Restoring a fabled piece of American history
by Laura Emery, Deputy Editor
If a historic property could ever conjure up images of days gone by, it is Sweet Springs Resort Park in eastern Monroe County, W. Va.
In your mind’s eye, you can almost hear the swooshing of elegant gowns as women twirled across the floors of the grand “Old Sweet” hotel during its heyday, the 1820s up until the Civil War.
The place was so grand that eight of the first 10 U.S. presidents reportedly stayed on the property.
“The history is remarkable,” says Arietta DuPre, a volunteer for the Sweet Springs Resort Park Foundation, which now runs and operates the historic property located in Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative’s service area. The park is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Foundation has extensive plans to renovate the vast estate and bring it back to life.
But, first, they seek to fully understand the history of the place.
“We know it was initially all about the springs,” DuPre says.
NATIVE AMERICAN ROOTS
Before the allure of high-society gatherings brought the who’s who of America to the estate, it was the allure of the area’s seven mineral springs that inspired the property’s development.
The springs’ water emerges from the ground at 73 degrees year-round and contains a concentration of iron and carbon dioxide. It’s reported that the Trans-Allegheny natives used the area for medicinal and birthing purposes due to the spring waters that they believed had “healing” powers.
William Lewis, a Revolutionary War veteran, saw the warm water pools as a way to draw people to the underdeveloped area. So, in 1792, he built a resort centered around the springs and erected the first hotel on the property.
The hotel, called “Old Sweet,” was run by the Lewis family until 1852. “John lost the property due to debts to Oliver Beirne and others. During the beginning of Oliver’s ownership, a new ‘hotel’ was built consisting of individual cabins,” DuPre explains.
Later, Beirne enlisted the services of Thomas Jefferson to design a “new” hotel for Sweet Springs. Plans were completed before Jefferson’s death in 1826, says DuPre, so construction on the 90,000-square-foot building began in 1834 and was completed in 1839.
The Jefferson-designed hotel featured full brick construction with three monumental tetrastyle-pedimented Tuscan porticoes above the arcade. There was a massive 160-foot-long elegant dining room, and drawing rooms and grand dancing rooms were located at both ends of the first floor.
In 1852, the resort was sold and operated under a succession of owners until 1945 when the state of West Virginia purchased the property and established the Andrew S. Rowan Memorial Home. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and underwent a major renovation between 1972 and 1975.
In 1991, the state turned the facility over to Monroe County to use for a drug rehabilitation center — but the plans never came to fruition. Then, after 1996, the former resort was sold several times into private hands.
The property languished until 2005 when the resort was purchased at an auction by a local investor, Ashby Berkley, for $560,000.
“I’m an old man and I was retired, but I’d heard a rumor that it was going up for auction for the fourth time,” says Berkley. He’d also heard a rumor — albeit unsubstantiated, he says — that there were plans to raze the property to create a “motor home court.”
“I thought, my gosh, the United States can’t lose this place. So here I am — gray-headed and humpbacked — trying to save it,” he says, with a laugh. “We’re making great progress, though.”
Berkley donated the buildings to create Sweet Springs Resort Park Foundation Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, for the public. He calls the property an “architectural jewel” and says it is an important part of the development of the U.S.
“Sweet Springs was one of the reasons they started building roadways, called ‘interstates’ at the time, for stagecoaches — and some of those roads we still use today,” DuPre points out.
Having directed major restorations of the Pence Springs Hotel & Mineral Springs Historic District and the Jamestown period Riverside Inn, in addition to numerous commercial and private residences, Berkley knows what he’s doing.
“Every day, we find out something new,” he explains. “The history here is so rich; it’s as thick as molasses. Who could turn their back on that?”
Not Berkley — or the six volunteers, including DuPre — who are working on behalf of the Sweet Springs Resort Park Foundation to revive the historic resort and keep its history alive.
Berkley shares story after story of people who have visited the property and given he and his team more insight. “One man came in here and held up a silver cup. He said his great-grandfather had won it at the golf tournament here at Sweet Springs on what was known, at the time, as the finest golf course in the south,” he says.
The Foundation’s plans for the property are expansive. Says DuPre, “Our intent is to open part of the old original building as a Colonial-style country inn, and then we want to turn part of it into extended-stay rooms and part of it into a business plaza. Then, in the smaller rooms downstairs, we want to open them to the public — local artisans, etc. — so we can encourage business, 250-plus jobs, in a rural area where youth are leaving every day due to lack of career opportunities.”
She goes on to describe plans to teach historic restoration to the public, install three driving ranges where golf lessons can be taught, have a professional mountain biker design a mountain bike trail and teach courses in mountain biking, create areas for camping available to FFA, church and 4-H groups, as well as create opportunities to work with disadvantaged youth.
“We have big plans,” she says, with a laugh. And big plans require big money.
To make those plans a reality, the Foundation needs the public’s help. “Our ultimate goal is $15 million,” DuPre says. “But any donations we receive, from individuals or businesses, mean so much to us, and help us get one step closer to bringing this place back to life. Anything over $100 is a tax-exempt contribution because we’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Please help us keep this historical gem alive.”
For more, visit sweetspringsresortpark.org.