Lynn Swann remembers the day The Greenbrier — the resort that has hosted presidents, royalty and the well-heeled for nearly 150 years — lost a distinction it had held almost four decades.

On Jan. 11, 2000, the editors of Mobil Travel Guide stripped away its coveted five-star rating, proclaiming the historic hotel no longer stood among the few dozen considered the world’s finest.

The Greenbrier had failed to keep up with the times, lacking radios, telephones in the bathrooms and suitable stands for its televisions. Though still a fine hotel, Mobil decided, it was no longer perfect.

“It was personally devastating for a lot of the staff here,” recalls Swann, a longtime employee and manager of public relations. “Our staff takes a lot of pride in this property. When they are welcoming guests, it’s like they are welcoming them into their home. It was heartbreaking.”

Work to regain the fifth star began immediately, surging into overdrive last winter with a $50 million renovation. President Paul Ratchford quit California’s Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay to guide The Greenbrier to its future.

Though the changes now number in the dozens, many are subtle.

The main lobby still has its distinctive black and white tile, but there is music, recorded and live. Bowls of exotic flowers have replaced potted plants. The terrace has new tile and rocking chairs. Smoking is allowed only outdoors.

Street signs help visitors navigate the sprawling grounds, sprinklers appear as tiny black discs high on the wall, and wood-paneled elevators sport beveled mirrors and brass railings. Tennis courts are now royal blue, suggestive of the U.S. Open, and pets under 30 pounds are allowed in the cottages. The Greenbrier even sells collars, leashes and beds.

“We really took it as an opportunity to look at all areas of the property and a new way of doing things,” Swann says.

Guests are greeted with wine and bottled water, then given cards rather than metal keys to their rooms, where new linens and flat-screen TVs await in all 721 rooms — along with bigger changes in 63 of those targeted for a more extensive redo.

“It was important that the relevance of the property was accepted with the next generation,” Ratchford says. “The Greenbrier is a very historic national treasure, but we had been unable to pierce the market share of a younger demographic that might have come here with their parents or grandparents in previous years but would not necessarily consider us for a return visit.”

To get them, Ratchford is focusing on technology, variety and the spa.

Wireless internet, for example, is one unseen addition. And The Greenbrier Spa has expanded.

But Ratchford plans more: By Jan. 1, he hopes to unveil The Greenbrier Spa and Center for Health Living, building on a little-known, 40,000-square-foot medical clinic that has long catered to Fortune 500 clients in need of physicals.

Staffed by 11 full-time doctors, it was originally built in the ’50s to care for members of Congress in the once-secret nuclear fallout shelter beneath the West Virginia Wing. Staff are developing menus and packages in hopes of boosting offseason business.

Balancing the need to modernize with the need to retain longtime clients is the key challenge for Ratchford and designer Carleton Varney, a protege of original decorator Dorothy Draper.

The 63 overhauled guest rooms have new furniture and bigger bathrooms, many with separate shower and soaking tub. They still have rich fabrics and floral motifs, but the colors are softer, the patterns more subtle. Creamy rhododendron, forsythia and hyacinth blooms appear in the wallpaper, but on a pale pink or light aqua background.

“I get letters every day saying, ’Please don’t turn the Greenbrier into a Ritz-Carlton,”’ Ratchford says. “And we didn’t because Carleton Varney has been the decorator here for 40 years. Carleton designed those rooms with what he thinks Dorothy would have done today.”

He’ll soon do the same with the Main Dining Room, where coats and ties are required. Though the dress code has been relaxed elsewhere to resort casual, Ratchford says the dining room will remain formal.

The classic green and black chandeliers won’t change, but furniture and fabrics will. Outdoor and elevated seating sections will be added, along with a wine and coffee bar.

“You need to have some areas that preserve the heritage and history of this place, and I think our public areas do that,” Ratchford says. “Then you need to have a little bit of fun and take some risk in some of the areas you feel are required to attract new customers.”

Enter Hemisphere, a global journey in food, and the “world cocktail lounge” 38-80, named for The Greenbrier’s approximate latitude and longitude.

The floral drapes, crystal chandeliers and tulip upholstery of The Old White Lounge have vanished and Hemisphere has appeared in its place, offering a tasting menu format with tiny gourmet portions served over several hours.

A black granite water fixture trickles softly and iridescent glass floor tiles sparkle in red and cream. Rich butterscotch walls, light-colored woods and fabrics in fuschia, orange and lime light up the room, while whimsical centerpieces crafted from out-of-service silver dot each table.

Alderson artist Mark Blumenstein turned tea pots, julep cups, butter dishes and other pieces into bobbling dragons, blooming flower pots and other creatures.

The gold-ringed chargers, ceramic serving platters, dining chairs and chef’s table are all custom-made. Even the glassware is unique, designed by master sommelier Barbara Werley.

Kevin Dott, assistant director food and beverage, hopes Chef Michael Voltaggio’s artistic creations and open kitchen, where guests are invited to linger, will attract a kind of traveler The Greenbrier has never sought — the foodie.

“This is a little more contemporary, something you’d see in the major culinary cities in America,” he says. “Finding it here is a bit of a surprise to our guests.”

One floor below, The Tavern Room restaurant has become 38-80, a Moroccan-inspired bar with star-shaped lanterns, limestone walls and elaborate tile work on the ceiling.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” says Art Heal, 69, a longtime visitor from West Pittston Pa. “The new management is right on target.

“They catered to a certain crowd, but now, sadly, that crowd is dying off, and you have a new crowd, and they have to cater to them, too. The new crowd expects things to change,” says Heal, who discovered 38-80 with his son while their wives were at the spa.

“I’m personally amazed,” says Chuck Heal, 37, of Lewisburg. “There was never anything wrong with The Greenbrier, but this is an improvement. This is a gem.”

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