Archive for the ‘Hot Springs’ Category

The pizza man

Monday, May 8th, 2017

I was visiting with one of the civic leaders in Hot Springs recently when the subject turned to the rebirth of the Spa City’s downtown.

We began talking about a Brooklyn native who showed up in Hot Springs almost four years ago, hit the ground running and hasn’t slowed down since.

My lunch companion stated: “We’re lucky to have gotten that guy.”

“That guy” is Anthony Valinoti of DeLuca’s Pizzeria on Park Avenue.

Food enthusiasts across the state think he turns out the best pizza in Arkansas. Some have even proclaimed DeLuca’s to be among the best pizzerias in the country.

It’s quite a story for a former Wall Street banker who landed in Arkansas in 2013. At the time, he knew nothing about either Hot Springs or making pizzas.

I arrived at DeLuca’s prior to the 4 p.m. opening time on a recent Thursday. I mentioned that I had come from a lunch meeting that day, but the demonstrative Valinoti gave me a hug and still insisted on bringing me a Caesar salad along with several meatballs to snack on while we visited.

“I’m very, very lucky to have chosen this place,” he said in his thick New York accent. “I don’t think I could have made this work anywhere else. The people of Hot Springs simply refused to allow me to fail in those early days when I really didn’t know what I was doing.

“I’m not a chef. I’m a kid from a blue-collar family in Brooklyn. My style is to put my head down and get to work on whatever project I take on. I should have declared this a failed experiment and quit during the first year. But I couldn’t quit because I knew how many people in Hot Springs were pulling for us. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I’m still that way. If someone comes in here to eat, I want to make sure that we don’t let them down. I walk around the room asking them what they think. If they have a suggestion, I take it to heart.”

Valinoti, 54, decided as a child that he would one day work on Wall Street. His father was a truck driver and a policeman. Valinoti indeed worked on Wall Street for 13 years and made good money.

Something was missing, however.

Even though the paychecks were large, the work itself ceased to be rewarding. Valinoti quit his job and moved to Las Vegas. Though Sin City had its charms, Valinoti still wasn’t fulfilled. A friend from California, who developed shopping centers for a living, was visiting Las Vegas and said one day, “If it weren’t for my ex-wife, I would live in Hot Springs.”

The man told Valinoti about an old resort city in rural Arkansas that had, in a sense, been Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas — casinos, floor shows, the works. He said that the downtown area of Hot Springs was a bit down on its luck but that the place had history, charm and hospitable people.

Valinoti was intrigued.

He booked a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Little Rock the next morning, rented a car upon arrival and drove to Hot Springs. He got a room at the Arlington Hotel, walked down the street to drink at Maxine’s and soaked in the atmosphere.

“I knew immediately that I was home,” Valinoti said. “I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this place. I was overcome by its charm and felt more relaxed than I had ever felt before. I knew within a few hours that I would move here and start a business.”

In cities across the country, Valinoti had found himself frustrated with the inability to find pizzas like the ones he grew up eating in Brooklyn. He’s quick to admit that he has a short attention span and needed a new project. Valinoti began experimenting with how to make Brooklyn-style pizzas, found space in a building on a stretch of Park Avenue that has seen better days and opened the doors of DeLuca’s with six tables on Nov. 22, 2013.

He admitted to me that he locked himself in the men’s room that first afternoon before the restaurant’s doors opened.

“I was terrified,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I had the hubris to do this. The idea of feeding other people had sounded good as a general concept, but then I actually had to do it.”

Valinoti eventually unlocked the restroom door, came out and fed several hungry patrons that night. He continued to perfect his methods, especially the way he makes the dough. Within months, foodies across the state were talking about this new spot in Hot Springs.

Here’s how Stephanie Smittle began a wonderfully written feature on Valinoti in the Arkansas Times back in March: “Anthony Valinoti, owner of DeLuca’s Pizzeria at 407 Park Ave. in Hot Springs, thrives on the kind of volatility involved in making pizza, as he says, ‘the hard way.’ DeLuca’s has no freezer. It has no microwave, and it has no stand mixer — all standard equipment for reducing a restaurant’s margin of error and streamlining a production process. It has no dedicated room in which to ‘grow the dough’ (Valinoti’s words), and therefore no consistent way to sequester the fermenting mounds from the litany of things that can affect dough rise — humidity, the temperature outdoors, whether the yeast is feeling feisty that particular afternoon.

“‘If you treat it with a lot of respect, it can turn out well,’ Valinoi told me. ‘I’m not a chef. I don’t consider myself a chef. But a chef takes something that’s pretty much dead and reanimates it. Chefs are reanimators. This is what they do.’

“Valinoti is a storyteller and a gesturer. He cupped an imaginary globe of yeasty life in the air with hands covered in smudges of nonimaginary pizza dough, dusting my laptop and the table beneath it with fine flour at each firm conclusion. ‘When you put water, salt, flour and yeast in a bowl, it comes to life. And the idea behind what I’ve learned over the last there years is how do you harness that life?’

“As a kid, Valinoti would visit Di Fara Pizza in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood on Brooklyn’s Avenue J, watching the revered Dom De Marco hunched over the counter, forming discs by hand and snipping basil over the finished pies with a pair of kitchen scissors.”

Valinoti told Smittle: “He has been doing what I guess we all try to emulate at some point. Nobody really understood what it was. It was just really that good.”

When the subject turned to his previous career, he told her: “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work on Wall Street. There was something prestigious about banking, especially in New York. And that’s what I gravitated towards. … I’m very lucky in that if I lock into something, I can get to be pretty good at it. You know, it may take me a minute, but my attention span is that of a gnat so you’ve got to lock me in, and you’ve got to lock me into a project that is way above my head. That makes me keep going. That makes me keep looking for answers.”

He seems to have found the answer to making great pizzas.

An earlier Arkansas Times review described DeLuca’s pizzas this way: “After making my selection from the menu, and a very short wait, my server placed the pie on my table. This thing was like a work of art. A rainbow of colors — red, orange, white and green. Pepperoni, onions, cherry tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and fresh basil. I wasn’t sure if I should eat it or frame it.

“The first bite made me realize that this is what real pizza is. For those old enough to remember Pop Rocks candy, the candy that would pop and crack in your mouth, the sensation was the same. Only this time, instead of sweet candy flavor, what popped was the basil, the sauce, the fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, and the spicy pepperoni. The thin crust had a crisp texture to it, but a little chewy at the same time, very enjoyable. Everything has a flavor all its own, but it all comes together to make a flavor unlike any pizza I’ve had. Now you might say that this reaction was due to it being my first visit, but I assure you the reaction is the same on every visit, and there have been many, with many more still to come.”

The huge fire that consumed what remained of the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel just down the street occurred a few months after DeLuca’s opened. The power at the restaurant went out that Thursday night, and the street was blocked by emergency vehicles. But rather than being a setback to the neighborhood, the fire proved to be a wake-up call for Arkansans. People not only in Hot Springs but across the state realized that they had allowed a place that had once been the jewel of the South to deteriorate over a period of decades.

Feb. 27, 2014 — the night of the fire — was the beginning of the ongoing renaissance of downtown Hot Springs.

And DeLuca’s, which now draws customers from across the region, has been a key part of that renaissance.

The restaurant was full by 4:30 p.m. on the day I was there. I talked to a couple in a nearby parking lot who had driven from Little Rock to bring their granddaughter to DeLuca’s for the first time.

“I learn more about this city and love it more with each passing day,” Valinoti told me as I chewed on a meatball. “The Majestic fire was awful, but I saw hope and optimism in the wake of that event. Look at all of the buildings that are being sold downtown. Look at the developments that are now taking place. People said that I shouldn’t open a business on Park Avenue, but sometimes it takes an outsider to see what other people can’t see. Now there are people walking down here at night from the hotels on Central Avenue. They feel safe.

“I’m hoping to see more businesses on this street. I had a guy in here the other day who had ridden his motorcycle 112 miles just to eat here. Those kinds of stories keep me going.”

Like me, Valinoti hopes the city of Hot Springs will develop outdoor thermal pools on the Majestic site, which finally has been cleared of debris. He believes that will bring even more visitors his way.

Summing up the past four years, Valinoti said, “It’s serendipity that I’m in Hot Springs. You know, the fork in the road sometimes takes you to where you’re supposed to be.”

The restaurant is only open four days a week, which Valinoti calls the perfect schedule.

“I don’t think I could enjoy doing this seven days a week,” he said.

Valinoti lives on Lake Hamilton. He told me: “My friends have boats, and they love to take me out of the water. By Monday morning, after four days of this, I just want to be out on the lake. This is so much more satisfying to me than my work on Wall Street. My father wanted to kill me when I told him I was leaving Wall Street, but this was meant to be. There’s something beautiful about feeding people things they enjoy. And there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”

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Spring at Couchwood

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

It’s time for lunch, but Elizabeth Dober is in no hurry to eat.

She’s pointing to framed black-and-white photos on the walls of the main lodge at Couchwood, the retreat built by Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch on the shores of Lake Catherine.

Dober is particularly fascinated by a photo of Herbert Hoover that was taken in September 1927 when Couchwood was new.

The Great Flood of 1927 was ongoing, and Arkansas was one of the states hit the hardest. Hoover had run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. President Warren G. Harding later appointed him commerce secretary, and President Calvin Coolidge asked him to lead the federal response to the 1927 flood.

“In 1927, the Mississippi reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain, devastating Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” writes historian John Barry. “The statistics recounting the damage are staggering. At its widest, the river created a vast inland sea more than 75 miles across. One could travel the normally dry 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, La., by boat. Not counting the flooding of parts of cities as large as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just along the lower river alone, the homes of more than 920,000 people were damaged. The nation’s population at the time was only 120 million.

“Roughly 1 percent — perhaps more — of the entire population of the country was flooded out of their homes; 330,000 were rescued by boat from rooftops, trees, levee crowns and second stories. Hundreds of thousands of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed. No one knows the death toll — the Red Cross claimed it was only 246 but the Weather Bureau said 500, while a professional disaster expert estimated the dead in Mississippi alone at 1,000.

“But the biggest impact of the flood was less on individual communities that were inundated than on America itself. Far more than any other natural disaster, the 1927 Mississippi River flood altered the course of American history. It did this in four chief ways: It revised environmental management, propelled a dark horse to the presidency, altered the political landscape for African-Americans and expanded the role of government in crises.”

Barry writes that the 1927 flood “made Herbert Hoover president of the United States. An enormously wealthy engineer, Hoover developed and owned mines and oilfields in America, Russia, China, Australia, South America and Africa. But for all his wealth, he had no political base. How could he? Hoover had left the United States after graduating Stanford and did not return until the United States entered World War I. He had not even voted in a presidential election until 1920. Nonetheless he wanted to be president. A logistical genius, he had organized American food production and distribution during World War I and fed much of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. John Maynard Keynes said he was ‘the only man who emerged from the ordeal (of the peace conference) with an enhanced reputation.’

“He became known as the Great Humanitarian. Using his own wealth, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. His campaign was mocked, and he received no support. But President Warren G. Harding named him secretary of commerce, and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge put him in charge of the response to the flood.

“The flood was the biggest story of the year and it lasted for weeks, through several crests, the rescue of populations and recovery planning. Hoover and his staff worked diligently to exploit the coverage; no newspaper was too small. Hoover personally communicated with weekly papers from Arizona and Texas to Washington state, Nebraska and Indiana. In evaluating his strategy, the present-day political commentator James Carville concluded that ‘Hoover had a better press operation than any politician I know today.’ Routinely, the press hailed Hoover as a hero and a savior; a California paper proclaimed, ‘He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. … In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’

“Coverage like that prompted Hoover to confide to a friend, ‘I shall be the nominee, probably. It is practically inevitable.'”

Hoover indeed captured the presidency in 1928.

Those who are familiar with Arkansas history won’t be surprised to learn that Harvey Couch was among Hoover’s confidants.

Born in 1877 near the Arkansas-Louisiana border in the Columbia County community of Calhoun, Couch took a job at age 21 as a mail clerk for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and quickly moved up the ladder.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Patricia Laster described Couch as the man who “helped bring Arkansas from an agricultural economy in the early 20th century to more of a balance between agriculture and industry. His persuasiveness with investors from New York and his ingenuity, initiative and energy had a positive effect on Arkansas’ national reputation among businessmen. He ultimately owned several railroad lines and a telephone company and was responsible for what became the state’s largest utility, AP&L.”

Laster wrote that Couch’s first job away from the family farm was “to fire the boiler of a local cotton gin’s gas steam engine and bring it up to the required pressure. He earned 50 cents a day. While waiting to hear about his application to the Railway Mail Service, he became a drugstore clerk. His hard work and honesty prompted his boss to assign him the additional task of collecting overdue accounts.

“At age 21, he was hired as a mail clerk on the St. Louis-Texarkana route of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and was soon transferred to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. At a water stop, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a pole — not for the telegraph line but as part of a long-distance telephone system. After questioning the linemen, he saw a chance to help bring phone service to places like Magnolia. He paid a colleague $50 to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Enlisting his brother Pete as crew leader to move and set up poles and a postmaster in Louisiana to become a partner, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Co. The line expanded, and Couch bought his partner’s share of the business.

“Couch’s expanding telephone system took him to Athens, La., where he met Jessie Johnson. They married on Oct. 4, 1904. The couple had five children. In 1911, Couch sold NLTC, which had 1,500 miles of line and 50 exchanges in four states, to Southwestern Bell for more than $1 million. Too young to retire, he was determined to build another company. In 1914, at the age of 35, he bought from Jack Wilson the only electric transmission line in the state, which ran 22 miles between Malvern and Arkadelphia. The system ran only at night.

“Sixteen years later, bolstered by hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River, the company that Couch named Arkansas Power & Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties as well as 3,000 farmers. The company, now called Entergy, serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

Couch went on to create Louisiana Power & Light Co. and Mississippi Power & Light Co. He built the country’s first modern gas-fueled power plant near Monroe, La.

On the Ouachita River, he built Remmel and Carpenter dams, forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine (which was named after his only daughter).

His main home and business offices were in Pine Bluff. Laster wrote that the only luxury he allowed himself was Couchwood.

The famous humorist Will Rogers was among those who visited Couchwood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped by in 1936 while he was in Arkansas to help the state celebrate its centennial.

The compound covers 170 acres and remains in the Couch family. Elizabeth Dober is the granddaughter of Harvey Couch. Her father was Harvey Jr., who went by Don. She lives in Little Rock and has helped manage Couchwood for the past couple of decades.

Dober’s mother was from a prominent old south Louisiana sugar-growing family, the Levert family. The Levert Cos., established in 1915, still own a planation mansion near St. Martinville, La., known as the St. John House. The house, constructed of Louisiana cypress and surrounded by giant live oak trees, was built about 1828 by a wealthy planter named Alexandre DeClouet. Jean Batiste Levert and Louis Bush of New Orleans acquired the plantation and the home in July 1885. In February 1887, Bush sold his interest to Levert. The plantation has been owned by the Levert interests since that date.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Don Couch went to work for a bank in New Orleans and met his wife in the Crescent City.

In a 2014 story in the Levert family newsletter, Dober said: “I sometimes do feel I am married to Couchwood. … I arrange for repairmen such as plumbers and electricians, but a caretaker nearby meets with them. … I pay all the bills, fill out tax forms and get the paperwork ready for the CPA. I really enjoy the work at Couchwood because I feel like I am helping to preserve it.”

When Arkansas Business devoted much of a 2013 issue to Entergy’s 100th birthday, Dober told the publication: “Electric lights, bridges and promoting Arkansas were among grandfather’s favorite things.”

Dober refers to her grandfather as Daddy Couch, though she doesn’t remember him. Couch died of heart disease in 1941 — two years before Dober was born — in a house named Little Pine Bluff at Couchwood. Following funeral services in the city of Pine Bluff, a special train took his body to Magnolia to be buried adjacent to his parents. Couch’s private train car — named Magnolia — is now on the Couchwood grounds.

Hoover was meeting with Couch in 1927 because Gov. John Martineau had appointed Couch as the flood relief director for Arkansas. The Great Flood of 1927 was followed by the drought of 1930-31. Couch was appointed state relief chairman for that event and worked in Washington to help Arkansas obtain more than $20 million in federal loans for farmers.

“Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board for the president’s newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corp., which operated from 1931-56,” Laster wrote. “The RFC was the president’s way of getting the government involved. The new program’s mission was to strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries and stimulate employment. Couch was one of seven directors of the RFC, and he moved to Washington, D.C., for three years. He served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only Hoover appointees to stay on after Roosevelt was elected.”

“Look at Hoover with that tie on,” Dober says while admiring the 1927 photo. “They say he would go fishing in a coat and tie. Daddy Couch offered to take him fishing when he was here, but it was a Sunday and Hoover said, ‘The Hoovers don’t fish on Sundays.'”

There also are framed photos in the main lodge at Couchwood of well-known figures who have visited the compound in the decades since Couch’s death, including former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

During the 1930s, Harvey Couch would host what he called the Annual Round-Up, bringing together business and government leaders from across the region. A framed program from the March 1938 event gives these directions: “When you come in the big gate, forget all your troubles. Be sure to sign the register. Couchwood is proud of its guests. Go to bed when you like and arise when you please. At meals, take as many helpings as you desire. If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Stay as long as you like and return soon. Everything is off the record.”

The main lodge has eight rooms and can sleep more than 20 people. A second house named Calhoun was built soon afterward. Its claim to fame is that visitors can fish off the porch. Little Pine Bluff was the next to be constructed, and Remmelwood (Couch’s only daughter, Catherine, married Pratt Remmel) was built after that.

The other four Couch children were boys — Johnson Olin Couch, Don Couch, Kirke Couch and Bill Couch. Catherine Couch Remmel died in January 2006 at age 87, the last of her generation. A fifth generation of the Couch family now enjoys Couchwood with the largest crowds traditionally turning up for the Fourth of July.

When Harvey Couch was presiding over the compound, rumors would spread about the identities of important figures visiting Couchwood. Time magazine reported one year that two visitors had arrived in a plane that landed on Lake Catherine.

The main lodge was designed by John Parks Almand of Little Rock, who was part of the team that designed Little Rock Central High School. Following the school’s completion in 1927, the American Institute of Architects described it as “the most beautiful high school in America.” Almand also designed the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs, which was the tallest building in the state for almost 30 years after opening in 1930.

“Almand worked in a variety of architectural styles during his 50-year career, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival and California Mission,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said of the architect. “A stickler for detail, Almand recommended the finest materials to his clients and required a high level of workmanship from builders. On more than one occasion, he told a contractor to tear out and replace work that he deemed inferior.”

At Couchwood, Almand used red cedar logs shipped in by train from Oregon.

Harvey Couch later hired sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez to design planters, outdoor seating and even a drink cooler disguised as a tree stump. Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is probably best known for his work on the Old Mill in North Little Rock. Developer Justin Matthews brought Rodriguez to Arkansas in 1932 to work in Matthews’ Lakewood housing development.

“Couchwood offers the best collection of his work in the domestic sculpture category,” said the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Helpers built concrete footings for his sculptures, and the underpinnings were made with reinforcing bars, rods, mesh screen wire and rubble, held together with a rough coat of concrete. Metal materials were bound together with wire, not welded. Working outdoors, the sculptor himself applied the surface coat of smooth concrete or ‘neat’ cement, a term for pure Portland cement. To imitate nature, varied textures were created using his hands, forks, spoons or handmade tools. Secretive about his methodology, the nomadic Rodriguez made no preliminary sketches or drawings and did not record the ingredients of the chemical washes used to tint his sculptures.”

Dober delights in showing off Couchwood and talking about “Daddy Couch.”

On display are Indian artifacts uncovered when Lake Catherine was constructed in the 1920s, a wall devoted to AP&L history and even the plaque presented on Harvey Couch Day in Pine Bluff in 1923.

Massachusetts may have the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, but Arkansas has Couchwood on Lake Catherine.

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Wide-open days in the Spa City

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

It has been fun writing about the colorful characters who loved to hang out in Hot Springs.

One of the most colorful was Rodney Fertel of New Orleans, who became known as the Gorilla Man after running unsuccessfully for mayor of the Crescent City on the promise that he would buy a pair of gorillas for the Audubon Zoo.

Rodney’s wife from 1947-58 was Ruth Fertel, the founder of the Ruth’s Chris chain of steakhouses.

Their son, Randy Fertel, wrote a book about his parents titled “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.” It features a photo of Rodney and Ruth walking down Central Avenue in Hot Springs in 1948.

Here’s part of what Randy Fertel wrote in the book (published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011), which I would highly recommend you read: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals, and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up. One can almost see the ‘insouciant challenge of his loping walk,’ as Terry Teachout, Louis Armstrong’s recent biographer, paints it. Dad shared with Pops the same neighborhood, New Orleans’ South Rampart Street.

“It is three years since the end of the Second World War in which Rodney Fertel (ne Weinberg) did not serve (4-F for reasons that have always been obscure). It’s two years since Ruth Fertel (nee Udstad) graduated from Louisiana State University with honors in physics and chemistry. She is 21, he is 27. In less than a year, their firstborn son, Jerry, will enter the world. In two years, I will arrive.

“They come from a watery world and they’ve found another here. In the hills to their left and right are Hot Springs Mountain and West Mountain where 47 underground springs spew a million gallons of water a day, no matter the weather. Carbon dating shows that 4,000 years ago the water fell as rain upon the Ouachita forest of central Arkansas. Since then it has seeped slowly down through the earth’s crust until, superheated by the earth’s core, it gushes rapidly to the surface, a constant 143 degrees Fahrenheit. Mountain Valley Water, Rodney’s lifelong favorite brand, was founded nearby. Since the dawn of time, spring floods have coursed south, building with alluvial ooze the deep Mississippi Delta where Ruth was born.”

There’s something about Hot Springs that inspires good writing like this.

In the spring of 1962, Robert H. Boyle would write in Sports Illustrated: “Everything considered, there isn’t anything in the world like Hot Springs — or the people in it. This is not to say the town couldn’t be improved. Part of it could use a couple of coats of paint; there are junky signs and assorted clutter disfiguring some of the land around Lake Hamilton; and a local restaurant may mar a good meal by serving the Chianti ice cold. But perhaps it would be better not to tamper with Hot Springs.”

It once was common for photographers to take photos of those walking up and down Central Avenue and then sell the photos. You’ve probably seen those black-and-white shots of people strolling the avenue. In the background of many of the photographs is the neon sign for a restaurant named Hammons.

Randy Fertel writes: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises ‘One Day Out of the Ocean,’ meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.

“Rodney has not yet developed his taste for political clowning. His Gorilla Man campaign for New Orleans mayor, with its catchy slogan — ‘Don’t vote for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a Gorilla’ — lies 20 years in the future.

“Ruth has not yet read the classified ad that will, in 1965, lead her to borrow $22,000 to purchase a little steakhouse with 17 tables near the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. My parents were married just a few years, from 1947 to 1958. They each had a certain glamour.”

They were in the right place in 1948 for people with glamour. As they like to say in Hot Springs, it was Vegas before there was a Vegas.

When the photo was taken, the 20-year reign of Leo Patrick McLaughlin as Hot Springs’ mayor had just come to an end. Sid McMath was leading the GI revolt against the McLaughlin machine. McMath had been elected prosecuting attorney (and would be elected governor in 1948), and a grand jury began an investigation into the McLaughlin administration in March 1947. McLaughlin announced he would not run again. He was indicted on numerous charges but never convicted.

Wendy Richter, the archivist at Ouachita Baptist University, writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “McLaughlin ran for mayor in 1926 on a platform that promised Hot Springs would be an open town. He also pledged to improve city streets. McLaughlin delivered on his campaign promises. He directed work that paved miles of streets and, most notably, he allowed illegal gambling. McLaughlin also orchestrated the Arkansas Legislature’s approval of the reopening of Oaklawn Park in 1934 after a 15-year hiatus.

“During McLaughlin’s two decades as mayor from 1927-47, only one person ran against him. Prior to each election during his administration, city employees would be given a ‘pink slip’ to share with friends and family, naming the candidates favored by the McLaughlin machine. Therefore, candidates appearing on the slip were assured support even though the names of many of the people who voted for them could be found only in cemeteries. McLaughlin’s ability to deliver votes made him a powerhouse in state politics. All he asked was that Hot Springs be left alone to operate as an open town.

“McLaughlin was a showman. He drew attention from tourists and locals alike when he rode daily down Central Avenue in a sulky pulled by his horses, Scotch and Soda, while wearing a riding costume with a red carnation in his lapel. This showmanship surfaced in his political speeches as well; he often shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves as a speech intensified.

“Underworld characters frequented Hot Springs during the McLaughlin administration. Men such as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello visited the spa town with the understanding that they would exhibit only their best behavior. The nation’s gangsters utilized Hot Springs as a sanctuary or retreat; McLaughlin and his associates welcomed them as long as they did not bother the locals and left their criminal activities behind.

“Local businessmen managed the town’s gambling operations under the watchful eyes of McLaughlin and his associates. The owners and managers appeared regularly in municipal court and helped finance city government by paying fines considered to be license fees for their operations. This income spurred the development of Hot Springs, which reached its peak as a health resort during his tenure as mayor. The spa’s bathing industry hit its zenith in the mid-1940s when visitors enjoyed more than a million baths annually.”

Randy Fertel describes the Spa City this way in his book: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and the Strip still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents; no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its Diamond Jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and an inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her thoroughbred trainer’s license.”

Randy Fertel writes about Owney Madden, a man he describes as “a gangster from Liverpool by way of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Owney Madden, or ‘Owney the Killer’ as he was called, had turned the Cotton Club in Harlem into a success before going upriver to spend seven years in Sing Sing — which didn’t prevent owning a casino in unregulated Hot Springs. To Mae West, fellow denizen of Hell’s Kitchen whose career he bankrolled and whom he dated, Madden was ‘sweet but oh so vicious.'”

Fertel writes that Hot Springs was “favored by gangsters both Jewish and Italian: Louis Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Joy Adonis, Frank Costello. Luciano fled the Waldorf-Astoria for Hot Springs in 1936 when Tom Dewey, district attorney of New York City and future governor of New York, indicted him for prostitution. It took 20 Arkansas Rangers to surround and take Luciano. … Still in the honeymoon glow, Rodney this time splurges on a room at the Arlington Hotel, looming beyond the camera’s sight at the head of Central Avenue. Al Capone at one time kept a fourth-floor corner suite overlooking the Southern Club, his favorite, just across the street. He played at a raised poker table in order to command a clear view of the entire room. When Capone strode down Bathhouse Row, his goons surrounded him, two in front, two behind, and one on either side.”

Rodney’s grandparents in New Orleans purchased a vacation home at 359 Whittington Avenue in Hot Springs, and Rodney later would live here. Old-timers at the Hot Springs Country Club still tell stories about the Gorilla Man.

Randy Fertel writes of that house on Whittington: “There, I will first hear a woodpecker and there, 30 years later, Telemachus-like but only half-wanting reconciliation, I will seek my father and find the door ajar, the house empty, filled only with the rainwater that falls through the hole in the roof and the floor beneath it.”

Casino gambling was still going strong in Hot Springs in March 1964 when The New York Times published a story by Wallace Turner headlined “Hot Springs: Gamblers’ Haven.”

Turner wrote: “The gamblers of Hot Springs are locked in a struggle with the federal government to maintain their control of the biggest illegal gambling operation in the United States. The enterprises flourish with the support of the 30,000 residents of Hot Springs. Gambling has been a major feature of life here since Civil War times. The gambling places are wide open. They are on the pattern developed in the legal casinos operated in Nevada. The conduct of gambling is defined by Arkansas statute as a felony, punishable by up to three years in the state penitentiary. But no gambling.

“The state liquor laws also are ignored in Hot Springs. Last month the investigations by federal agents were stepped up, and top officials of the Department of Justice have announced that they intend to push still harder. … Local officials and the gamblers themselves in Hot Springs insist that there is no connection with national underworld syndicates.”

John Ermey, the Hot Springs police chief, told the newspaper: “The day anybody brings me any reliable information that the Mafia or any out-of-state people are involved in Hot Springs is the day I’ll get on the radio and television and in the press and take the battle to the public to attempt to bring about a complete reform. If there ever was any, I don’t know of it. The fellows who run the two big clubs were born and raised here.”

The Times reported: “There are two main gambling combines. The names of members of each group are well known to the officials who have control of law enforcement here. By Nevada standards, the operation is small. One Las Vegas Strip casino will win several times as much in a year as the total winnings of the three major casinos operated here. Estimates of winnings here are difficult to get. But they must be sizable. One place pays up to $10,000 a week for the supper club entertainment that it furnishes in a frank imitation of the Nevada casinos. Last week, Mickey Rooney was a main attraction. Gambling provides about 500 jobs in Hot Springs.”

It was noted in the story that Ermey, a Hot Springs native, lived next to Madden for years. Madden was 72 at the time the story was published.

“Madden for many years provided an argument for observers that gambling activities here had roots in other states,” Turner wrote. “Madden came here on his release from Sing Sing in 1933, married an Arkansas girl, had an interest in all bookmaking carried on here, then control of a race-wire service, visited with his friends when they came through either for the baths or to hide out and owned part of one of the casinos. Now he lives more or less in retirement, visiting almost daily with friends in the Southern Club.”

Turner reported that federal agents had tried 18 months earlier to shut down the Southern Club, but a federal grand jury refused to indict the owners.

“Since then the gambling operators have tried to stay out of interstate commerce,” Turner wrote. “They are at ease with local and state law enforcement. But they are frightened of the federal authorities. Their advertising never mentions gambling, although they buy radio spots to promote their supper club shows. The greater part of their business comes from outside Arkansas. The business people here are convinced that if the gamblers were put out of business, the community would suffer. They believe that Hot Springs’ economic health is dependent on the continuance of gambling. … The bathhouse business has declined because of changes in medical practice. This slack has been taken up by persons who come here to gamble. They also come here to drink for Arkansas has a liquor law that forbids the sale of mixed drinks. No one pays any attention to it in Hot Springs.”

The story pointed out that the city had a tax on gambling and liquor operations even though they were technically illegal.

“Places that serve mixed drinks pay $100 a month license fees to the city,” Turner wrote. “This goes up to $150 next year. Some other current fees include slot machines, $10 a month each; bingo, $100 a month; bookmakers, $200 a month; businesses that specialize in distributing results of races and sports events, $50 a month. The ordinance describes ‘places where craps, blackjack, roulette, chuck-a-luck, poker, rummy or other games of chance’ are played. This year places with more than five tables are taxed $500 a month and smaller places $300.”

The Times described downtown this way: “The venerable Arlington Hotel, an underworld meeting spot for many years, sits at the end of Bathhouse Row. Across the street is the Southern Club. A great building activity goes on here. About 1,000 new motel and hotel rooms are just finished, under construction or planned. Up the street, The Vapors draws the nightly gambling crowd, and first-class rooms are hard to get now that the racing season is open. Many of the 2 million visitors attracted to Hot Springs each year come during the seven weeks of racing. … The leading gambler in Hot Springs is Dane Harris, a tall and husky man of 46 years who exudes confidence and competence.”

Harris told the newspaper: “Public opinion in Hot Springs is for this. This business of gambling in Hot Springs is so old and so ingrained in the public’s mind that it isn’t looked on as a degrading business. … As far as the local people are concerned, someone is going to run the gambling, and it can be us as long as we run it right. If we don’t, we’re going out.”

Turner concluded his story this way: “So the gamblers have the public officials at bay, except those from the federal government. The gamblers calculate that they can beat federal intervention by staying out of interstate commerce.”

That all changed in November 1966 when Arkansas voters made Winthrop Rockefeller the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Already one of the country’s richest men, Rockefeller didn’t need payoffs from the gambling interests in Hot Springs. He began shutting down gambling soon after taking office in 1967. It was the end of an era for Hot Springs.

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The hottest spring

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

A friend who was well aware of my love of Hot Springs and the characters who have called it home through the years sent me a copy of an article that ran in the March 19, 1962, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The story was written by Robert H. Boyle, who lived on the banks of the Hudson River in New York and often wrote about fishing.

Sports Illustrated had published its first issue in August 1954 and become known for quality writing. The cover of the 1962 issue containing the Hot Springs story featured the UCLA basketball team, and the cover price was 25 cents.

The headline read: “The hottest spring in Hot Springs: That’s the forecast for this jumping Arkansas town where gambling is wide open, the track is fast and the fishing is fine.”

Spring remains prime time for tourism in the Spa City — Oaklawn Park is holding its annual Racing Festival of the South next week — but in 1962 the gambling machines were spread across the city rather than being confined to Oaklawn as is now the case.

Boyle wrote of men with nicknames such as Bones Martin, The Dreamer and Amarillo Slim.

“Atlantic City Red, the pool hustler, was there, though he kept denying his identity,” Boyle wrote. “‘You’re the 20th guy who’s confused me with him,’ he said, feigning innocence. His confrere, Daddy Warbucks, was expected there any minute. Tiny, the ‘heavyman,’ or bouncer, at The Vapors, was there, and the Round Man was out shooting at the golf course. Tommy Freeman, ex-welterweight champion of the world, was there, and so was a little geezer of 94, Cap’n Joe Piggott, who said he had been Teddy Roosevelt’s bodyguard. Col. Reed Landis, son of the late Judge Landis, the baseball commissioner, was there, and so was Lon Warneke, who won 192 games for the Cardinals and Cubs. Texas millionaires were there, along with some moonshiners from the Possum Kingdom in the hills nearby. Chicago cloak-and-suiters were there, to say nothing of arthritics from St. Joe, Mo.

“These and many more piled into the little city of 36,000 that snuggles in a valley of the Ouachita Mountains. The most unusual spa in the United States, Hot Springs is also, pound for pound, the greatest sporting town anywhere. Last week marked the middle of the town’s traditional spring season, and by all odds this one shapes up as the hottest in history — unless the FBI interferes. The FBI, you see, was also there. The only people who were leaving were the carnival folk who winter in town; they were outward bound for the Seattle World’s Fair and other midways near and far.

“Hot Springs, sometimes celebrated as the Paris of the Bible Belt, attracts characters and crowds galore because it has something for almost everyone. ‘Free Beer Tomorrow’ flashes a neon sign over one saloon. At times it seems as though the town was dreamed up in a collaboration of W.C. Fields and the Mayo brothers. Besides legal betting on the horses at Oaklawn Park, there’s illegal gambling — craps, roulette, chuck-a-luck, bingo, blackjack, slots, you name it — at the lavish casinos. There’s bathing in the radioactive waters from the hot springs at the Quapaw and other bathhouses along the Row on Central Avenue, bow-and-arrow shooting at Crystal Springs, where the National Archery Association holds its annual championship, superb fishing in the nearby countryside, sailing and skin-diving at lakes Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita, championship cock fighting not too far away, coon hunting in the mountains and good jazz in the Skyline Lounge, where John Puckett plays the piano, and the Black Orchid, where Charles Porter, piano, and Reggie Cravens, bass, hold forth until 5 a.m.”

Puckett played the piano for diners in the Venetian Room of the Arlington Hotel until shortly before his death in January.

The Reggie Cravens Combo played in the Arlington lobby on a regular basis in later years.

“Hot Springs has lured people since time began,” Boyle wrote in 1962. “Warring Indian tribes used to gather there in holy truce to partake of the waters bubbling from the earth. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was really looking for these springs when he was chasing after the Fountain of Youth. In 1832, the U.S. Congress recognized the therapeutic value of the water by setting aside four square miles with the 47 springs as a federal preserve. As far as anyone knows, the water has always flowed steadily from its unknown underground source at a rate of almost a million gallons a day, with an average temperature of 143 degrees.

“‘An unutterable, unspeakable, awesome miracle,’ intones Nate Schoenfeld, a local lawyer and bath booster, braced at attention, hat over heart.

“A National Park Service plant cools the water to body temperature and pipes it into the bathhouses, where private concessionaires, operating under strict lease from the government, serve it up to customers by the tubful. The water not only has a favorable effect on arthritis, bursitis and rheumatism, but it’s also most relaxing for the visitor un-afflicted with anything save a hangover or the tensions of modern life. The peak of bliss comes when the attendant pulls the plug after your daily 15-minute soaking. As the water surges down the drain, you are plastered to the sides of the tub like a wet leaf on a curbstone.

“The reputation of the spa built the town of Hot Springs. It was one of the first spring training sites for baseball teams. As early as 1886, the Chicago White Stockings repaired there to ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ picked up from winter ‘lushing.’ Boxers came down by droves, from John L. Sullivan and Battling Nelson to Harry Greb and Jersey Joe Walcott.

“In the 1930s and ’40s, Hot Springs was notorious as a sanctuary for gangsters on the lam. Pretty Boy Floyd stayed a spell, and so did the Alvin Karpis gang. They had the freedom of the city; indeed, a phone call from the mayor’s office is reputed to have triggered the Kansas City massacre. The mayor was Leo Patrick McLaughlin, an evil rogue who refused to let the kids in town have a playground. He preferred that they continue to loiter in pool halls. Known as Dixie’s Jimmy Walker, Leo always sported a fresh carnation in his lapel, wore his hat brim up in front and down in back and paraded around town in a carriage drawn by two hackney ponies named Scotch and Soda. His only advice to the gangsters was, ‘Check your irons at the state line.’

“McLaughlin met his downfall in 1946 when a group of GIs, led by Sid McMath, an ex-Marine officer who later became governor of the state, and Nate Schoenfeld, a onetime Syracuse halfback and Harvard Law School graduate, rallied an independent party that defeated the crooked machine. The GIs were reformers but not bluenoses. They closed down the gambling, purging it of Leo’s cronies, but after McMath became governor, it opened up again. The people wanted it that way.”

I grew up 35 miles from Hot Springs. It was my “big city” during the 1960s and 1970s when I was a boy, a seemingly exotic place filled with exotic people. There were the auction houses on Central Avenue, the ethnic restaurants and the places intended for adults only. I was a newspaper junkie (I still am) and was amazed that one could buy a copy of that day’s Chicago Tribune in the Arlington lobby. Large numbers of people from the Chicago area still vacationed in Hot Springs back then.

A half century ago, Winthrop Rockefeller, the state’s new governor, began shutting down the illegal gambling operations. Downtown Hot Springs fell into an era of decline that only recently has begun to abate. But in 1962, downtown was hopping.

Schoenfeld told Boyle: “The best way to govern is to do a hell of a lot of leavin’ alone. The people are the ultimate repository of what the good God has put in them. The gambling is home-owned and operated. There’s no hoodlum element, no oppression, no scum. No one forces himself on anyone else. There is no guy around here with greasy hair and a Mafia smile. The people are capable, clean, decent, friendly. This place reflects the quality, character and charm of all of us. This place has got roots. It’s 24 hours of happiness.”

The three big casinos were the Southern Club, the Belvedere and The Vapors.

Boyle wrote: “All have nightclubs. Jan Garber and his orchestra play regularly for dancing at the Belvedere throughout the season. In addition, there are about half a dozen smaller gambling places. … All the gambling houses in the city pay a local tax, $500 a month for what the law defines simply as ‘a large place’ and $200 a month for ‘a small place.’ When the city fathers passed this law in 1958, they noted, ‘It is not the intention of the City Council to legalize any of the operations, but if same are conducted, taxes shall be paid.’ The tax money goes into the Hot Springs Municipal Auditorium and Civic Improvement Fund, and this year the city clerk expects to collect $80,000. A few years ago the town, led by the local state senator with the wondrous name of Q. Byrum Hurst, tried to get the Legislature to legalize the gambling, but a handful of rural representatives helped beat the bill. By custom and tradition, the governor of Arkansas keeps hands off Hot Springs. The state needs the tourists for its economy.

“A spokesman for the gamblers is Dane Harris, 43, president and general manager of The Vapors, a partner in the Belvedere and an enthusiastic member of the Chamber of Commerce. A boyish-looking six-footer with a crew cut, Harris could pass for a young college professor. ‘Of course this town’s illegal,’ he says, with candor. ‘But it’s been running open for years. People expect it and want it. This is strictly a local operation, has not been anything else and will not be anything else. This is a different type of element. Check the police records for the lack of prostitution and narcotics. Probably our own interest in gambling is more of an interest in it as business than gambling for its own sake. It looked like probably one of the few things that could be big enough to build the town on.’

“The Vapors, which books such acts as Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Andrews Sisters and Jane Russell, has 200 employees, and Harris hesitates to think about what would happen to them and the town, and his partners and himself, if the FBI brought a case against the casinos. ‘We’re fixin’ to build a new auditorium here,’ he says. ‘If there were no funds from the amusement tax, that would not be possible.'”

Boyle described Oaklawn Park this way back in 1962: “Oaklawn itself is a charming little track with a nine-hole golf course in the infield. Golfers played there opening day, but they are usually barred when the races are on for fear a slice will conk a horse. Flanking the old wooden clubhouse are glass-enclosed, steam-heated grandstands. ‘The first in the world,’ says John Cella proudly. Ordinarily Cella is a traditionalist. Instead of using a car to haul the starting gate around, he uses a team of Clydesdales.

“Although Cella has been coming down to Hot Springs for years, he never fails to be delighted by the varieties of life on exhibit in the town. ‘I don’t know of any place like it,’ he says. ‘It has a unique flavor all its own.’ As a case in point, he cites the sermon Father Mac, the assistant pastor at St. John’s, delivered at mass a couple of Sundays ago. From the pulpit, Father Mac said he had been out at the track a few days before and noticed a man who kept staring at him after one race. Finally the man came up to him and said, ‘Father, you cost me $100.’ ‘How could that be?’ asked Father Mac. ‘Well, father,’ the man said, ‘when the horses were parading to the post I saw you blessing the No. 9 horse. I bet him, and he finished last. ‘Son,’ said Father Mac, ‘I wasn’t blessing him — I was giving him the last rites.'”

Boyle also described the country club and the characters who hung out there: “The flavor of the town not only extends to but permeates the Hot Springs Golf and Country Club, where the annual Hot Springs Open is played in May. Only this country club could have a teaching pro like Gib Sellers, a onetime golf hustler known as the Round Man. For years the Round Man hustled with the best, often as a baby-faced kid in partnership with Titanic Thompson, the great con artist. When they traveled through the Midwest together, Thompson liked to set up the suckers for killing by airily pointing toward Sellers, who had only two woods in a dilapidated bag, and say, ‘I’ll just take that kid over there and play you two guys.’

“A Hot Springs native, Sellers practiced hour after hour on the local course, trying to look bad, and he trimmed everyone who came in for a game, even the other hustlers. ‘No hustler ever came in here and went away happy,’ he says with a smile. ‘They all got beat here. There wasn’t a player in the world who could beat me here. I shot that thing anywhere from six to eight under par. My best round was a 62, playing five guys low ball.’

“When not hustling, the Round Man played with the gangsters who used to frequent Hot Springs in battalion strength. ‘They had a truce when they came here,’ he says. ‘They were real gentlemen here.’ The best golfer among them was a gent known as Phil — he used sundry last names — who shot around par. Joe Adonis was in the high 70s, Ralph (Bottles) Capone around 80, Frank Costello between 80 and 82 and Lucky Luciano high man with 95.”

Boyle closed his story by quoting Nate Schoenfeld: “We have bounty. We have many things no one else has. We want to share it with all the world. We invite you.”

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Runyonesque track characters

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Steven Crist, who retired last year as editor of the Daily Racing Form, is the son of the late film critic Judith Crist. He studied English at Harvard, joined the staff of the undergraduate humor publication the Harvard Lampoon and fell in love with racing the summer following his junior year.

Several years ago in a story in his alma mater’s alumni magazine, Crist talked about how he went with a friend to a dog track near Boston known as Wonderland. He called it a “charming little place with a festive feeling — the animals, lots of people. … I felt right at home the first night.”

Late that summer, Crist discovered thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs and spent every day until the fall either at Wonderland or Suffolk.

I love Crist’s explanation of why he spent his career writing about thoroughbreds and the people who inhabit the tracks where they run: “The stats and numbers stuff is there, plus the animals, the gambling and the weird subculture. The racetrack is … well, like people who ran away and joined the circus.”

I think about that racetrack subculture as the Racing Festival of the South approaches at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

As a college student, I learned to appreciate thoroughbred racing as much as Crist, though our backgrounds are vastly different. He was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Harvard. I was raised along the Ouachita River in Arkadelphia and attended Ouachita Baptist University. But each January through April, I had racing at Oaklawn.

I was the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my college years, and that allowed me access to Oaklawn’s press box and the fascinating characters who inhabited it.

The elevator ride to the press box was narrated by Alex Blattner, who grew up in Chicago, spent a career working for Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and then retired to Hot Springs Village. During the race meet, Blattner worked as an elevator operator and gave memorable descriptions of each floor.

In the press box, I was greeted daily by the “hi ya” of Daily Racing Form correspondent Don Grisham, a Hot Springs native who had watched races through a fence as a child. Grisham, who died in 2014 at age 84, joined the Racing Form in the late 1950s and spent almost 35 years there. He never tired of reminding me that he too had been a Daily Siftings Herald sports editor when he was a student at what’s now Henderson State University.

There were other interesting folks in that press box, some of whom just went by their nicknames. There were the Muldoon brothers, the Beer Man and a couple of silent characters whose names I never knew.

I finished college in December 1981 and went to work in the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jeff Krupsaw, who has long been the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s deputy sports editor, was covering racing in those days. One of my first assignments was to help Krupsaw put together a special tabloid that would run in advance of the race meet. We spent a glorious week driving to Hot Springs prior to daylight each day, conducting interviews during morning workouts and then having big breakfasts at the track kitchen before returning to Little Rock to write.

Just before the 1982 race meet began, Krupsaw accepted a job with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Wally Hall, who was early in his tenure as Democrat sports editor, called me in and informed me that I would be the newspaper’s chief Oaklawn writer since I had covered the track on an almost daily basis during my college years.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette had heated up by 1982, and because there was so much space in the Democrat sports section, I was encouraged to produce feature stories on things that interested me around the track. I was, of course, also writing about the races, but I didn’t have the knowledge and contacts that the Gazette’s Randy Moss had. So I also wrote about people such as Blattner the elevator operator, the track’s veteran shoeshine man, the ladies who worked at the oyster bar and more.

No place harbors more colorful characters than a thoroughbred track.

No place.

I was convinced that I had found a job I would hold onto for many years.

Oaklawn is a particularly special place, a family-owned track in an era of corporate ownership.

“Even before the Civil War, the former pasture where Oaklawn now stands in Hot Springs was home to impromptu races between local farm boys riding their fastest ponies,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Today the track is Arkansas’ only thoroughbred horse racing venue and the lone remaining gambling center in a city once known as much for its casinos as for its famous thermal baths. The popularity of Sportsman’s Park, built on the southeastern edge of Hot Springs in the early 1890s, sparked an interest in developing the sport of thoroughbred horse racing in the area. Following the 1903 repeal of anti-gambling laws, Essex Park was built in 1904.

“Charles Dugan, Dan Stuart and John Condon — owners of the Southern Club — decided to build a racetrack on a site closer to downtown. In 1904, they formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club and began construction shortly afterward. The name Oaklawn came from the rural community in which the track would be built, which in turn took its name from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler to the area, called his home, around which a large stand of ancient oaks stood.

“Oaklawn Park opened on Feb. 15, 1905, and prevailed as the lone remaining horse racing venue by 1907. The original venue reportedly cost $500,000 and could seat 1,500 spectators. It included innovations such as a glass-enclosed grandstand and steam heat, one of the first racetracks in the country with either.”

The Southern Club that was owned by Dugan, Stuart and Condon had its own intriguing history. It was established in 1893 and by the 1930s was known as the place where the visiting gangsters would gamble in the evening. The building, which now houses Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

“At the end of the 19th century, Hot Springs experienced tremendous growth as a health resort and spa,” Eric Segovis writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One of the buildings constructed during this period was the private club of Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart, the Southern Club. As early as 1910, the Southern Club ranked among the Spa City’s most popular gambling houses, along with the Indiana and the Arkansas clubs. The Southern Club catered to a diverse clientele of locals and tourists during Host Springs’ heyday as a health resort and gambling center. Among other notable customers, gangster boss Al Capone frequented the Southern Club during the 1920s and 1930s. He became a frequent poker player at the club and always sat at an elevated table, where he commanded a clear view of the entire room. Even his preferred suite at the Arlington Hotel, No. 442, overlooked the club.

“The building’s ownership changed many times. A new owner usually meant changes for the Southern Club’s appearance. In 1927, William Stokley Jackson purchased the building from the widow of the original owner. He expanded it and encased the front of the building in dark Pittsburgh glass that remains visible. Apart from being decorative, this glass served to help Jacobs conceal the gambling that went on within the club. Jacobs was known as the czar of Hot Springs gambling for many years due to his interest in six clubs in Hot Springs — the Kentucky, Ohio, Ozark, White Front, Southern and Belvedere clubs. In the 1940s, the first floor was extensively renovated as Jacobs added a marble staircase. In the 1950s, the city’s first escalator was installed and has been in continuous operation since that time.”

While business at the Southern Club grew, things weren’t going so well further south down Central Avenue. Oaklawn Park ceased racing following the 1907 meet.

Hodge writes: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

“By 1914, Oaklawn was owned by Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles, both of St. Louis. The track has remained in the Cella family since then. In 1915, a bill to legalize horse racing and pari-mutuel betting … had passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays. The veto was challenged in the courts by local citizens but was eventually affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“The aftermath of fires in 1913 caused a downturn in tourism in Hot Springs, fueled by rumors that the city could not accommodate guests as a result of the damage. The persistence of these rumors inspired city leaders to find a way to draw tourists back to the city. In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise. Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.

“Pending litigation and the Men’s Business League sponsorship, along with the banning of pari-mutuel betting, had allowed Oaklawn Park to have races until 1919 when Circuit Judge Scott Wood put forth the opinion that continuing to hold the races was illegal, and the track was again closed. In 1929, another bill made it through both the Arkansas House and Senate, only to be vetoed, this time by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

“Attempts to pass legislation to permit pari-mutuel betting on horse races in 1931 and 1933 failed, but in 1934 a group of prominent Hot Springs citizens and businessmen, including Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, formed the Business Men’s Racing Association and announced that races would be held in March of that year. The move was inspired by growing interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the need to draw more visitors to the city. On March 1, 1934, Oaklawn reopened to a crowd of 8,000 spectators without the consent of the Legislature. Future legal ambiguity was avoided in 1935 with the passage of a bill to permit horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering. This time the bill was signed into law by Gov. Junius Futrell.”

The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000.

In 1961, what had been a 30-day season was increased to 43 days.

By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races more than 60 days a year.

A couple of days after I had covered the 1982 Arkansas Derby for the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall called me into his office to inform me that the Democrat had lured Randy Moss away from the Gazette. It was the first high-profile Gazette defection of the newspaper war.

Moss and I were born the same year. He grew up in Hot Springs, and I grew up about 35 miles down Arkansas Highway 7, though we didn’t get to know each other until I began covering Oaklawn in college. Moss’ father, Jim, was a pharmacist for 18 years at the downtown Walgreens in Hot Springs before spending 32 years with the Arkansas Department of Health as an investigator. Famed thoroughbred trainer Bob Holthus was a neighbor of the Moss family, and Grisham was a family friend. Holthus would sneak Moss into the track, and by age 13, Moss was helping Grisham make picks for the Gazette.

“That sort of morphed into where I was actually doing the picking for the morning line under Don’s name when I was in the 11th and 12th grade and then in college at the University of Arkansas,” Moss explained in an interview for the Pryor Center’s Arkansas Democrat oral history project. “I kept doing the morning line for the Gazette with Don during that time in college. We had sort of an elaborate system devised. Don’s secretary would call me in the morning for the picks, and they would mail me copies of the Racing Form. I did that for two years in Fayetteville.”

After a semester of pharmacy school in Little Rock, Moss decided he would be bored with the work. He had gotten to know Gazette sports editor Orville Henry, and Henry offered him a job in 1979. Moss dropped out of pharmacy school, much to the chagrin of his father, to write sports for the Gazette. He moved to the Democrat three years later, went to the Dallas Morning News in 1989 and is now a lead analyst for NBC Sports coverage of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and other top races.

Damon Runyon, who died in 1946 at age 66, was a well-known newspaperman and writer of short stories. He often wrote about racetrack figures with nicknames like Harry the Horse and Hot Horse Herbie. The term “Runyonesque character” has, in fact, become a part of the American lexicon.

I’ve been fortunate to know some Runyonesque characters at Oaklawn through the years.

May their tribe increase.

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A room with a view

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

The sun was shining that Wednesday afternoon as tourists walked along the sidewalk that fronts Hot Springs’ Bathhouse Row.

I was touring the soon-to-open boutique hotel across Central Avenue that’s known as The Waters. My tour was being conducted by Hot Springs financial adviser Robert Zunick, who teamed up with veteran architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to transform the century-old Thompson Building, whose upper stories long had been empty.

Even though I grew up only about 30 miles from Hot Springs, I had never experienced this view.

For decades, the upper stories of buildings on that side of Central Avenue were empty and closed to visitors.

I was struck by the view from the rooms on the upper floors. I could study the tops of the bathhouses and watch people walking behind those bathhouses on the Grand Promenade, which runs parallel with Central Avenue from Reserve Street to Fountain Street. It began as a Public Works Administration project in the 1930s and finally was completed in 1957. The north end passes the site of the first Hot Springs National Park superintendent’s residence, which was demolished in 1958. The south entrance is just below the former Army-Navy Hospital, now the Arkansas Career Training Institute.

As Zunick talked about the work that went into the restoration, it became evident that the view from here is dominated by three classic structures dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.

To the south is the Army-Navy Hospital building.

To the north are the Arlington Hotel and the Medical Arts Building.

They’re three of the most iconic structures in the state, and their preservation is vital to the cultural fabric of Arkansas.

The Army-Navy Hospital was the first combined hospital in the country for Army and Navy patients. During an 1882 dinner party on the second floor of the Palace Bathhouse, a former Confederate Army surgeon named A.S. Garnett hosted a former Union Army general, U.S. Sen. John Logan of Illinois.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The impressed senator said the city was ‘an ideal location for an institution of this character’ and promised to introduce legislation for an appropriation upon his return to Washington. By the end of June, $100,000 was approved for the building of a 30-bed joint military hospital, the first such effort in U.S. history. President Chester A. Arthur signed the bill in 1882. The Army-Navy Hospital opened to patients in January 1887 under the direct jurisdiction of the secretary of war. It was not until 1957 that control of the facility was transferred to the U.S. Army.”

The current seven-story, brick-and-steel structure was built in the early 1930s at a cost of almost $1.5 million. Because of its therapeutic baths, it was the largest center in the country during World War II for treating adults with polio. More than 100,000 people were treated for various ailments at the hospital from 1887 until the end of World War II.

“After World War II, military men and women were streaming back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes. “Many who suffered severe wounds or the loss of limbs were sent to Hot Springs to take advantage of the hydro-therapy treatments. The influx of injured soldiers taxed the Hot Springs facilities.

“To have more beds and space for added staff, the federal government bought the Eastman Hotel across and down the street from the main hospital. A connecting ramp linked the two buildings, and the number of beds available for patients tripled almost overnight. This gave the hospital badly needed space for recreational and reconditioning projects, in addition to providing space for overnight family visitors.

“Along with soldiers being treated for war injuries, servicemen from battle zones were sent to the Hot Springs facility for rest, relaxation and rehabilitation. The Arlington and Majestic hotels housed the overflow solders who could not be accommodated on the hospital base.”

On April 1, 1960, the facility was transferred to the state as a rehabilitation hospital. It later became known as the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center. The name was changed to the Arkansas Career Training Institute in 2009, the medical wing was closed and the focus became vocational training.

While parts of the old Army-Navy Hospital remain in use, the Medical Arts Building at 236 Central Ave. sits sadly empty. It was the tallest building in the state from its completion in 1930 until 1960, when the Tower Building was completed in downtown Little Rock. Preserve Arkansas listed it in 2012 as one of the state’s most endangered structures.

The Medical Arts Building was erected by general contractor G.C. Gordon Walker with work beginning on Dec. 1, 1929. Investors from Little Rock and New Orleans purchased the site, which had been occupied by the Rector Bath House, from the Rector estate of St. Louis. The Rector family had obtained the property from the federal government in 1893.

The Medical Arts Building was designed by the Little Rock architectural firm Almand & Stuck, which also designed Little Rock’s Central High School. It has long been recognized as one of the top Art Deco skyscrapers in the South. Bas-relief limestone carvings on the frieze and on the facing of the main entrance are among the building’s notable features, along with the bronze grille work above the doors.

A September 1930 article in the Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs declared: “The structure as it stands is one of the most imposing buildings in Arkansas and a valuable addition to the business district of Hot Springs.”

The brick-and-reinforced-concrete structure cost $375,000 to build. Tall ceilings and large windows were designed to help keep the building cool in the summer. Corridors feature terrazzo floors and Arkansas marble wainscoting. Two brass-trimmed elevators were run by uniformed operators in the building’s early days. A 1932 Arkansas Gazette feature noted that the elevators were equipped with telephones that could be used while the elevators were in motion.

The building was advertised as the “Skyscraper of Health” and eventually housed 55 physicians and five commercial businesses. When the building opened, the first floor was home to a florist and Martin Eisele’s Medical Arts Drug Store. The drugstore, which had been established in 1875, was the city’s oldest. Eisele renamed it the Colonial Drug Store and moved to a new location in September 1930. The fifth floor housed a medical and pathological laboratory. Lower floors generally housed six medical offices each.

There were fewer offices on the upper floors because the building narrowed. The 15th floor housed a medical library and Dr. Earl McWherter’s dental offices from 1946-68.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, three years after it was purchased from the Medical Arts Realty Co. by Richard Shofstall’s Styro Products Inc. of St. Louis.

In January 1979, building manager Connie Tapanna told the Sentinel-Record: “There seems to be a certain feeling, an attachment for the building itself that frankly amazes me.”

However, the building was mostly vacant by the mid-1980s. Dr. George Fotioo, who began his medical practice in the building in 1945, was the last physician to leave the Medical Arts Building in 1991. He closed his downtown office after receiving a notice to vacate it from Freeling Properties, which represented Little Rock investor Melvyn Bell, who had purchased the middle 13 floors of the building. Robert LiMandri, whose father had moved his tailoring business into the Medical Arts Building in 1976, also was evicted at that time. Bell had purchased all but the ground floor and the top two floors in September 1986. He shut off electricity and water to the 13 floors he owned after experiencing financial problems.

In placing the building on its list of most endangered places, Preserve Arkansas stated: “The structure is Art Deco and due to the fineness of its massing and detail, it is the most significant structure of this style in the state of Arkansas.”

As I looked to my left from The Waters, The Arlington Hotel joined the Medical Arts Building in dominating the view.

This is the third incarnation of the Arlington. The original hotel was across Fountain Street on what’s now known as the Arlington Lawn. It was completed in 1875.

A larger hotel was built in 1893 but burned in April 1923.

The current building was completed in November 1924. It was designed by George Mann, the primary architect of the Arkansas State Capitol.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The building’s entrance faces the southeast corner of the intersection of Fountain Street and Central Avenue and includes two massive towers, like its predecessor but designed in a Mediterranean rather than Spanish Revival style. Throughout its history, the Arlington has hosted notable people and events. Joe T. Robinson, former governor and U.S. senator from Arkansas, announced his acceptance of the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1928 on the front steps of the Arlington and used the hotel as his campaign headquarters for the duration of the campaign.

“Robinson’s announcement was broadcast across the continent by radio station KTHS, which broadcast from the Arlington and was the first radio station in Hot Springs. The radio tower was mounted on the roof between the two hotel towers and can be seen in photographs from the era.

“Infamous gangster Al Capone regularly booked the entire fourth floor for himself and his associates. Capone’s favorite room was 443. Other notable celebrities made the hotel a regular stop. Babe Ruth began coming to the city with the Boston Red Sox for spring training and visited often afterward, always staying at the Arlington. Will Rogers, Kate Smith and George Raft were also visitors.”

With the new view from the renovated Thompson Building, a visitor gains a renewed sense of the city’s rich history.

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March in the Spa City

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The month of March approaches.

It’s a month that has become prime time for tourism in Hot Springs.

The weather warms, and the crowds grow at Oaklawn Park. The crab apple trees bloom, and the infield opens.

The city hosts 14 state championship high school basketball games (seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games) during a three-day period early each March (March 9-11 this year).

And thanks to the imagination and promotional ability of Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is now among the top events of its type in the country. With the parade falling on a Friday night this year, record crowds are expected to fill the streets downtown if the weather cooperates.

Adding to the excitement is the opening of The Waters, a boutique hotel across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Renovation work on the historic Thompson Building, which will house the hotel, began in October 2015. More than $8 million later, 62 rooms are ready for guests from across the region.

“I had no idea when we started this how long it takes to build a hotel or to remodel a 100-year-old building,” Robert Zunick, one of the three partners in the project, told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club last month. “It took nine months to negotiate the sale. Once we owned the Thompson Building, it took 16 months to close the financing. We’re 15 months on the construction now.”

Zunick, a Hot Springs financial adviser, teamed up with veteran Spa City architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to create The Waters. The work of Kempkes and Taylor can be seen around town, especially their beautiful renovation of the Ozark Bathhouse on the other side of Central Avenue.

The three men considered hundreds of potential names for the hotel before deciding on one.

Zunick said: “We really wanted to settle in on the essence of what really ties everything together, the reason all of those people came to Hot Springs in the first place, and all of this kind of boils down to one thing — the waters that we’ve been blessed with here in the national park.”

The Thompson Building was constructed in 1913. It has housed everything from a hotel to gift shops to apartments to doctors’ offices through the decades. A century ago, the term “taking the waters” was common in this country, and the Thompson was built to serve those who came to the Spa City for that reason.

Zunick said construction crews found a hotel receipt from 1949. He told the Rotarians: “They spent two nights at the Thompson Hotel for $16 a night. We’re going to be a little bit higher than that.”

Chris Wolcott, the hotel’s general manager, said the renovation resulted in a facility in which “not a single one of the rooms is like the other. We have different sizes. We have different layouts. … We have exposed brick walls and bench-seat windows.”

The Thompson Building also is the home of the recently opened fine-dining venue known as The Avenue. Casey Copeland, the former chef at So Restaurant-Bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, is at the helm of the restaurant.

Copeland decribes himself as a person who “eats, sleeps and breathes food. We want to work with the community, local artisans and local farmers and bring Hot Springs something that I don’t think is here, a whole new dining experience.”

Within the next year, a rooftop bar and an outdoor garden will be added to the mix.

In addition to attracting more tourists, business leaders in Hot Springs hope to attract talented new residents who like living in an urban environment. Quality restaurants like The Avenue, brew pubs such as the one across the street in the Superior Bathhouse, art galleries and entertainment venues are the type of amenities that attract residents who enjoy urban loft living.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful with the businesses in the Thompson Building, I have no doubt that outside investors with even deeper pockets will follow with renovations of the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Vapors Club and other downtown structures that are empty and waiting on saviors.

There’s still so much potential there.

A report on Hot Springs compiled several years ago by an economic consulting firm out of Indianapolis noted: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home.

“Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets.”

I’m reminded of a statement that Courtney Crouch of Hot Springs made during a National Park Rotary Club meeting at the Arlington Hotel a couple of years ago. Crouch is a devoted historic preservationist whose Selected Funeral & Life Insurance Co. makes its home in the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told those gathered at the Arlington that day. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is.

“We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

Crouch has made numerous trips through the years to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a resort that attracts the rich and famous from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

He told me: “You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has.”

There was a time when Hot Springs called itself “the Saratoga of the South.”

With more upscale hotels, restaurants, spas and retailers, why can’t downtown Hot Springs attract people with money to spend from the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (it’s less than a five-hour drive away) just as Saratoga Springs attracts people from New York City?

With the development of the Thompson Building in downtown Hot Springs, the first domino has fallen.

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

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Spring in the Spa City

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

On the morning of Tuesday, March 15, Hot Springs business leaders gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel adjacent to the city’s convention center to hear from Mike Preston, the young, highly articulate executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Preston, who was hired by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and moved to Arkansas from Florida last year, gets it.

He understands that economic development in the information age is no longer about industrial recruitment.

It’s about recruiting people — smart, creative, talented people. They’re people who can live wherever they wish and often choose a city based on things such as the ability to reside in a walkable downtown, the quality of restaurants, the assortment of live entertainment at night, the number of bicycle and hiking trails, etc.

For decades, Hot Springs failed to play to its strengths. I know it has been a theme of this blog for several years, but I’ll say it again: Hot Springs’ business and civic leaders allowed a downtown that should be a national treasure to deteriorate. I watched those beautiful old buildings decline and wanted to cry. It was almost criminal what happened.

Preston told those at the breakfast meeting of the Hot Springs Metro Partnership that cities must play to their strengths and then let the world know when things are going well.

Eric Jackson, the veteran general manager at Oaklawn Park, took that message to heart.

Early on the Sunday morning after Preston’s speech, Jackson looked back on what had been a remarkable previous 10 days for Spa City tourism and sent a sunrise missive to key leaders in the city.

He wrote: “Our community recently wrapped up a series of events that resulted in an overall tourism and hospitality product unlike anything in the South. In a relatively short period of time, Hot Springs hosted the state high school basketball championships, several large conventions, the nationally acclaimed St. Patrick’s Day parade, live entertainment ranging from bagpipes to the blues, group tours and the Rebel Stakes day at Oaklawn, which essentially has become like a second Arkansas Derby day. Good luck trying to get a hotel room or a restaurant reservation. You couldn’t turn around downtown or at Oaklawn without running into celebrities or top names in industry and government.”

An estimated crowd of 35,000 people showed up on Saturday, March 19, to watch the Rebel, the race that began drawing the nation’s attention last year to eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

This year’s Rebel came just two days after a throng that some people estimated to be near 30,000 packed downtown Hot Springs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on Bridge Street. This was the 13th year for the parade, a creation of the multitalented Steve Arrison, who heads the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau. The parade has garnered national media attention for Hot Springs and becomes bigger each year.

During the three days after the parade, more than 50,000 racing fans showed up at Oaklawn. Jackson pointed out that at Oaklawn there were:

— Attractions ranging from petting zoos to live entertainment on the open infield.

— Backstretch tours and the increasingly popular Dawn at Oaklawn program for those wanting to learn more about thoroughbred racing.

— A choice of several dozen concession areas and 10 places to sit down and get something to eat or drink.

— Wagering on live races, imported races, electronic games, poker and Instant Racing.

— Uplinks transmitting Oaklawn’s races by satellite to more than 1,000 locations in North America.

— National media coverage.

— More than $2 million in purses, including the country’s top race for three-year-olds that weekend.

— Four areas featuring live musical entertainment.

— Almost 1,500 horses being trained, fed and groomed.

“On top of all that, you have the Mid-America Science Museum, golf, fishing, restaurants, shopping and everything else in this resort community,” Jackson wrote. “It really was amazing. For about a week, our community was the epicenter for hospitality, tourism, entertainment and sports in the South. And, quite frankly, everyone from the shop owners to our police made it look effortless.”

The previous week, large crowds had migrated to the Hot Springs Convention Center for three days to watch the 14 high school basketball championship games. I attended the Saturday games. When I left the arena to walk over to The Porterhouse for dinner, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on Central Avenue downtown.

Add the fact that the tulips are in full bloom at Garvan Woodland Gardens on Lake Hamilton, drawing throngs of visitors from multiple states.

Verna Garvan spent more than three decades creating the gardens on family property. Her story is an interesting one. She was born Verna Cook in January 1911 in Groveton, Texas.

“Verna and her sister Dorothy were raised to be proper ladies, but Verna often accompanied her father to work and absorbed his business acumen,” Judy Byrd Brittenum writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1916, her father moved the family to Malvern to manage the Wisconsin & Arkansas Lumber Co., an enterprise producing oak and pine flooring. Malvern Brick & Tile was also purchased by Verna’s father, who later served as a board member of what’s now the Malvern National Bank. His land and business investments were transferred upon his death to his wife and daughters but administered by Verna. At the end of her life, she was purported to have the largest holding of timber rights in Arkansas, as she always retained the mineral and timber rights from company land sales.

“Cook grew up in Malvern but attended Holton-Arms, a prestigious Washington, D.C., girls’ school, for her secondary education. When her father died in an auto accident on Aug. 12, 1934, she was engaged to marry Alonzo Bernard Alexander of Spartanburg, S.C. Her mother and sister wished to take no active role in the family business, and after her marriage on Oct. 1, 1934, she proposed that she and her husband manage the the holdings. They moved to South Carolina.”

She was a long way from the family businesses back in Arkansas, but those businesses survived the Great Depression. The brick company supplied thousands of bricks for the massive Army and Navy Hospital at Hot Springs, for instance. A son who had been born with cystic fibrosis died in 1954 in his teens, and Verna’s first marriage ended in 1956. She moved back to Arkansas and met Patrick Garvan Jr., who was visiting a friend in Hot Springs. Garvan was from a prominent New York family. They were married in June 1960 and were planning to build a home on the 210 acres along Lake Hamilton that now house Garvan Woodland Gardens. Patrick Garvan died in 1975, and the home was never built.

“Disappointed in her personal life, she sought to ensure that her garden would remain viable after her death,” Brittenum writes.

Verna’s father had purchased the 210 acres that became the gardens in order to harvest its hardwood timber for his flooring mill. The land became much more valuable when Harvey Couch of Arkansas Power & Light Co. built Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita River, creating Lake Hamilton. Garvan sold Malvern Brick & Tile to Acme Brick in the 1970s, giving her more time to develop the gardens.

The late Marla Crider wrote: “Gardening became Garvan’s passion. As she continued to develop the grounds after her husband’s death, she decided the garden should be shared with the public. She enlisted the help of longtime Malvern Brick & Tile employee Warren Bankson to assist with her vision of a public facility. Together they constructed infrastructure and planted thousands of native and exotic trees, shrubs and plants. She named her landscaped creation the Twentieth Century Gardens.

“Realizing that she and Bankson were not equipped to create a true botanical garden on the scale she had hoped, Garvan signed a trust agreement with the University of Arkansas on Nov. 11, 1985, committing the School of Architecture and its landscape architecture program to operate Twentieth Century Gardens in perpetuity as a service to the people of Arkansas with the understanding that she would maintain control until her death. As stated in the agreement, her motivation for bequeathing the property to the university was to serve as a tribute to natural preservation in the 20th century.”

Garvan hired famous architect Fay Jones and business partner Maurice Jennings of Fayetteville to design an open-air pavilion, which was under construction when Garvan was diagnosed with cancer. Garvan died on Oct. 1, 1993.

The aforementioned Judy Brittenum, who taught landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas, had been appointed by the school in 1990 to work with Garvan to document all the plants in the gardens. David Knowles, an engineering professor, did a detailed survey of all 210 acres. Bob Byers was hired in 1994 as the garden curator and resident landscape architect. Bankson served as garden superintendent.

In 1996, a Cleveland-based landscape architecture and consulting firm was hired to create a 25-year master plan for the gardens. The plan was completed three years later, and a rock and stream garden known as the Garden of the Pine Wind was constructed in 2000. It later was ranked by the Journal of Japanese Gardening as No. 15 on a list of 300 Japanese–style gardens in North America.

The university changed the name from Twentieth Century Gardens to Garvan Woodland Gardens in 2000. A welcome center was built, and the gardens opened to the public on April 7, 2002.

John Ed and Isabel Burton Anthony later were the major benefactors of the Anthony Chapel, which opened in September 2006. Maurice Jennings and David McKee of Fayetteville designed the chapel and the 57-foot Anthony Family Carillon.

Like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Garvan Woodland Gardens draws more national publicity with each passing year.

Hot Springs’ revitalization efforts received another boost last year when the Mid-America Science Museum reopened following an extensive renovation. In 2011, the museum was awarded a $7.8 million capital grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Museum officials spent the next several years working with construction consultants, architects and exhibit developers. The museum had to raise $1.6 million to match the grant. A sizable donation from the Oaklawn Foundation in 2013 allowed the museum to reach its fundraising goal.

The museum closed in August 2014 so renovations could begin and reopened in March 2015.

It was Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1960s who first had the idea of an interactive science museum for Arkansas. Rockefeller hired a well-known museum consultant and sponsored a symposium of state leaders to discuss the idea. Hot Springs was identified as the best place for the project.

After taking office in 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers supported the effort to build the museum. The Legislature established the Arkansas Museum and Cultural Commission during the 1971 session, and Rockefeller was appointed chairman. Temporary offices were opened in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs in 1974.

“Construction began on March 11, 1977, on the 65,000-square-foot facility, built on 21 wooded acres in Mid-America Park, a commercial development that includes what’s now National Park College, the museum, industrial and commercial entities,” Richard Mathias writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The multimillion-dollar facility is divided into two wings, which are connected by a glass-enclosed bridge that spans the outside stream. The museum opened to the public on Jan. 20, 1979.

“Sunday, April 22, 1979, was proclaimed Mid-America Day by the major of Hot Springs as the museum was dedicated by Gov. Bill Clinton in a grand opening ceremony. It also received the Henry Award from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 1982, honoring contributions to the state’s tourism industry. In 1981, the Hot Springs City Council appropriated, through the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, one cent of the hospitality sales tax to support the museum after Gov. Frank White abolished the museum commission and the appropriations for its operations.”

In November 2001, the museum became the first Arkansas facility to be designated an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. That was the year that the facility was deeded from the state to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. Efforts began in 2004 to become a private, nonprofit entity governed by a board.

Reopened and looking like new, the Mid-America Science Museum now takes its place alongside Oaklawn, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Magic Springs and even Hot Springs National Park as an important Spa City attraction.

So far, it has been a spring to remember in Hot Springs.

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Back downtown in the Spa

Friday, October 16th, 2015

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about downtown Hot Springs on this blog the past few years.

As noted in those pieces, I believe that the stretch of Central Avenue north from Grand to Whittington/Park is the most iconic stretch of street in our state.

I was embarrassed as an Arkansan that we had allowed what should be one of the great downtowns in America to deteriorate.

Finally, it seems there’s some momentum in the Spa City.

Several hundred people gathered on the top floor of the Exchange Street Parking Plaza on a warm Thursday night earlier this month for the release of a long-awaited downtown development plan.

Just two days earlier, it was reported that Harrison Construction Co. took out a building permit valued at almost $5.7 million for work on the Thompson Building, which is across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. The five-story building, constructed in 1913, is being transformed into a 62-room boutique hotel by Bob Kempkes, Anthony Taylor and Robert Zunick. It will supply downtown with badly needed upscale hotel rooms.

The day after the release of the downtown development plan, it was reported that Tennessee-based real estate investor Gary Gibbs (the same guy developing the Delta Resort & Conference Center in southeast Arkansas) closed on the purchase of the Austin Convention Hotel & Spa, a facility connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center that needs lots of improvements.

It all signifies that there’s momentum in polishing what should be the jewel of Arkansas.

The report by economic development consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates of Indianapolis calls for:

— Focusing on infrastructure improvements to upgrade aesthetics, walkability and livability downtown.

— Enhancing and adding amenities and mixed-used developments that are designed to meet the needs and expectations of visitors, residents and business owners.

— Embracing a more experimental, nimble and responsive approach to old policies and ways of doing business.

— Improving the physical and social connectivity between the businesses and residents of the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods.

— Promoting collaboration for downtown initiatives among key stakeholder groups and engaging millennials in the decision-making process.

— Nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

— Targeting business recruitment, retention and expansion to key industry sectors.

— Empowering local action in accelerating broadband access, adoption and application.

— Using downtown as a laboratory for work-based learning and skills training for the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts and area secondary and post-secondary students.

— Creating a niche of retailers and allied amenities to serve as a trailhead for adventure tourists.

A major part of the economic development study dealt with the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel site.

“Perhaps no other issue stimulated as much discussion and input in every public forum, focus group and one-on-one interview as what should happen with the site currently occupied by the remains of the Majestic Hotel,” the consultants wrote. “For many, the memories of the former glory of this downtown gathering place were a touch point for seeing the site revitalized to play a new, significant role in downtown’s future. For others, especially the younger or newer members of the community, the memory of the 2014 fire and its resulting rubble prompted a call to action for a swift redevelopment of the site.

“Hot Springs has a unique opportunity to leverage the redevelopment of this site to make a contribution to the physical, social and economic welfare of downtown for decades to come. Due to its size, location and prominence, the future of this site will set the tone for redevelopment activities throughout downtown, serve as a catalyst for additional public and private invesments, and present an opportunity to build on the impact of the tourism sector, which is of importance to the economic prosperity of downtown Hot Springs.

“Smart redevelopment of the site is critical to achieving all three of the plan’s goals. The physical impact on the quality of place downtown and its adjoining neighborhoods is obvious. However, what may be less obvious is the importance of ensuring that the redevelopment enhances the sense of community in Hot Springs, enriches connections to neighborhoods and drives economic development through cultural, retail attraction and other amenities that will create employment, spawn innovation and generate revenue.”

An average of 14,000 motorists a day pass the site.

The consultants note: “From a visual standpoint, this site serves as both the northern terminus of the central business district and a gateway into downtown. The remains of the former hotel (even in its current condition) are the focal point for both motorists and pedestrians traveling north along Central Avenue. This site is located adjacent to one of downtown’s most significant assets, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, a destination high school for gifted students from across the state. To the northeast, the shuttered Velda Rose Hotel & Spa was recently placed on the market, and across Park Avenue there are two large surface parking lots. Opposite the Majestic site and the high school campus are several businesses, including a new coffee shop that symbolizes the youthful energy permeating downtown.

“To the south of Central Avenue, there are numerous eateries, nightspots and other attractions frequented by visitors, including galleries, museums and an aquarium. Several redevelopers have announced plans for upper-floor conversions of vacant spaces into boutique hotels and housing in the immediate area. The historic significance of the hotel itself cannot be understated. As the first brick building in Hot Springs and one of the first buildings in Arkansas to feature an elevator, the older portions of the hotel and its additions featured spectacular architecture, art and therapeutic thermal waters that helped attract the famous and infamous to Hot Springs throughout the last century. Understanding the site’s role in history is an important consideration for the reuse of this location.”

During public meetings, dozens of potential uses for the site were suggested. The consultants came to the conclusion that the site could best be used for a performing arts center, outdoor amphitheater and public bathing facility.

They wrote: “Hot Springs lacks a quality indoor performance venue with the modern amenities required to attract traveling Broadway shows, large-scale music performances and other acts that would pump entertainment dollars into the local economy and provide an evening market for downtown eateries and nightlife. The venue should include a large theater/performance hall as well as one or more small theatrical performance venues for use by community theater troupes and local schools.

“Funding for this venue will likely require investment by a variety of sources, including federal, state and local public funds; foundation support; and private contributions. A feasibility study and finance plan should be commissioned to assess the necessary financial support required to get such a project off the ground.”

The outdoor amphitheater would complement the indoor performance space. It could be the home of everything from community theater productions to movies under the stars.

Of the proposed public bathing facility, the consultants wrote: “The addition of such a facility on the grounds of a performing arts center would attract day and evening visitors year-round. Concepts for similar facilities have been developed in the past for other nearby locations; however, the redevelopment of the Majestic site presents an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to experience firsthand what led the native tribes to name this area the Valley of the Vapors. The facility could be developed and managed by the city, the space could be leased to a developer who would build and manage the attraction or the city could possibly even explore a partnership arrangement with the National Park Service.”

The consultants also said Hot Springs should consider some type of sign downtown that would become as iconic as the Public Market sign in Seattle or the star in Roanoke.

Among the more interesting proposals in the report is a call for the removal of about 70 parking spots along Central Avenue. Those spaces would be replaced by bike paths and have the added benefit of making the shops and restaurants more visible to motorists on Central Avenue.

The consultants wrote: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home. Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets. These architectural wonders can only be effectively appreciated by pedestrians or cyclists moving at a slower pace with unencumbered views.”

In an attempt to revitalize the largely empty upper floors of downtown buildings, the consultants recommended that Hot Springs create property development incentives, a landlord registration process and a marketing strategy for professional office space.

So much potential.

So much still to be done.

But so much progress in getting the people of Hot Springs to focus on downtown.

The February 2014 fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the building that once housed the Majestic galvanized public opinion around the need to do something.

It also opened the eyes of people across the state to the fact that the historic buildings in downtown Hot Springs are national treasures that are in danger of being lost due to years of neglect.

“Determining what is feasible before choosing a path of redevelopment for the Majestic site will be a signal to all area residents and visitors that progress is occurring in Hot Springs,” the consultants concluded. “Those who have never visited Hot Springs will see the former site as a blight full of potential and question why the potential hasn’t been seized, while residents see the site as a constant reminder of the city’s descent from its heyday. Development on the site — or even temporary signs describing its impending development, be it for a performing arts center, a modern public thermal bath or any number of options — will be the lynchpin showing that downtown Hot Springs is on its way back.”

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The Spa City bucket list

Monday, April 6th, 2015

My friend David Bazzel of KABZ-FM, 103.7 The Buzz, in Little Rock will spend three nights in Hot Springs this week as the Racing Festival of the South takes place at Oaklawn Park.

David asked me to come up with the ultimate Spa City bucket list of things he should do.

A day at Oaklawn, complete with corned beef and oysters on the half shell, is already a given. There’s not going to be time to do everything on this list, but here’s my best shot:

1. Get a bath and massage at the Buckstaff for a classic bathhouse experience, and then have a bath and massage a day later at the beautifully renovated Quapaw.

2. Hang out in the Arlington Hotel lobby on Friday or Saturday night, listen to the live music and watch the couples dance.

3. Have lunch at the Superior Bathhouse in a window seat, which allows you to watch the people walking along Bathhouse Row.

4. Pay a visit downtown to the Gangster Museum, the wax museum in the old Southern Club and Maxwell Blade’s new museum of oddities. The mix of low-brow and high-brow attractions has always been part of the charm of Hot Springs. I still miss the auction houses.

5. Have breakfast one morning at The Pancake Shop and breakfast the next morning at the Colonial. Both are downtown. Make sure to buy the Daily Racing Form in the basement of the Arlington before breakfast so you can mark your selections while waiting on the food.

6. Take a slow walk after breakfast along the Grand Promenade.

7. Play tourist to the hilt and ride one of the amphibious Ducks.

8. Visit the Arkansas Alligator Farm, one of the state’s oldest tourist attractions.

9. Make multiple stops along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, read the markers and listen to the narration on your smart phone.

10. Hot Springs is among the top barbecue cities in the South. Visit one or more of the following: McClard’s, Stubby’s, Smokin’ In Style, Mickey’s.

11. Hot Springs also is one of the best pizza cities in the South. Visit one or more of the following: Deluca’s, Rod’s, Rocky’s.

12. Drop by the Ohio Club and Maxine’s, two historic watering holes downtown. Catch some live music at those venues.

13. Take a hike along the creek at Gulpha Gorge.

14. Visit as many of the art galleries as possible along Central Avenue. Also drop by All Things Arkansas for Arkansas-made products.

15. Take a trip out to the Mid-America Science Museum, which recently reopened following a multimillion-dollar upgrade.

16. View the wonderful collection of old photos in the lobby of the Hot Springs Convention Center.

17. While walking along Bathhouse Row, see the historic displays in the Fordyce, the art in the Ozark and the items for sale in the Lamar.

18. Go to Garvan Woodland Gardens while the tulips are still blooming.

19. Hot Springs still has some old dairy bars. Pay a visit to King Cone, Bailey’s and the Fros-T-Treat.

20. Go to the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower.

That’s a start.

What else should be on the list?

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