Sweet Decay At a Mountain Resort

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William Jones hates highway driving—he told me this during one of our text marathons—so I felt bad when he aimed for an I-64 entrance ramp, me following his minivan, certain he was taking interstate just to save me time.

This was our first meeting. After two years of online friendship, him living in the southern part of West Virginia and me outside D.C., we decided to veer from our beaten paths and get together in White Sulphur Springs. It was too cold for more than a sidewalk hello, so we rushed back to our vehicles and started what I thought would be a backroads drive to the nearby Sweet Springs Resort.

You might have read about it. William’s older cousin, Ashby Berkley, who renovated another nearby resort called Pence Springs in the 1980s, recently purchased this dilapidated beauty—almost 30 acres, a hot springs, and ten historic buildings, all for $560,000. Since William is a preservationist and I am a sucker for old buildings, we thought it would be a fitting way to spend the day.

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William Jones under the resort’s gracious porticos.

I was, in fact, pressed for time. The hubby was headed to Chicago, and I had to get back home to mind the dog. While I felt bad that William took the highway, it was faster and did give us more time at Sweet Springs, which struck me, during our approach, as less creepy than expected.

When I heard that I’d be visiting a decaying resort, with structures dating back to the 1790s, one that was once used as a tuberculosis ward, I pictured a house of horrors—ghastly twins lurking in the hallways and Jack Nicholson chasing me with an ax.

But walking across the wide lawn and the building’s first floor, I thought it was fundamentally cheery. In spite of collapsing plaster and deserted remnants from its hotel past, there was something upbeat about the place. Big windows brightening each room. Plastic cups and furniture were scattered like someone had thrown one hell of a party. Any spirits who chose to linger there were surely of the Casper sort because nothing malicious would fit in.

The resort's dining room was converted to a chapel for retirement home residents.

The resort’s elegant dining room was converted to a chapel for retirement home residents.

Before the resort existed, William told me, there was a courthouse and rough-hewn jail on these grounds. Serving four surrounding counties from 1795 to 1817, these judicial structures were rented to guests when court was not in session, and soon an adjacent spring developed a curative reputation. Those who bathed in its waters claimed to be healed of everything from arthritis to depression. As word spread, people flocked to this little hamlet. In 1839, the first part of the resort was completed, and soon Sweet Springs was attracting thousands of visitors each year.

The dining room during its heyday.

The dining room during its heyday.

Like everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon, the Civil War hit hard here. Area resorts, including the big ones—The Greenbrier and The Homestead—shut down until peace resumed, but unlike its larger brethren, Sweet Springs never quite recovered. A series of owners helped it struggle along for sixty-some years, until 1928, when it closed to the public for good.

West Virginia ended up purchasing the resort, and in 1941, it followed the lead of other rural places, opening a sanitarium there for victims of tuberculosis. Those struck with the disease were said to benefit from fresh air and outdoor living.

What did not benefit from the conversion to a medical facility were the structures that made Sweet Springs special. The resort’s gracious entry hall, elegant ballroom, and quaint rental houses were all stripped of architectural detail during remodeling.

As I shot dozens of new photos, capturing the place in decline, William said he’d been combing through old ones and, using the images, he’s sure they can restore Sweet Springs to its former glory.

The oldest structure at Sweet Springs, the jail predates the resort, dating to the 1790s.

The oldest structure at Sweet Springs, the jail predates the resort by some forty years.

I am an irrepressible shutterbug and slow every tour. William was ahead of me throughout the place, waiting patiently at the end of corridors and at stairwells to ensure I didn’t get lost. Though I was deep in blogger mode, stumbling around, studying Sweet Springs through my phone screen, he never showed frustration.

By the time we reached the basement, all I could do was imagine what this place could be once restored, just stunning with its greek revival architecture set in a remote West Virginia valley, and given its size, it could be more affordable than its nearest neighbor. The Greenbrier, one of the world’s toniest resorts, is just down the road and rooms there start around $250 a night.

Beyond that, Sweet Springs might also reflect the culture around it. I’ve always thought this was a failing of bigger mountain resorts, creating aristocratic islands in the middle of Appalachia. I took my thumb off the shutter long enough to say that their oversight could be Ashby’s competitive advantage, and William agreed. His cousin has been thinking along those lines too and is exploring features that play on local heritage, including a cidery, performances by local musicians, a colony for mountain artists, and a full-on Appalachian festival.

Furnishings and office supplies hint at Sweet Springs' past.

Furnishings and office supplies hint at Sweet Springs’ past.

My phone does this funny thing in the cold. Well, it does if dying is funny. The moment we stepped outside the resort’s main building, it keeled over.

I may have cussed a little. William may have laughed.

But after that, I no longer stumbled around half-ignoring my friend because I was myopically experiencing Sweet Springs through a 4.7″ screen. Side by side, William and I walked the property with hands buried in our pockets for warmth, ducking into smaller buildings—the former guest houses and collapsing bathhouse—roaming with no particular goal, just enjoying one another’s company, laughing and chatting, the way we people did at Sweet Springs for more than a century, the way they will again soon.

Work has begun on the resort. While the restoration will be arduous (William has already sent photos of a chimney that collapsed during repair), it will preserve this piece of Appalachian history and create a new haven in the Allegheny mountains. When it reopens, Sweet Springs will, of course, have its famed healing waters and gracious structures, but what else would you like to see there?

Now’s the time to share your ideas. Leave a comment below, telling us about features and activities you’d find at your dream mountain resort.

One of the resort's many windows provides a portico view, with sprawling grounds beyond.

One of the resort’s many windows provides a portico view, with sprawling grounds beyond.


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40 Comments

  • Ella Long

    I have passed by Sweet Springs many times in my life. My thoughts are a resort where casual is not out of place. Denim and Capris acceptable. Comfortable rooms with perhaps period furnishings or remakes of furniture. A bed and breakfast set up with the option of other meals if desired, in a dining room (restaurant) open to non guests as well. AFFORDABLE! to the middle class. Open porches/balconies, and screened areas as well where a glass of sweet tea and a good book could be enjoyed on a nice afternoon. Nights around a firepit. Winter activities as well such as sleigh rides etc. Music and stage productions or movies. Inside and out. AFFORDABLE! Not intimidating. Meals which are updated/special recipe of common dishes. Not a menu with dishes requiring an interpreter to order. A nice meal does not have to consist of mushrooms and “wild greens.” Great option but not for everyone.

    Conference/retreat facilities would be a plus as well.

    I would consider visiting once the property is opened. Did I say AFFORDABLE and COMFORTABLE and RELAXING?

  • claire flanagan

    I, too, was captured by the history of the buildings and the very special setting. The remoteness is such an asset to the property. I look forward to it’s future.

  • Priscilla

    Mark, this is so interesting! I think a cidery is a great idea. I have been to 3 in Virginia and they are more casual and accessible than wineries.

  • Diana Zahuranec

    Yes! So glad to see this post on Sweet Springs. Passed by the place and heard about a mysterious someone buying it, but it was unclear if it was to fix it up or what. Thrilled to hear about renovation plans and can’t wait to follow along with the process.

    It is in a beautiful area and its structure is amazing. But one thing did strike me as a slightly negative point…WV is already considered “middle of nowhere” by lots of out-of-staters, and Sweet Springs seems to be plopped down in yes, a beautiful & pristine area, but also out of the way.

  • Katie Hoffman

    This makes my heart glad, glad, glad–and the idea of a more affordable alternative to the Greenbrier (which I love but can’t afford unless someone hires me to go there for an event and pays for my room). I also really love the idea of a place that focuses more carefully on local heritage and traditions. I’d come teach a ballad singing class, or a weeklong workshop on Appalachian literature or offer one of my other programs (oral history, local food, many others). I’d also like to help make this happen. Please tell me what I can do to contribute.

  • Sylvia Dowling

    Would love to see seasonal flowers and shrubs to surround this home in natural beauty (and fragrance).

  • Anonymous

    You didnt mention the fact that during the 1960s it was a nursing home. My family visited my Grandmother there several times before she died.

  • Sue Breeding

    I grew up near Sweet Springs and heard many stories about its glory days. There are very few options for lodging in this area, and to have it reopen would be great.

  • RB

    Look at Thomas WV – local culture of music and craft beer have livened the town and made it a destination. Would love to come to Sweet Springs to experience that type of thing in a beautiful old and charming resort hotel.

  • Beth Holstein

    Wonderful to see our famous historic spots being wakened. Like another stated, please make it affordable to all of us. Casual so that after dining or shopping a WV type gift store (items not made in China) we might roam grounds where historic facts are displayed to remind us that where are feet are touching, so may have George Washingtons’ & others. Feature WV food items & crafts. I certainly think an “alternative/natural medicinal” plunge into the hot springs would be quite the attraction, too. Thank you for bringing back life to a place I have only read about in history books. Look forward to a trip as soon as you are ready for us! Good Luck!

  • Paul

    Hopefully bring music to the resort, maybe partner with Davis & Elkins of off-season workshops and also Garth Newell for other styles, and maybe the Shakespeare center for plays and Lime Kiln Ruin for other shows…. Combined with a Cider weekend would be great fun 🙂 …

  • Jen Young

    I visited Sweet Springs often as a child in the 1970s to see friends in the nursing home. I went went my school choir to sing for the residents & then I worked there during the 1980’s, a summer job through college.

    My mother worked at the Greenbrier during the late 1940s & again in the early 1960s. Although the Greenbrier is an amazing place I do hope Sweet Springs will be more accessible for the locals to enjoy. Good coffee/tea, plenty of food choices & some nice walking/hiking trails with those gorgeous valley views would tempt me to visit my home state again! Comfortable beds & good wifi would be great as well.

    I hope you’ll leave off the casinos that seem to have taken over other places.

  • Linda Gribko

    This would be an incredible location for a writers’ retreat or residency. I would come down from Morgantown, for sure.

  • NS

    A resort that is more integrated with the local culture would be a welcome alternative to the ‘islands of aristocracy’ up the road. The current trends in tourism are a desire for an ‘authentic’ experience, to engage with place and its culture. I hope Sweet Springs will capitalize on this need. But whatever it takes to keep the place open and preserve it, I’ll support. What about the famed waters? I seem to remember there was once a bottling facility at the spring… beyond reviving the bottled water venture, what about using that water for brewing or distilling?

  • Tom Long

    State inmates used to be housed there in the 1950-1960’s and my grandfather was a Correctional Officer overseeing them. By the 1980’s, after his death, my grandmother became a patient there, when it was an assisted living home run by the State of WV. Later, it became a Substance Abuse facility for a short time, before closing it ‘s doors for good.

  • Lisa Burns

    So beyond thrilled to see this amazing place being saved, I grew up 2 miles from it.

  • Anonymous

    Ashby Berkley is an excellent inn keeper with a heart for historic preservation. His Riverside Inn (restaurant) an the Pence Springs Hotel were wonderful. We hosted my daughter’s wedding reception there in 1997 and friends still talk about it. We just told him what we wanted and he did the rest. I look forward to visiting as soon as done.

  • Elissa

    I worked at The Andrew Rowan S Rowan Memorial Home. It was a place that residents called home. Can still remember some of them and staff too. It has been 25 years ago since the state closed the facility. I hope it can be restored for more folks to come and enjoy. Great story.

  • Marsha Stone

    My dad was from Randolph county and worked as a guard at Huttonsville prison until he relocated in Sweet Springs to take the job of guard for inmates sent here from Huttonsville prison. Minimum security prisoners had barracks on the property and were brought here to work taking care of the lawn and working on the farm. Hogs were raised along with dairy cattle that was processed and used for the residents that resided at the Andrew S. Rowan Memorial Home for the aged. He met and was married to my mother who worked as the seamstress for the residents. I came along and we lived in a house just across the road. Many of the employees were from Sweet Springs, Gap Mills, Union and surrounding areas. The “old home” as all us locals referred to it, was the livelyhood for many families. It was a home that the elderly residents loved so much, they were treated with respect, kindness and as a family member would be treated. As children of the employees we were very fortunate to be allowed on the grounds where the “old folks” played croquet, horseshoes and relaxed on the benches in the shade of huge trees. I think every kid in Sweet Springs learned to swim at the amazing pool, with supervision of course. This place holds memories too many to mention and has a special place in our hearts. We’re happy Mr. Berkley purchased the property, and plans to restore the buildings and bring life back to a place held so dear by so many.

  • Becky

    I could see themed music festivals such as a bluegrass weekend with maybe Allison Krauss and Jerry Douglas and similar. You could host a Taste of WV type food festival, inviting chefs from around the state to create their signature dishes on the grounds. Maybe pair it with a WV wine tasting.

  • Jacob Knight

    Live THEATRE! Use the college students who need summer stock work. Feed them, find them housing and let them do theatre. There is not enough live theatre around here. In the midwest live theatre abounds in small venues all over. While it may not be feasible to have live theatre in winter (depending on the draw of the place in snow season), this would be an excellent venue for colleges with huge theatre programs like Ohio University to partner with them and let the students do their thing. Again, remember they have zero money, so feed them, house them, and let them work. You’ll be rewarded.

  • Anonymous

    I live in Sweet Springs. I have heard the wind blow before so I will believe all this about renovation when I see it happen! So far I have seen a couple of people patch a couple shingles on a roof. That is it! Good Luck with your project. I hope it works out better than the last two owners!

  • Jeremy

    I would make the whole thing a themed deal. Take it back alll the way back …leave your cell phone in your car as the horse and buggy pick you up at the parking lot a 1/2 mile away. Really set it to a period. Blacksmithing demos, sewing demos, natural foods from the area farmers. No phone no tv no computers or internet. Let it grow to what it is.

  • Sam Hale

    Need any help? I have a master’s in Public History, years of restoration experience and I live next door in Crows, VA

  • Beverly Martin

    I grew up living on the property of Old Sweet Springs. My grandfather was the maintenance supervisor when I was born. We lived with my grandparents and some uncles and and an aunt and cousin in the long, old log structure which is located left of what was the men’s building. The Central Building, which has long been torn down,was the men’s residence before the newest wing was added to the main structure. My father worked in maintenance with my grandfather after returning from the World War II and Korea. He later took a job as maintenance supervisor and we lived in a house on the property from 1961 until Dad’s retirement a few years before it was permanently closed. I learned to swim in the spring fed pool and incidentally it is not a hot spring. The cold water is very refreshing to dive into on a hot summer’s day. A few years after I married, my husband, who was working in maintenance at the time, and I moved into a house on the farm part of the “old home”. We lived there until we moved to Oklahoma in 1981. I have many fond memories of “Old Sweet Springs” and truly hope this time the “Grand Old Lady” can be restored to her former glory. It is so sad to see her sitting forlorn and almost forgotten. I would love to visit the place again after the restoration and would also be interested in seeing some of the progress when I am in the area, which is usually about once a year. I like all of the previous suggestions given by others and think they would be a wonderful benefit to this area. I really hope Mr. Berkley can return this treasure to her former glory.

  • Susan

    Performing arts, kids’ sports camps, winter sports (skating? Skiing)? Horseback riding , mountain biking, possibly with local guided day trips. Maybe ziplining?

  • Nathan Wiley

    Our family actually lived on the grounds of this magnificent place. What I would love to hear, see would be all you folks that actually have the resources, pool them and put your money where your mouth is. It’s hard for me to go throug Sweet Springs and see the status of this wonderful old soul.

  • Vaughn Hutchison

    I was raised on the grounds there as a child have sooo many awesome memories and story’s from there. I’m so glad to see someone take it over.

  • Anonymous

    Try maybe shareholder to compelete the project would hate to see you put your lifesaving in this and it flop trust in the Lord to guild you through

  • deborah crislip

    Hope this place is renovated and becomes something we can all be proud of, instead of being sad for, as it now sits, empty and forlorn as it is now. My mother worked there for 20 years and I also did for 4 years until it was no long ran as a nursing home. Would love to work there again as it is a beautiful place. Would like to see it turned into a an affordable resort with trail walks and horseback riding, the swimming pool restored, maybe have some animals for ” cityfolks” to see where their food comes from other than their grocery store. Have gardens where guest could pick up a hoe and get their hands dirty if they had a mind to. Have music of different genres. Have picnic areas. Maybe have game rooms for kids and adults, exercise facility, a massage spa close to the pool area.

  • Cindy Ferguson DeVaux

    My Grandfather was a security guard there for many years back in the 60’s and early 70’s. I was always so in awe as I thought it the most regal place. I was around 10 at the time. Wish it would be bought and restored. Such a great part of history.

  • Cindy Ferguson DeVaux

    I left a comment about my Grandfather being a security guard. Site is screwy.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Hi, Cindy. I review each comment before they post and was deep in yard work. Its up now. Thanks!

  • J.W. Puckett

    Have known Ashby since the early 70’s and I feel very positive he’ll make this into a stunning travel destination.

  • Leta

    Would love to see a pool. Also currently Monroe County does not have an all inclusive venue large enough to host a wedding or other comparable event that will hold a sizable number of guests : ) a nice fine dining option would also be welcomed by the community as well as guests.

  • Rachel Johnson

    I worked at Sweet Springs and it truly is lovely. I very strongly suggest that you contact CAPON SPRINGS AND FARMS in Capon Springs, WV. They are very secluded, raise their own food, no locks on the doors, no phones or TV in rooms, gorgeous 5000 acres with hiking trails…..NOT fancy like the Greenbrier, but crammed with goodwill, long-time friendships, and guests are treated like family. Huge pool, indoor hot bathing in a new spa, tennis, golf, lawn sports, kiddie care and playhouse, Meals are family-style, music plays from a couple of the gigantic trees, there are outdoor meals on a hill, etc, etc. Heaven….a place for WHATEVER you love.

  • GreenbrierGus

    Hope he pays his gas bill here, as he didn’t at Pence Springs

  • Anonymous

    My Mother was a patient there, in the 1980’s when it was an assisted living home run by the State. It was a great place and she seemed happy as could be. Sorry it had to close the doors. Best of luck in whatever!
    Anonymous

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