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Eureka’s historic hotels

While writing last week about the Crescent and the Basin Park hotels in Eureka Springs, I was struck by the fact that, more than ever, that city’s future rests on preserving its past.

There likely will always be a place for the motels, restaurants and the pair of music theaters out on U.S. Highway 62, but Eureka Springs’ primary draw must be its preserved homes and buildings from the golden era of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Think about it.

Branson now has a lock on the region’s live music and outlet mall sectors.

Eureka Springs is too far removed from major roads for a large amusement park.

But in this day and time when aging baby boomers are looking for that which is real — not manufactured like some Disney creation — the historic districts of Eureka Springs are as real as it gets. As heritage tourism accounts for more of the overall tourism spending in this country, Eureka Springs must continue to improve its historic hotels and its bed and breakfast inns. The key is to provide all of the modern amenities travelers expect without destroying the historic texture. It’s not always an easy thing to accomplish.

Next, Eureka Springs has to market these facilities effectively. The marketing must be highly targeted.

Eureka Springs is blessed with not only the Crescent and the Basin Park but also the smaller Palace Hotel & Bath House, the New Orleans Hotel and the Grand Central Hotel.

The Palace, in fact, boasts the city’s only remaining bath house (though there are numerous modern spas). A man named George Williams reportedly bought the lots where the hotel sits for $500 in 1900, built the hotel for $1,000 and sold it in May 1901 for $2,500. Limestone was quarried just outside of town, and Irish stonemasons constructed the hotel.

“George was fascinated with European castles and designed the Palace exterior in similar fashion,” the hotel’s website at notes. “Eureka Springs drew travelers from both coasts and Europe. In the early ’20s, mobsters were often seen here. The most known notable celebrity frequenting the Palace was W.C. Fields. Can you just see him sitting in that wooden steam cabinet, a stogie in his mouth, a bulbous red nose, saying “keep those children out of here.”’

Baths were 50 cents and what was listed simply as “steam” was $1.

“Each bath stall had a numbered electric button (at the head of the tub) connected to a control board (near the entry) that was visible to the staff,” the website states. “When pushed, the button rang a bell and tripped a brass arrow on the control board. The bath attendant, when summoned, brought soap, toiletries, towels or whatever the patron required. There were only two W.C.s (water closets) on each floor. The double door, manually operated wire cage elevator was one of the first electric elevators in the city.

“Spring water from the Harding Spring was piped under the street, about 200 feet into a cistern in the basement. It was then heated and pumped into two (hot and cold) steel vessels mounted on steel beams between the rear wings of the building. The tanks were two feet above bath house floor level, and water pressure was aided by gravity flow to the baths.”

These days, a mineral bath at the Palace will cost you $16. A eucalyptus steam treatment will cost $16. So will a clay mask treatment. You can get all three of these along with a 30-minute massage for $72 and all three of these along with a one-hour massage for $92. The bath house operates from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Sunday.

One of my favorite things in Eureka Springs is that neon sign out front. They claim that it was the first neon sign installed west of the Mississippi River. It’s also said that the sign was painted by a popular area painter whose name was Golly. So, of course, he signed all of this works “By Golly.”

The sign looks great at night.

If you’re interested in the history of the city’s historic hotels, you should check out the website Dan Ellis lived in one of the best spots on the Gulf Coast — Pass Christian, Miss. — prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ellis, who has written a series of local histories of communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, lost almost everything in that storm.

He headed north to Eureka Springs to start over and has been there ever since.

“Upon arriving in Eureka Springs, I was spellbound by the extant hotels that I found in superb condition due to the many former owners who realized that it took considerable money to maintain such jewels,” he writes. “I became enchanted by the magnificent stonework structure and glorious fourth-floor views from the Crescent Hotel. The odors and rickety narrow stairway of the Basin Park Hotel in climbing to the top. The aged glory of the below-ground nightclub and restaurant at the New Orleans Hotel. The wonderful elegance and refurbishment to the Grand Central Hotel. The cleanliness and wholesomeness of the suites in the Palace Bath House Hotel.

“These are overwhelming edifices each with stories to be told. Countless visitors have stayed at these hostelries, enjoying their honeymoons or anniversaries or for their joyful occasion.”

Check out his website. The history he has uncovered is fascinating.

What’s now the New Orleans Hotel originally was called the Wadsworth Hotel. W.S. Wadsworth owned the facility, which was completed in December 1901. His wife Jennie was a former circus bareback rider and served as the hostess. There were wrought iron balconies on the top three floors, and the popular Wellington Bar was housed in the hotel prior to Prohibition. The name of the hotel was changed to the Allred Hotel in 1908. It became the Springs Hotel in 1948.

The name was changed yet again to the New Orleans Hotel when Gale Reeves purchased it in 1954. The building on Spring Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The hotel now has 21 guest units with 18 of them being suites. Each suite features the work of a local artist. The hotel is the home of the Suchness Spa.

Down on Main Street, the Grand Central Hotel has 14 large guest suites, the Grand Taverne restaurant and the Spa at Grand Central.

The history posted on the hotel’s website at reports that by 1881, the population of Eureka Springs had grown to 10,000 and “Eureka Springs had become Arkansas’ fourth-largest city. The Grand Central Hotel was built in 1880 as the stagecoach terminal for passengers coming to Eureka Springs from the north. The nine-hour line reached from the railhead at Pierce City in Missouri to the front door of the Grand Central Hotel. As many as 100 persons a day would come through the hotel seeking the healing waters of Eureka Springs. Many of these new arrivals were well-to-do Easterners. They brought with them discriminating tastes in all manner of living, especially in the architecture of the fine houses that were built soon after arrival.”

It was called the Connor Hotel at the time. The original wooden building burned in 1890 and was replaced with a brick facility. The Grand Central was the first brick hotel in town (the 1886 Crescent was built of limestone) and the first to have running water on every floor. It received its water supply from Onyx Spring on East Mountain.

By the 1970s, the upper floors had been closed and the roof was leaking badly. Restoration began in 1985. By 1987, the top two floors had been redone to produce 14 suites.

The hotel’s website gives a good description of what had happened in Eureka Springs: “By the turn of the 20th century, science and technology had dealt a deadly blow to the magical waters of Eureka Springs. As was the case with most spa towns all across America, their attractiveness waned among the sophisticated visitors that once came. … Next it was the Great Depression. Once magnificent Victorian-era structures went neglected or were torn down simply for the materials that could be recovered.

“In the 1970s, teetering on the brink of disaster, the town’s civic leaders decided to consult with theme park experts to see if some grand attraction could be lured to the area. To their surprise, they came to understand that Eureka Springs is a theme park. Efforts began immediately to preserve what was left of the Victorian village that had been built nearly a century earlier.”

That’s it.

Eureka Springs is a theme park. We don’t need to build one.

The Crescent. The Basin Park. The Palace. The New Orleans. The Grand Central.

They are Arkansas treasures that should be preserved, continually improved and marketed to those aging baby boomers who are now looking to experience that which is authentic.

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