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.