To a ruin with a history comes a man with a history and a plan.
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford
Once upon a more genteel time, people did not drive up to the main entrance of their resort hotel and, road-weary, purge their cars of fast-food wrappers and schlepp across the lobby in front of all of vacationing society.
“People arrived on horseback and in buggies and in carriages, and they were dusty and they were dirty,” Ashby Berkley romanticizes. “They did not go to the grand entrance to register—they came in at the side. They got their horses checked in and their luggage checked in. They went upstairs and cleaned themselves up. And then they came down and were presented in the lobby.”
Rhapsodizing in the shade of pin oaks at the far end of the 180-year-old Sweet Springs hotel, Berkley paints his vision of modern resort gentility over the neglected landscape. “Eventually we plan for this to be the entrance to the hotel. This’ll be the bell stand, and parking will be out back. We don’t want to mess up the front of the hotel with that. We’ll put the fountain back in front, and people will want to enjoy the veranda that goes all across the front there.”
Looking over the deteriorating cottages and bathhouse one sees from that veranda might make a visitor to Sweet Springs skeptical of this white-headed conjurer. After all, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House the last time Berkley’s warm springs resort at the far uphill corner of Monroe County operated as a destination. And others before Berkley have hoped to reopen it and failed.
But this, as he says, is not his first party.
His first party
Berkley was running a colonial tavern and a spring water bottling plant in his native Pence Springs in the 1970s when the West Virginia State Prison for Women closed.
The prison occupied the former Pence Springs Hotel. Opened in 1918 as changing lifestyles were shuttering the great springs resorts of the Virginias, this one offered conveniences most never had: running water, electricity, telephones. Berkley’s grandfather sold chickens and produce to the hotel restaurant, and his dad sold moonshine there until the Great Depression crushed the hotel in 1929. Berkley never knew the place as anything but a prison. His mother worked as an associate warden, and he and his brother played there in the 1940s and ’50s with the warden’s grandchildren.
He went off to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and came home in 1970 with training in business administration and food management. He and his brother bought the old Pence Springs Water Company. They also bought Governor Henry Hatfield’s one-time log camp near the springs and turned it into the Riverside Inn. They were running it as a popular upscale restaurant with Berkley as chef when the state closed the prison.
“I’d always loved that place. It was beautiful,” Berkley recalls. Sitting empty, the hotel–prison was deteriorating fast, and the state planned to build a new prison in its place. So Berkley worked with his friends Fred Long and Steve Trail and the State Historic Preservation Office to get the hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places and prevent its demolition. Then the state sold it to him. “It took me seven years to get it,” he says.
Trees were growing up through the floors of the sun porch by the time Berkley took possession. Roofs had failed. “The front porches had caved in from termite damage, and there was three feet of water standing in the basement,” he says. “It had to be completely rewired. Completely replumbed.”
Most people were skeptical that Berkley could do the multimillion-dollar restoration, his old friend Long remembers now. But he got financing from a consortium of banks and his restoration of the public spaces and 22 rooms and suites respected the hotel’s history and architecture. Caryn Gresham agrees. “When you visited him at Pence Springs, he was always telling you about the windows or the doors or who slept here or why the menu was like it was. Some of the rooms were quite amazing,” says Gresham, now deputy commissioner of the state Division of Culture and History. “There was a lovely sunroom that they used as the restaurant that was charming. And the food was great.”
Long loved that restaurant, too. “I went there every week to eat, and his food was out of this world and I miss it,” he says. “And I’ve told him I still dream about the Riverside. He’s one of the best chefs in Southern West Virginia.” Berkley could have succeeded anywhere as a chef, in Long’s mind. “But I think he wanted to do something for the county. He just had a passion to restore these structures.”
Along the way, Berkley taught and advanced hospitality and tourism at the state level and worked as a food and beverage restorationist and consultant for historic properties. He closed the Riverside Inn in 1996 when a Greenbrier River flood wiped it out for a second time. And heartbreakingly for himself and his loyal staff, he closed Pence Springs Hotel in 2007 and sold it. “It was the hardest thing to let Pence Springs go,” he says. “But I had saved it and I wanted to move on and do another project.”
He’d had a certain project in mind for a while.
Bigger, older, grander
Sweet Springs offered lodging earlier than most of the springs resorts, back in the 1700s. Its cachet comes out in its guest list. “The first five presidents were all here,” Berkley says. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and county namesake Monroe probably all stayed in the original stone and log hotel of 72 rooms built by William Lewis of the Lewisburg Lewises. The Marquis de Lafayette is said to have stayed there, too.
In the 1830s, William’s son John put up a new brick hotel patterned after the University of Virginia, likely designed by an associate of Thomas Jefferson. Sweet Springs’ renown grew. “You drive into a spacious green undulating area, shaded here and there with trees,” wrote one 1834 visitor from Philadelphia. “In a little valley to your left is a frame building containing two large and separate baths for the two sexes, and under its piazza is a famous spring … sparkling and spirit-stirring like champagne, and ever copiously flowing.”
That effervescent warm spring is what drew early American society to this out-of-the-way place. The flow is captured even today in the 10-foot-deep, sand-bottom pool at the center of the formerly towered 1830s bathhouse. The temperature of the pool stays in the 70s year-round—so warm, the outflow doesn’t freeze for four or five miles down the creek, says Ricky Lucas, an off-and-on Sweet Springs caretaker who learned to swim in that pool. The light bubbles tingle the skin, Lucas says, and he thinks a bather can feel the mineral effects of a soak. “You get stiff if you stay in too long.”
The Civil War interrupted resort-going, and the new Chesapeake and Ohio Railway favored The Greenbrier and left Sweet Springs stranded. Hopeful investors kept it going but, by 1928, they had to close its doors for good.
Like Pence Springs, Sweet Springs came into state ownership—in this case, as a home for the elderly. Berkley visited as a kid. “Our church used to come here. I was in the choir, and we’d sing at Christmas,” he recalls. “Even people who were not on social services, they could pay and stay here, and they loved it. The food was wonderful. It was country-cooked food that they were used to.” The home closed in 1993.
A series of owners took Sweet Springs on. Berkley attended every one of four auctions over the years, and he kept his eye on the buyers in between. “One owner destroyed more than he did good,” Berkley says—his dismantling of the bathhouse’s iconic towers still offends locals. “He sold it to another one who concentrated on the water.” Bottled from a spring elsewhere on the property and sold earlier this century under the name Sweet Sommer, that water was recognized at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting.
The bottler’s estate was tied up for years after he died in 2010. Berkley pestered the bank. “I begged them to do things like put the roof on it. We even offered to purchase it,” he says of his Resorts Management Company. When the bank finally put the property up for auction, he was afraid a buyer would raze the buildings. “I was just scared to death, to be perfectly honest.”
On the morning of November 12, 2015, some 200 people showed up at Sweet Springs to witness the auction. Four participated in person, with one bidding in on the phone from Germany. Berkley went well past the $300,000 he’d once hoped to pay. His $400,000 was topped by the $450,000 another party had already told him he’d put up. Berkley choked out $500,000. When the dialed-in participant bid $550,000, he was done. “Your head’s got to rule sometimes,” he says. But three locals, hunched over an iPad and working furiously to raise funds, asked Berkley to stay in it. When the auctioneer turned to him and asked, “Will you go to 560?,” he said he would.
Berkley finally owned the property he’d been eyeing for decades: 23 acres, the 110,000-square-foot hotel-turned-retirement home, the bathhouse and pool, several cottages—10 historic structures in all, plus a like-new water bottling plant. “It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do in retirement,” he smiles, but no one’s fooled.
Rehabilitating a sprawling historic property takes a good year of planning, Berkley says, and since Sweet Springs came into his hands suddenly, he’s been scrambling—lining up applications for grant funding, assembling partners, assessing the property’s condition.
The condition, after a half-century of state operation and a quarter-century of abandonment, is rough. The steps to the bathhouse have a makeshift railing. The bathhouse building drops the occasional brick, and the warm pool at its center supports its own green and fuzzy ecosystem. Buildings need patching, pointing, painting, and structural work along with much demolition and updating inside.
The hotel’s interior suffocates under layers of 20th century Institutional Bland: corridor upon corridor of dropped ceilings, faded linoleum, and peeling shades of beige; wall-mounted, paint-covered pipes and heating units; utilitarian light fixtures. Limp curtains in more shades of beige and room guttings begun and deserted leave the place even more forlorn.
But the graciousness of the parklike grounds and the Jeffersonian facade shows through, and the hotel’s spaces breathe an early American elegance that not even the heavy overlay has smothered. Lofty ceilings—18 or 20 feet high on the main floor. Deep window bays. Enormous, heavy doors and generous millwork from a time when hardwoods were plentiful.
Berkley walks his future hotel. “All of these walls are coming out,” he says of the second-floor resident rooms the state chopped the main lobby into. “The only thing that’s going to be left standing will be the pillars, so this will be the grand hall just like it was originally, going on forever, all the way down,” he says as he paces the considerable distance. “We could put in a nice piano and a place for a band, and this could be a dance floor in the lobby, which would be great. You have to give people a good sample of the history, but you also have to adapt to modern times because the place really needs to do conferences.”
That’s where he sees Sweet Springs’ main niche, given its planned updated capacity of 100 to 125 rooms and suites: well-managed mid-size conferences. “It could be for a meeting of the PTA or the local historical society. If they have to get on a plane and fly somewhere, they don’t care where it is,” he says. “They decide at a board meeting, six people sitting there deciding what’s going to happen. They say, ‘Don’t go there—we went there and the food was horrible.’ Or, ‘They were so snooty that nobody would speak to you.’ And that’s what kills you. Seventy percent of the people will choose a conference center based on the strength of the food operation. And they want really genuine service, hospitality, cleanliness, and ease of working with the facility—the professionalism of the location.”
The historical setting, the warm springs baths, and Berkley’s plan to have spa services on every floor would make Sweet Springs a notable conference venue. But he sees other functions that would make it even more unique and pull in regional visitors, too. People from Beckley and from Roanoke, Virginia, could drive an hour for a soak and a special meal. Two hours’ drive would get people from Charleston or Charlottesville, Virginia, a day of spa and shopping, and four hours could bring visitors from as far as Morgantown, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., for the weekend.
What are those functions? On the primary floor, Berkley envisions an eclectic business center and marketplace anchored by an authentic ethnic restaurant—Greek, maybe, or German. Surveying this hallway, he unspools his imagination. “This would be a great candy shop or bake shop.” “Here’s a walk-in fireplace—what a perfect place for a pub.” “There’s a little fireplace there, so we have a private room.” “This is where my artist and music teacher friend would like to do a gallery—she’s wrestling with the antique dealer, because he wants to use it, too.” “I thought it would be great if you could work with an architect or an engineer or see a dentist in one of these offices while you’re here.” He had expressions of interest in February for a number of those spaces. Outside, he imagines enclosing that spectacular arcade with custom glass panels that could be opened in summer and closed to allow the space to be heated in winter.
He has so many plans: Opening the pool soon, so the community can begin enjoying it. Holding festivals on the grounds—he already owns a stage. Re-starting the bottling plant. Erecting a solarium roof over that fountain he’s going to put in out front and enclosing it as an ice rink in winter. Attracting a Marriott- or Omni-caliber company to manage the hotel and conference center. He’s already leased the adjacent 650 acres from the state and plans to grow food and build recreational facilities there. All told, he figures it’s a $10 million project that could employ 250 people.
Can he pull it off?
When the Monroe County Historical Society scheduled its fall meeting at Sweet Springs last October, Berkley made pumpkin muffins and mulled cider and set out chairs for 30. Three hundred people showed up. It’s a measure of the local hopes for the place and also of the community’s confidence in him.
Sweet Springs is possibly the most ambitious rehabilitation and adaptive re-use ever undertaken in the state. “Except for maybe the Weston hospital and the prison in Moundsville,” says Jennifer Brennan at the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Deputy SHPO Officer Susan Pierce mentions also the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s rehabilitation of the Wheeling Stamping Company warehouse for administrative functions as well as the conversion of the former Washington family home Claymont Court near Charles Town to a conference and retreat center. But while some of those structures are larger than Sweet Springs, none operates as the hub of lodging, dining, services, retail, and recreation Berkley envisions—and, in his location, probably needs.
Some keys to making the very largest projects work, Brennan says, are creative uses and buy-in from the local community. Berkley seems to have both. Just as important, Pierce says, is to “pull from a lot of different purses.” The SHPO is working with him on grants and preservation tax credits, and he’s hiring a full-time grant writer. “Pence Springs is smaller, but he used the same tools there,” Pierce says. “He understands what’s available.”
In 2016, Berkley deeded the property to a new nonprofit, the Sweet Springs Resort Park Foundation, with the option to recall it if the organization is unable to begin payments to him in five years. This spring, it will establish membership levels with varying privileges for donations of money and time.
For his part, Long thinks as long as there’s funding to be had, Berkley will pull this off. “And I don’t know if anyone else could do it.” sweetspringsresortpark.org