ASHEVILLE, N.C. - One of the South's most iconic hotels - the one where author F. Scott Fitzgerald fired his gun into the ceiling and where German and Japanese ambassadors were cloistered during World War II - is marking a big birthday.
The Omni Grove Park Inn, nestled into one side of Sunset Mountain, has offered its guests a view of Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains for a century.
It's a big deal not only to the region, but to the state, said Margo Metzger of the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
"It is arguably our most famous hotel," she said. "In terms of a property that has such a significant impact on its community, a large property that's been around for many, many decades, I don't think anybody can hold a candle to the Grove Park."
This year's centennial celebration caps a very busy few years for the hotel, one that included a $25 million renovation, two ownership changes and a recent 90th birthday party for the evangelist Billy Graham that drew Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and other conservative notables.
'As nature had carved it'
Guests of the hotel often can take part in an hourlong guided history tour that begins with the history of E.W. Grove, an entrepreneur who made millions of dollars from "Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic," a 1878 concoction that contained quinine and was aimed to ward off malaria.
Hilary Thomas, who gave the tour recently, said Grove's tonic briefly outsold Coca-Cola.
Still, Grove battled health problems and made repeated trips to Asheville, where he eventually bought a large chunk of property on Sunset Mountain, just outside of town.
He eventually decided to build a hotel to give visitors a sense of rest and relaxation. Grove's son-in-law, Fred Seely, oversaw the work, though he had no experience as an architect or contractor.
Still, his design - inspired by the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park - was built in less than a year. It featured advancements such as a four-story interior atrium as well as modern elevators built into the massive stone chimneys - an attempt to muffle any noise from them.
The hotel is dominated by giant boulders mined from the mountain. A few were decorated with inscriptions Seely found inspirational, and those have been kept but not added to, said Tracey Johnston-Crum, head of the inn's public relations.
"The stones that we have in the main inn are three to four to five tons apiece," she said. "Each stone was placed specifically, as Fred Seely said, 'as nature had carved it and intended it to be seen,' so the stones were marked as they faced out of the mountain and then placed into the inn facing our patrons the way it faced out of the mountain."
Seely embraced the Arts & Crafts style of furnishings and commissioned all the furniture from the Roycroft shop in East Aurora, N.Y.
Ups and downs
The inn quickly attracted presidents and celebrities, including industrial barons Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and others.
Grove died in 1927, and while he had instructed his family not to sell the inn, he did not get his wish.
"The inn changed hands quite a few times," said Tracey Johnston-Crum, a hotel spokeswoman. During the start of World War II, the United States housed German and Japanese diplomats there.
"I wouldn't necessarily call us a 'detainment center,' but we were certainly a place where all of the good diplomats were asked to stay so the government could keep tabs on where they were," she said.
The U.S. Navy then commandeered the building toward the war's end and - decades before the term "post traumatic stress disorder" was coined -used it for service members who needed help returning to civilian life, she added. The Navy left the property worse for wear. By the 1950s, Charles Sammons was convinced to purchase the inn and breathed new life into it, but he also changed its original look. He removed much of its Arts & Crafts furniture that was considered outdated. He sold the oak chairs in the dining room for $3 apiece but kept the original furniture in the 152 guest rooms.
Rebirth - and birthday
In 1984 and 1988, the hotel added two new wings - also furnished in the Arts & Crafts style - nearly tripling its capacity to about 510 rooms.
As Arts & Crafts furniture became popular once again, the hotel recently spent $25 million to renovate and restore it to its original look -and to get its second massive fireplace operational for the first time since the 1950s.
And that's just one of many big recent changes.
After Elaine Sammons died in 2010, KSL Capital and Resorts purchased the property in 2012 for $120 million. This year, KSL sold it to Omni Resorts in July.
That's right around the time the inn actually celebrated its 100th birthday with a gala attended by 26 descendants of Grove and Seely families. The event featured a performance by B.B. King.
"This is as much a part of their history as it was for all of us," Johnston-Crum said. "It was amazing to have them on the property and have them see that their ancestors created something that is far greater than even they had intended."
Thomas noted the Grove Park began a gingerbread competition that continues to grow -and help fill the hotel during its slowest season. The competition was held Nov. 18, though the approximately 150 entries will remain on display through the holidays.
While Grove Park has undergone a lot of change, Metzger said it still has a familiar feel.
"Even though it's changed hands and they update the property and add amenities, when you come into that grand hall, that lobby with that fireplace big enough for you and eight of your friends to stand in, it always sort of feels the same," she said. "It continues to impress me every time."
This picture inside the Grove Park Inn shows what the property looked like shortly after it opened its doors in 1913. It has been expanded several times since.×
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