Walking down Bathhouse Row

It was nice to see things this busy as we walked down Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs on a Saturday morning.

The sidewalks were jammed.

Some of these tourists had no doubt planned to spend their summer vacations along the Gulf Coast. Due to the oil spill, they canceled their reservations and wound up in Arkansas. Let’s hope their first impressions were good.

The key is to have them (a) tell their friends good things about Hot Springs; and (b) come back again.

In the previous post, I outlined some ideas for an even more vibrant downtown Hot Springs — improvements to the aging downtown hotels; bringing back some of Hot Springs’ most famous restaurants and relocating them downtown; and taking empty buildings and turning them into condominiums and apartments in order to build a downtown residential base.

The other needed step is leasing out the four bathhouses that remain empty.

The eight bathhouses in Hot Springs are near the top of the list of Arkansas’ greatest cultural assets. It’s good that four of them are now in use. But I see that as being just halfway toward the goal.

“Bathhouse Row has become the architectural core for downtown Hot Springs,” Earl Adams and Bill Norman wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “The first structures in the area to take advantage of the thermal springs were likely the sweat lodges of local Native Americans, which were followed by an unplanned conglomeration of buildings subject to fires, floods and rot. At one time, the area was subject to numerous claims that eventually had to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. For 80 years, the government improved the spring area by containing the creek, filling and widening the narrow valley and constructing the spa landscape. Ornate and numerous wooden bathhouses gave way to large and impressive masonry structures that represent the spa’s highest architectural attainment.

“The peak of bathing came in 1946 when more than 1 million baths were taken; however, a steady decline soon began. City redevelopment eliminated much of the moderate- to low-cost accommodations. The loss of other downtown businesses and the imposition of short-term bathhouse leases that reduced rather than encouraged maintenance also had an adverse effect. The placement of Bathhouse Row on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 saved them but not the use of them. The Fordyce had already closed in 1962 after the decision to have only traditional bathing on the row. …

“Plans for the most recent bathhouses envisioned a uniform architectural style, whereas business owners sought the business advantage of distinctive appearance. Little Rock architects George Mann and Eugene Stern designed several buildings, each unique. A common thread came from capitalizing on the legendary visit of the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to the spring (most historians now discredit the legend). Mostly built in the the 1910s and 1920s era, design consideration had to take into account all perspectives adjacent to the formal entrance and the Maurice historic spring. In addition, the elevation of first floors for flood resistance called for basements, ramps and steps while fireproofing the structures called for using brick (often veneered with stucco), sawed stone, concrete, marble and tile. Long sunrooms and lobbies and great numbers of windows allowed ingenious manipulations to produce varied appearances and tasteful and artful qualities inside and out.”

Let’s take the bathhouses one by one, starting with the four that are in use:

1. The Fordyce — If you want proof that the federal government can do some things right, this is it. As the bathing business declined during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Fordyce became the first of the eight current bathhouses to go out of business when it closed on June 30, 1962. In 1989, after having been padlocked for 27 years, it was extensively renovated by the National Park Service. The Park Service did a beautiful job of restoration. Serving now as the park’s visitors’ center, it was teeming with people on the Saturday we were there. Designed by Mann and Stern, the Fordyce had opened on March 1, 1915, under the supervision of Sam Fordyce’s son. It’s the largest bathhouse on the row and, certainly in the 21 years since the restoration, one of the most beautiful buildings in Arkansas inside and out.

2. The Buckstaff — It’s the only bathhouse along the row to have been in continuous operation since it opened. All Arkansans owe it to themselves to take the baths here, if for nothing else than to say they’ve done so. Designed by Frank W. Gibb & Co., the Buckstaff replaced the Rammelsberg Bathhouse and opened on Feb. 1, 1912. The men are on the first floor. The women are on the second floor. No reservations or appointments are accepted. Just walk in.

3. The Quapaw — The Quapaw has the distinction of being the longest bathhouse on the row. Because of its mosaic-tiled dome, many people also consider it the most beautiful bathhouse on the row. It was reopened two years ago, giving Bathhouse Row two operating bathhouses. Now marketed as Quapaw Baths & Spa, it also features a cafe, reception facilities and a retail shop. In addition to a private bath area, there are four large soaking pools. The bathhouse is closed on Tuesdays. It opens at 10 a.m. on the other six days of the week. The building opened in 1922 and closed in 1984, only to be gloriously brought back to life two years ago.

4. The Ozark — Mann and Stern designed the Ozark, and it opened just a few months after the Quapaw in 1922. It’s beautiful on the outside with its Spanish Colonial Revival style, but it was considered a no-frills bathhouse on the inside. It closed in 1977 and was brought back to life last year as the home of the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the day we were there, a steady stream of people were going in to see an Ansel Adams exhibit (that exhibit closes Saturday). The cost of admission is only $5, and the museum is open for 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. An art museum is a nice adaptive reuse for this bathhouse.

Now, let’s move on to the four bathhouses that remain closed and are in need of tenants:

1. The Lamar — It’s named for a former Supreme Court Justice who has one of my favorite names in American history — Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. He was the secretary of the interior when the first bathhouse was built in 1888. The Lamar, which opened in 1923 and closed in late 1985, was considered unique because it offered a range of tub lengths for people of various heights.

2. The Maurice — The building opened on Jan. 1, 1912. Designed by architect George Gleim Jr., it was built by Billy Maurice to replace an existing Victorian-style bathhouse. It had a gymnasium, a roof garden, twin elevators and even a therapeutic pool in the basement. It closed in 1974.

3. The Hale — The oldest structure on bathhouse row, most of the Hale was completed in 1892. Mann and Stern remodeled the building in 1914 and modified its style. It was redesigned again in 1939 by the firm Sanders Thompson & Ginocchio, and its red bricks were covered in stucco. The Hale closed on Halloween Day in 1978.

4. The Superior — This is the smallest bathhouse on the row. It was built by L.C. Young and Robert Proctor. It opened in 1916 and closed in late 1983.

The National Park Service administration building was constructed in 1936. Adams and Norman wrote: “Its predecessor fronted on the row and was sometimes mistaken for a bathhouse. The remedy for this confusion was to face the new edifice on the adjacent street. The Spanish style, by this time, had become thoroughly ingrained, hence the large brown double oak doors, iron grills, iron balcony rails and red-tiled hip roof with an exposed beam overhang. …

“The ultimate landscape emerged when the second Arlington Hotel burned on April 5, 1923, and its site became a lawn. A park maintenance shop, cooling towers, the Government Free Bathhouse and the Imperial Bathhouse were razed, and a service road closed, making the Grand Promenade a reality and giving rise to present-day downtown Hot Springs.”

Leaving the site of the administration building, we took the Grand Promenade all the way to the Park Hotel. Downtown Hot Springs seemed more alive than ever on this Saturday, leading to thoughts of what needs to occur to take things to the next level and bring on a new golden age for this important part of our state.

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