such as those at The Greenbrier, at Bath, England, or at Bath, West Virginia (better known as Berkeley Springs), have long been thought to be imbued with healing properties, and the tradition of visiting them for the purpose of health is traced back to Classical times in Western society.

Pavilion at Pence Spring
So it's not surprising to find a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, adorning the dome at White Sulphur Springs, nor should it be surprising for the Classical form of a columned pavilion to be found at White Sulphur Springs or at other springs in the region. The equally massive pavilion at Blue Sulphur Springs, now endangered, is a second example of the style on a monumental scale (and is all that survived destruction by Union forces at the site.)

Pavilions at Salt Sulphur Springs
In West Virginia, spas took on added importance. Wealthy residents from the South could also escape the summer heat when they visited the mountains. In a verifiable sense, Conte said, their vacation saved them from diseases which flourished in the southern heat. The elite would spend much of the season traveling between spas. As might be expected, a prevailing sense of taste and pageantry developed around the custom of visiting the spas in a circuit.

Pavilion at Barger Springs
As a result of the demise of the Antebellum economy during the Civil War, many spas fell into economic ruin. Some, such as The Greenbrier and the nearby Pence Springs Hotel, were invigorated by completion of railroads later in the century. Others wholly collapsed. Still more exist in some intervening form -- stable, endangered, undergoing restoration.

I've had the chance to visit many of these landmarks and have mapped some in hopes of encouraging interest. Several pavilions, such as the example at Blue Sulphur Springs, are in dire need of restoration, but all deserve appreciation.

Lee Spring, Lost River State Park
For more information on mineral springs in Virginia and West Virginia, I recommend what many enthusiasts consider the seminal work on the subject "Historic Springs of the Virginias: A Pictorial History" by Stan Cohen. I've also created a rudimentary map of spring pavilions in West Virginia at Google Maps, which includes these and other pavilions and springs -- West Virginia Spring Pavilions.