- Historic Sites
Mr. Smith Goes Underground
The strangest of all Cold War relics also offers a clue to why we won it
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
As enough underground days passed to fill those boxes with transcripts, stress levels would have mounted to unimaginable heights. The Greenbrier’s on-site historian, Dr. Robert S. Conte, who has been at the resort for more than 20 years, wonders about the “thousand type-A personalities” once expected to function here, perhaps week after week, exposed constantly to one another but not to the light of day. It isn’t easy to picture Sen. Everett Dirksen and Speaker John McCormack sleeping like buck privates on those bunk beds; indeed, one figure in the congressional leadership—the only members ever briefed on the project —is supposed to have expressed regret that the pages were not scheduled for evacuation to West Virginia along with the senators. The dispensary contained an adequate supply of prescription medications, but the possibility remained that if anyone got out of the bunker alive, not everyone would. Its incinerator was ready to function as a crematorium for any distinguished gentleman who dropped dead at his emergency desk.
At the time Project X began, the Greenbrier constructed, along with the plainly evident Exhibit Hall, two auditoriums. The hotel used the Governor’s Hall and the Mountaineer Room for some of its own ordinary activities, and the Exhibit Hall actually did house trade shows. But as Mary Murray completes the tour, it becomes clear how these three big rooms constituted the netherworld between the hotel and the bunker: They would serve as portions of the former right up until “activation” of the latter, at which point another blast door would seal them off from the rest of the Greenbrier. The hinges of that door are even now concealed only by some festive wallpaper and a decorator’s screen. If a guest somehow noticed them and felt prompted to ask a question, he might be told that they were an “expansion joint.” But the Exhibit Hall itself, filled with products and nametagged browsers, was unlikely to excite suspicion that it had also been designed as the place for congressional staffers to do their work. Even someone who counted the seats in the Governor’s Hall (440) and the Mountaineer Room (133) probably wouldn’t have surmised that he was looking at substitute chambers for the United States House of Representatives and Senate.
The office of Paul E. (“Fritz”) Bugas, now a communityrelations consultant for the Greenbrier, is a comfortable place whose bright green carpet is very much in the over-the-top style of Dorothy Draper, the decorator who gave the hotel its own vibrant new look in the late 1940s. But doors leading directly to Dormitory C-1 and Dormitory C-2, as well as the absence of a window, remind a visitor that Bugas still works in the bunker, managing as a tourist attraction the same facility he spent more than 20 years keeping viable and secret. Between 1971 and 1992, Bugas served under four presidents of the Greenbrier and five of the United States, as regional manager of “Forsythe Associates,” a cover organization that did its best to look like nothing more than the telecommunications consultants for a large resort.
The facility remained a closely kept secret for more than 30 years.
A compact, energetic man who moves far more youthfully than most people in their seventies, Bugas remains proud of all the various ways in which the bunker’s existence was once kept camouflaged. Aboveground and outside, he indicates a small green building, a kind of cement hut with another DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE sign. This is the bunker’s air-intake facility, but in operational days Bugas would tell anyone who asked that there was only a transformer behind the door. A big shedlike white warehouse that held Forsythe’s office stands close to some livery stables. “We never did put a sign out,” says Bugas. Guests interested in horses might ask about the nearby building when they came to see the stables; Forsythe personnel would say it was storage space or an audiovisual office. Supplies to the bunker were usually delivered in the middle of the night, which is also when the generators ran. The machines didn’t produce enough heat to be detected by Soviet satellites, but smoke was less likely to be noticed here on the ground at 3:00 A.M. Bugas points to what looks like a white milk box beside a decorative brick pillar—the delivery point for the bunker’s diesel fuel, he explains, as eager to share the information as he once was to conceal it.
During the winters, when the hotel might be housing as few as a hundred guests, Bugas would supervise dry runs that brought up to 50 hotel employees and perhaps another hundred outside specialists into the bunker, which would be sealed off for 12 to 16 hours. They’d test out as much equipment as they could in that brief period; going at it any longer would have disrupted the hotel’s routine and created suspicions.