They packed the old house on Quapaw Avenue at Hot Springs on Saturday night. There was barely room to move.
They were there to provide financial support for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which has become the cornerstone of the fall arts calendar in the Spa City.
If you really want to get a feel for the days when Hot Springs was the Saratoga of the South, drive along Quapaw and Prospect and stare at the homes along those streets.
I parked about a block down the street and just happened to walk down the sidewalk with Courtney Crouch, who heads Selected Funeral and Life Insurance Co. of Hot Springs. In 1960, three leading Arkansas funeral directors met to discuss the formation of a company to market small funeral life insurance policies that would supplement burial association insurance. The group soon grew to 20 funeral directors who organized SFLIC with an investment of $40,000. SFLIC now conducts business in multiple states with almost 50 people in its home office, the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.
Crouch, who long has been interested in historic preservation, is part of a group that makes an annual trip to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, the famed resort that attracts rich people from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.
“You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has,” Crouch told me.
He was talking about potential. And it is that untapped potential that has driven so much of my frustration with downtown Hot Springs, which has one of the greatest concentrations of architecturally significant historic structures of any city in the country. For more than four decades, I watched as we let the jewel that is downtown Hot Springs become more and more tarnished.
Crouch is a member of the Downtown Game Plan Task Force, the group appointed following the Majestic Hotel fire in late February to come up with recommendations for downtown Hot Springs.
“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on July 2 during its weekly meeting at the Arlington Hotel. “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.”
We all should be ashamed as Arkansans for what was allowed to happen in a city that once was among the nation’s top resort destinations. Some historic downtown structures fell into the hands of men who only can be described as slumlords. Scavengers ripped out valuable inside features and sold them.
I’ve written thousands of words about downtown since the winter fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the Majestic. Five months after the fire, on a delightful July day, I can write that there’s progress being made. Indeed, there seems to be new life in the ol’ gal that is Hot Springs, sort of like an aging movie star who has been offered the role of a lifetime after years out of the limelight.
You could sense the momentum at Saturday’s film festival fundraiser, not just for the festival but for all of Hot Springs.
And, yes, there were real movie stars there.
Tess Harper, the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee who was born at Mammoth Spring in 1950, first came to Hot Springs in the late 1960s as a contestant in the Miss Arkansas Pageant. She was back last week, declaring her love for the city.
Golden Globe nominee Joey Lauren Adams, born in North Little Rock in 1968, also was there.
We toasted the city and its glorious past on Saturday. Then we raised our glasses to toast what so many of us hope is the impending rebirth of downtown Hot Springs.
For now, that rebirth is being driven by a small group of visionaries. If they experience success, even bigger investors are sure to follow.
The first domino fell in early June when Ken Wheatley announced he would sell two historic buildings across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row to a partnership composed of Hot Springs financial adviser Robert Zunick and veteran architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor.
I joined Zunick for dinner last week at Park Avenue Bistro (the former Bohemia, which is now among the best fine-dining establishments in the state) to talk about the projects. The partners are still working on financing but are quietly optimistic that things will work out.
They hope to turn the Thompson Building into a 62-room boutique hotel that will be as fine as anything in this part of the country.
They hope to transform the Dugan-Stuart Building into either apartments or condominiums.
I took a tour of the Dugan-Stuart Building with Zunick after dinner and was amazed by the amount of marble still in the building along with its tile floors. Again, that word “potential” comes to mind.
If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful in attracting overnight guests to the Thompson Building and residents to the Dugan-Stuart Building, I have no doubt that those outside investors with deeper pockets will follow at the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the First Federal Building, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose and the Vapors. All of those downtown buildings are largely empty and waiting on saviors.
Just three weeks after Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor announced their plans, Pat and Ellen McCabe announced that they’ve entered into lease negotiations with the National Park Service to open a boutique hotel and restaurant in the Hale Bathhouse. If the McCabes are successful, there will be activity in seven of the eight bathhouses (all except the Maurice, a large building with tremendous redevelopment potential). When Josie Fernandez, the superintendent of Hot Springs National Park, came to the city a decade ago, only two of the bathhouses were being used.
Speaking about a spacious back room in the Hale with a vaulted skylight, Ellen McCabe said: “I could see Sunday brunches in there and opening it up for fine dining.”
The McCabes hope to have nine rooms on the second level of the Hale available for overnight guests with dining on the main level.
“We’re thinking it would be good for a destination wedding,” Ellen McCabe told The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs. “They can lock up the whole thing for the bridal party and have a reception down in the big hall.”
Fernandez said the National Park Service spent almost $18 million on renovations.
Incidentally, Pat McCabe, the president of the Levi Hospital at Hot Springs, is running for mayor.
Zunick said he doesn’t see the Hale as competition for the Thompson. He welcomes the additional upscale rooms, saying they will create critical mass downtown.
Pat McCabe feels the same way.
“We cannot be a successful downtown in a vacuum,” he said. “We’re only going to be successful if we’re all bringing in tons of traffic. I really think the downtown is going to blossom again. We’re getting to a point where there’s only one bathhouse that’s empty, and the buildings across the street are now being developed.”
One of those who serves with Crouch on the Downtown Game Plan Task Force is Mark Fleischner. He noted during that July 2 Rotary Club meeting that redevelopment of downtown Hot Springs buildings not only will bring in additional tourists but also will attract young, talented residents who like living in an urban environment.
“This is a wonderful place,” he said. “The problem I see is that our children don’t want to come back here. We don’t have what we need to offer them. You have to look to the future and leave things better than you found them.”
For almost a century, Hot Springs Rotarians have been leading advocates of downtown. Club president Les Warren urged his fellow Rotarians to become involved.
“It’s not an overnight process,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us working together, keeping the focus on downtown and realizing that with one victory at a time, over a period of years, it’s going to make for a great downtown.”
Earlier that morning, city officials had held a news conference atop the Exchange Street Parking Plaza (where parking is now free in order to encourage interest in downtown) and announced that building permit fees for new dwellings in the city limits will be waived until the end of the year. They hope the waiver will stimulate interest in residential construction, especially downtown. The waiver applies to single-family dwellings across the city. Downtown, it applies to family, duplex and multiple-family dwellings.
David Watkins, the Hot Springs city manager who has been instrumental in efforts to change the status quo, told those at the news conference: “We envision downtown as an attractive, vibrant place where more residents will live, enhancing the safety and economic vitality of the area. The permit holiday is designed to stimulate reinvestment in the center of the city, including reoccupying upper floors and filling downtown storefronts, creating a more livable downtown and energizing adjacent historic neighborhoods.”
Watkins and Jim Fram, the president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, have brought new ideas to a city where the status quo ruled for too long.
“You never know what’s going to be the spark that causes a community to become the next economic development hotspot,” Fram recently wrote. “Maybe a local entrepreneur or industry catches a trend and skyrockets, attracting ancillary industries and suppliers, assisting the real estate market and increasing tax revenues. Sometimes a city will have a dramatic turnover in its elected leadership, which causes a contagious wave of excitement and activity. Maybe the spark is literally a fire, like the one in downtown Hot Springs in February that ignited city leadership and caused citizens to demand greater accountability and a coherent plan to protect, preserve and rebuild Arkansas’ favorite vacation destination.”
Suzanne Davidson, the city director whose district includes downtown, talked at the news conference about the importance of revitalizing the city’s historic core.
“I want to see it like it was when I was a little girl and came here to shop,” she said. “We’ve already seen a positive start. … It’s a moral issue to save these magnificent buildings and showcase their beauty. It will be the legacy of the leaders of this community.”
Crouch said that in his more than four decades in Hot Springs, he has watched “downtown take steps frontward and backward. Hopefully we’re at a point where we’ll see major efforts toward the restoration of downtown. These buildings possess architectural features that you’ll never see again if they are left to be destroyed. … It’s exciting to see the transformation taking place to revive the downtown culture. As a member of the task force, it’s our hope that we’re seeing the return of the great American spa to its original grandeur.”
Ellen McCabe. Pat McCabe. Robert Zunick. Bob Kempkes. Anthony Taylor. David Watkins. Jim Fram. Courtney Crouch.
Let’s hope that their vision for downtown Hot Springs is at last being transformed from a mere dream into a beautiful reality.