When former President Clinton visited Hot Springs in early April, a small group of the city’s leaders met with him to obtain his feedback on the possibility of a performing arts center, a gateway plaza and thermal pools being built at the site of the Majestic Hotel, the oldest portion of which had burned in late February.
A document presented to Clinton that day read: “On the spot where Hot Springs Creek turns toward the Ouachita River, where Hiram Abiff Whittington opened Hot Springs’ first general store in 1832, there’s a fountain, a flagpole, an abandoned hotel, a charred pile of rubble and a dream. The intersection of Central, Park and Whittington avenues is the anchor of the city of Hot Springs. At the north end of storied Bathhouse Row, the junction has literally been the visual, economic and social hub of the community.”
Clinton grew up in the Park Avenue neighborhood.
While most of the talk about downtown revitalization in the Spa City has focused on empty buildings up and down Central Avenue, the foundation is there for the possible redevelopment of Park Avenue.
Three of the city’s best restaurants — Central Park Fusion, Park Avenue Bistro (formerly The Bohemia) and Deluca’s Pizzeria — are on Park.
There are several beautiful old homes, some fading tourist courts ripe for renovation and memories of places like Smitty’s Barber Shop, Stubby’s Barbecue, the Polar Bar and the Public Drug Store, all of which were in the neighborhood in the days when the street was hopping.
The old Velda Rose Hotel and the Vapors Club are for sale, presenting fascinating opportunities for redevelopment.
The Velda Rose, built by Garland Anthony of Bearden in 1960, appears to be structurally sound and could be turned into a combination boutique hotel-condominium complex. Anthony built things to last. And the name is one you don’t forget.
Anthony named the hotel for his daughter, who would go to become Velda Rose Walters of Oklahoma following her March 1948 marriage to wildcat oilman, lumberman, strip miner and cattleman Mannon Lafayette Walters. With the support of his father-in-law, Walters became a pioneer in the lumber business in Mexico, constructing and managing sawmills in the Sierra Madre.
The Anthony family also opened the Anthony Island Motel on Lake Hamilton and the Avanelle Motor Lodge at the intersection of Central and Grand. The Avanelle took its name from two of Garland Anthony’s other daughters, Avalene and Nell. When we would travel from Arkadelphia to downtown Hot Springs when I was a child, I always thought the name of the Avanelle’s restaurant – the Sirloin Room — sounded extra fancy. I dreamed of the day when I could dine there.
After Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut down casino gambling in Hot Springs in 1967, the Velda Rose fell on hard times. Its name later changed to the Ramada Inn Tower Resort before an owner named Kenny Edmondson changed it back to the Velda Rose in 2001. The condition of the facility continued to deteriorate, however.
Garland Anthony would never have let that happen. He was a proud man and one of south Arkansas’ most interesting business leaders.
“The Anthony family first settled in southern Arkansas in the 1840s,” George Balogh writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1907, Garland Anthony started a small sawmill near Bearden. Other members of the family, along with outside partners, started similar operations in southern Arkansas, eastern Texas and northern Louisiana. Between 1910 and 1930, Garland and his brothers Frank, William and Oliver formed Anthony Brothers Lumber and built their first permanent mill at Hopeville in Calhoun County, accumulating 2,000 acres of cutover timberland in the process.
“The brothers built their mills in areas that large companies had harvested and left behind. They discovered that a cutover pine forest in southern Arkansas could renew itself in 20 to 30 years and could become self-sustaining if properly managed. The company became a leader in the techniques of selective harvesting, giving smaller trees time to mature so the forest could be harvested repeatedly over the long term.
“During the 1930s, Anthony Brothers Lumber was reputed to be the largest private lumber manufacturer in the world, operating 20 to 30 mills in partnership with others. In time, Garland Anthony’s son Edwin joined him in the operation of mills located in various small communities in southern Arkansas and eastern Texas. By the 1950s, Bearden had become the focus of family operations.”
There remains a strong Anthony family tradition in Hot Springs. In December 2003, Hot Springs residents John Ed and Isabel Anthony announced a $1 million contribution to Garvan Woodland Gardens for construction of the Anthony Chapel. In 2006, it was announced that the children of Garland Anthony had made a gift so that the Anthony Carillon — a 55-foot-tall structure with 16 copper-clad columns — could be built. The Anthony Carillon is supported by pillars of steel weighing 2,200 pounds each.
Verna Cook Garvan donated the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in 1985. The gardens are along the shores of Lake Hamilton.
An enterprising developer renovating the Velda Rose would be wise to also purchase the Vapors and transform it into a dinner theater. Dane Harris, who had a stake in the Belvedere Country Club and casino a few miles to the north, partnered with famed New York gangster Owney Madden, who spent his later years in Hot Springs, to build the Vapors where the Phillips Drive-In had been at 315 Park Ave. Construction began in 1959 and was completed the following year.
The club brought a touch of Las Vegas to Hot Springs. There was a 24-hour coffee shop, a dance floor, a dinner theater, the Monte Carlo Room for meetings and, of course, the casino. Entertainers ranging from the Smothers Brothers to Tony Bennett were booked.
Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which became his signature song, at the Vapors.
He was rehearsing it one afternoon when a bartender cried out, “If you guys record that song, I’ll buy the first copy.”
An explosion at the club in January 1963 caused 12 injuries and extensive damage. The Vapors was renovated and continued to operate as a nightclub and restaurant after Rockefeller shut down gambling. In 1977, Harris added the Cockeyed Cowboy country and western club and the Apollo Disco to the mix in an effort to attract a younger crowd. Harris died in 1981. The building was sold in October 1998 to Tower of Strength Ministries to be used as a church (some irony there) and was put up for sale last November.
Just how famous is this stretch of street?
Consider this timeline:
1830 — Hiram Whittington settles the area with the first store, post office and library.
1876 — Hot Springs is incorporated as a city with this the center of the town.
1878 — 150 buildings are destroyed in the area by a fire.
1880 — The Hotel Adams is built on Cedar Street. It will become St. Joseph’s Infirmary a few years later.
1882 — The Avenue Hotel is built on the future site of the Majestic.
1886 — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the construction of the arch over Hot Springs Creek, making Central Avenue a street rather than a creek bed.
1888 — The Avenue Hotel is renamed the Majestic Hotel after the Majestic Stove Co. of St. Louis.
1892 — The Majestic Hotel is remodeled, including the installation of elevators.
1896 — The Majestic Hotel contracts with the federal government for water and begins offering in-house thermal baths.
1899 — Sam Fordyce completes the Little Rock Hot Springs & Western Railroad from Little Rock, leading to a dramatic increase in visitor numbers.
1902 — The original Majestic is raised and a domed brick building is erected on the same site.
1905 — A fire destroys much of downtown.
1910 — Teddy Roosevelt stays at the Majestic.
1913 — Fire destroys parts of 50 city blocks.
1926 — The Majestic’s eight-story, red-brick annex is built with 140 rooms at a cost of $650,000.
1929 — Southwest Hotels Inc. purchases the Majestic.
1940 — The Majestic accounts for 56,000 of the 750,000 thermal baths given in Hot Springs.
1944 — The U.S. Army uses the Majestic to house soldiers returning from combat.
1954 — Southwest Hotels adds the Arlington Hotel and the Hot Springs Country Club to its Spa City holdings.
1955 — August Busch of St. Louis is married at the Majestic and celebrates with a team of Clydesdale horses that are housed in the Majestic garage.
1958 — The Lanai Suites are added to the Majestic complex. The three-story building has 48 suites.
1963 — A 10-story structure known as the Lanai Towers is added to the Majestic complex.
1995 — A major renovation begins at the Majestic.
2006 — It is announced that the Majestic will close.
2007 — The ARC Arkansas says it will transform the Majestic into a residential facility, but nothing ever happens as the Great Recession begins.
2009 — Garrison Hassenflu of Kansas City acquires the Majestic property. Still, nothing happens.
2014 — The 1902 portion of the Majestic is destroyed in a massive fire. Up to 75 firefighters work for 22 hours to contain the blaze.
So now what?
The Majestic property.
The Velda Rose.
With a renewed interest in downtown Hot Springs, the prospects are tantalizing.