"The Grand Design" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Dorothy Draper was the most popular interior designer between 1925 and into the 1960s. Draper is the subject of the historical fiction novel, “The Grand Design” by Joy Callaway.
The setting of Callaway’s absorbing book is The Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Draper was hired to design and supervise renovations in the very place she spent many summers as a child and young adult. The history of The Greenbrier is an equally fascinating feature in the story.
Draper was the Martha Stewart or the Joanna Gaines of her time but with more sophistication and flair and without the domestic flourishes. Draper designs are bright, floral and full of different patterns. Checked black and white floors are her signature. She would have disdained the current minimalist movement.
Draper was born in 1889 to wealthy parents in New York. Dorothy’s friends were children of the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts, the Abercrombies, the DuPonts and the Tafts. Her great-grandfather’s name is on the Declaration of Independence.
Draper was married to Dr. Dan Draper, Franklin Roosevelt’s doctor who remained with him through his presidency. The Drapers had three children.
Dorothy Draper was much more interested in having a career than in being a housewife. She divorced her husband and eventually established the first interior design business in the United States. Her social circle believed her behavior and ambition to be scandalous and undignified.
Before her work began at The Greenbrier in 1946, the hotel had been used as an internment camp and a hospital for German and Italian-Americans during World War II. The buildings were in complete disrepair. Draper was given an unheard of budget for design at the time, 4.5 million dollars. Her salary was the highest ever given to a designer.
The author imagines 1908 as a summer when Dorothy falls in love with a man not of her social caliber. The romance is doomed from the start. Even when Dorothy settles for Dr. Draper, she never forgets the first love of her life. Interwoven with descriptions of traditional events at the Greenbrier in 1908 are details of Draper’s experience renovating and designing the hotel in 1946.
Hidden within the Greenbrier was a room built for secret government meetings. It was used by Martin van Buren and every president after him through the 1960s. Draper was in charge of decorating the secret room. (Eventually, the room was expanded into a bomb shelter that would house all of Congress in case of a nuclear war. When its location became known, the bunker was moved to another place. Now that bunker is a tourist attraction.)
Readers unfamiliar with Dorothy Draper will relish seeing pictures of Draper’s designs at the Greenbrier, in famous hotels and museums, even in luxury cars and jets. In spite of additions to the resort, the color scheme retains all of Draper’s original plans, thanks to Carleton Varney who bought Draper’s company and owns it today.
Just as I began reading this book, my adult daughter was enjoying a few days at The Greenbriar. It was a fortunate turn of events that I could share in her adventure by reading this book. Fans of historical fiction, interior design, and American history will find much to learn and enjoy by reading “The Grand Hotel.”