|By Monte Mitchell, Winston-Salem Journal,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 18, 2009 --BLOWING ROCK, North Carolina
The woman got out of the car, walked up to a darkened window of the Green Park Inn and cupped her hands around her face to peer inside.
She jumped, startled at first, and then laughed, as former general manager Stephen Love waved at her from inside the lobby and motioned for her to come in and look around. She waved back, but left, her curiosity at least partially satisfied.
There's been a steady stream of the curious coming to peer at the shuttered and historic inn since a "closed" sign went on the front door and signs went up along U.S. 321 saying that the Green Park Inn will be offered for sale at public auction on July 30.
"Our hope is that someone will buy and have the resources right off to renovate the inn and not be hampered by the economic conditions," Love said.
The Green Park Inn, which had welcomed guests since 1891, closed May 25, a victim of the bad economy. Love, who had worked there since Ronnie and Ella Wrenn purchased the property in 2001, said that business had been good until the last year and a half or so, and he'd like to see the inn thrive again.
Bracky Rogers, an auctioneer with the company conducting the auction, Rogers Realty and Auction Co. of Mount Airy, said he expects the Green Park Inn to sell for $2 million to $3 million. Several potential buyers from out of state have toured the property, including people from Colorado and New Orleans.
"Somebody's going to buy a dream," Rogers said.
Because the property is on such a prime location -- three acres on the Eastern Continental Divide at the spot where travelers arrive in Blowing Rock after driving up the mountain on U.S. 321 -- people who cherish the Green Park Inn worry about a new owner tearing it down to use the property for other development.
"That we don't want anybody to even think about," said Ginny Stevens, a past president and the president-elect of the Blowing Rock Historical Society. But she's hopeful that a buyer would preserve it.
"I don't think anybody is going to buy it for the price it's going to command at auction to tear it down," Stevens said. "Much of our legacy is the grand hotels that started this community and we really need to keep those."
But the community has seen the old hotels go one by one. Mayview Manor, built in 1921, was even grander in its day than the Green Park Inn. Mayview Manor closed in 1966 and decayed for 12 years before being torn down for development.
Stevens hopes that people have learned from that.
"We're a lot smarter now than we were then," she said. "This is the last remaining grand hotel Blowing Rock has.... It's a very valuable part of our town."
The Green Park Inn was like a town of its own in its heyday when wealthy people escaped the summer heat, coming by horse up a long wilderness trail.
"The Green Park was its own city basically," Love said. "It had its own doctor, its own hairdresser, its own post office, its own ZIP code. People came here and stayed for months at a time."
People rocked on the wide front porch. Guests gambled in the casino. They played croquet and lawn tennis and went on horseback rides. They took shooting lessons from Annie Oakley.
Famous guests included Herbert Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt and Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell.
Additions have been built over the years. The inn now has more than 73,000 square feet, including 87 guestrooms. There's a parlor, library, dining room, ballroom, meeting rooms and other space.
There are also reports of resident ghosts, including a guest who never checked out.
The famous green horse that stood out front for at least the past 30 years is staying in the ballroom for now. Love said the story that's long been told is that the horse started out brown, but was painted green after people complained of cruelty after seeing what they thought was a real horse standing still in the same spot for so long.
"We always called it our horse of a different color," Love said. "The horse in many ways symbolized the Green Park. We're sure a horse of a different color. We're not your cookie-cutter hotel."
N.C. Department of Transportation plans call for a U.S. 321 widening project in Blowing Rock to begin next year, although the start date could be pushed back because of state budget problems. Right-of-way acquisition, which began in 2007, has been suspended for now.
But people in Blowing Rock worry that if a developer tears down the Green Park Inn, the change could affect an agreement with DOT that would lessen the impact of the road widening. The proposed road widening has generated at least 20 years of controversy in Blowing Rock.
In 2004, the Green Park Inn owners, town of Blowing Rock, Watauga County Board of Commissioners and other parties signed an agreement with the DOT and the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office that would reduce U.S. 321 lane widths in the Green Park Historic District from 16 to 11 feet and provide for landscaping improvements and other considerations.
Renee Glendhill-Earley, environmental review coordinator with the State Historic Preservation Office, said that the agreement would remain binding whether or not the Green Park Inn is torn down because there are other important elements in the district, including the Blowing Rock Country Club's golf course along the road.
But Glendhill-Earley said that a buyer would have strong reasons to improve the property rather than tear it down.
The Green Park Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A renovation plan has already been approved by the U.S. Department of Interior and the N.C. Historic Preservation Office. A developer who renovates the building according to the plan could be eligible for both federal and state tax credits of 20 percent.
"There's a tremendous incentive for the rehabilitation of that property," she said.
Monte Mitchell can be reached in Wilkesboro at 336-667-5691 or at email@example.com.
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