The three Rs for downtown Hot Springs

The Southern Fried blog was born almost five years ago.

On Saturday, we had the biggest day in the history of the blog. About 6,000 people read a post on the future of downtown Hot Springs.

As I write this, I see from the stats that more than 10,000 people have now read it.

What it shows is that there is a deep love across this state for downtown Hot Springs.

The stretch of Central Avenue from its intersection with Grand Avenue to the decaying Majestic Hotel is the most iconic stretch of street in Arkansas and among the most famous urban landscapes in the South.

All Arkansans have a vested interest in seeing that downtown Hot Springs is renewed, refreshed and revived.

I’ve never been one to point out problems without offering solutions.

So let’s discuss what I see as the three Rs for downtown Hot Springs — residents, restaurants and rooms.

Then let’s discuss three ideas for the trio of bathhouses that aren’t being used.

First, the three Rs:

1. Residents — Anyone involved in downtown development projects will tell you that a residential base is a key component of successful downtowns. Hot Springs has done an admirable job of attracting art galleries and retailers to the ground floors of some historic buildings downtown. What has not happened is the development of the upper floors of those buildings into loft apartments.

In addition to the smaller buildings along the street, several large, empty buildings offer potential for condominium or apartment development. These include the Majestic Hotel, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Howe Hotel, the Medical Arts Building and the Citizens Building. Granted, these projects would need investors with deep pockets. But the potential — with the right kind of development — is there. In addition to retirees, developers would target talented young people who like to live in neighborhoods where they can walk to restaurants, bars, galleries and entertainment venues. Think about it: Downtown Hot Springs as a hipster enclave.

Also, there are now high-dollar retirees across the country who are far more attracted to a walkable urban setting than they are to retirement communities such as Hot Springs Village. The Baby Boomers, as they reach retirement age, appear to want something different than suburban-looking houses on golf courses. The downtown Hot Springs mix of spas and art could be what these retirees are searching for if (and this is a big “if”) there are quality places for them to live.

2. Restaurants — Hot Springs already has some good downtown restaurants, but there’s room for more. The addition of a microbrewery in the Superior Bathhouse is the kind of touch that can draw more people downtown. The neighborhood seems ripe for additional microbreweries (the craft beer and classic cocktail scene is exploding nationwide with the momentum now reaching Arkansas) along with wine bars that would complement existing art galleries. And there’s room for more fine dining, especially if existing buildings are renovated for condos, apartments and boutique hotels, giving these restaurants a built-in clientele.

Here’s an idea: Why not bring back a few of the popular restaurant concepts of Hot Springs’ past and place them downtown.


Mrs. Miller’s?


Hot Springs could become a city for foodies along the lines of Asheville and Santa Fe. Perhaps an annual food and wine festival could be established. What young chef wouldn’t want to live and work in a reinvigorated downtown Hot Springs?

3. Rooms — High-quality hotel rooms in downtown Hot Springs are now pretty much limited to the Embassy Suites. While perfect for conventions, that’s not exactly a “hip brand” for heritage tourists. A developer looking to bring more quality rooms downtown could buy an existing hotel such as The Springs, Austin or Park (I’m assuming the Arlington is not in play, though everything has its price).

Or a developer could take one of the aforementioned empty properties — Medical Arts, Citizens, Howe, Majestic or Velda Rose. Though the Aristocrat now has apartments in it, it always has had an art deco feel along the lines of the old hotels at Miami Beach, which have become gold mines for the investors who renovated them.

The Citizens Building in particular would make an attractive boutique hotel with its white brick veneer. The building was constructed in 1911-12 for Citizens National Bank, which occupied part of the Spencer Building across the street during construction. Citizens National Bank was absorbed by Arkansas National Bank in 1926. An insurance and investment firm later moved into the bank space. The Tri-State Union Bus Depot then occupied the first floor until 1946, when the bus station moved to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot. First Federal Savings & Loan Association next moved into the first-floor space.

In 1957, First Federal bought the entire building in what The Sentinel-Record called the “largest real estate transaction involving business property here in several years.” The upstairs office suites were renovated at that time. They were occupied by accountants, chiropractors, lawyers, government agencies, the Christian Science Association and even the Hot Springs Memorial Park Cemetery Co. Federal agencies that had offices in the building at one time or another included the FBI, Social Security Administration, Selective Service and Forest Service.

First Federal moved in 1978 to a new building on the site that once had been home to the Como Hotel.

As far as potential hotel developers for downtown Hot Springs, my first suggestion would be to head to Kentucky and make a strong pitch to Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. They are the founders of 21c Museum Hotels. Their passions are urban revival and cutting-edge art. Readers of Conde Nast Traveler named the original 21c at Louisville as the nation’s top hotel in 2009 and 2010. The 90-room Louisville hotel covers five historic buildings. More than 150,000 people walk through each year just to enjoy the art exhibits.

Brown and Wilson probably are feeling good about Arkansas right now due to the success of the 21c at Bentonville. The Bentonville project, which was done at the urging of the Walton family, is the only 21c project in a new building. There are 104 rooms at Bentonville.

The third 21c that has already opened is a 156-room historic property at Cincinnati.

Consider the 21c plans for Durham, Lexington, Kansas City and Oklahoma City, and then see if you agree with me that the historic character of Hot Springs seems like a fit for the type of projects Brown and Wilson take on.

In Kansas City, the 21c developers are planning to spend $47.5 million to renovate the Savoy Hotel and its famous Savoy Grill. The red-brick hotel opened in 1888. An addition was constructed in 1903. There are plans for a 120-room hotel. The developers are hoping to use about $16 million in state and federal historic tax credits. The restaurant at the Savoy, known for its paintings of the Old West by artist Edward Holslag, can seat 600 people.

In Durham, 21c is renovating the former SunTrust Building, a 17-story tower. The hotel will have 125 rooms at the completion of the $48 million project. The renovation will preserve building features such as terrazzo flooring, wood paneling and a silver leaf ceiling in the lobby.

In Oklahoma City, 21c is transforming a 168,000-square-foot downtown building that was constructed in 1916 by Henry Ford as a Model T production plant. The Oklahoma City hotel will have 135 rooms. The building is in a fairly desolate part of downtown. The company president, Craig Greenberg, told the Oklahoma City newspaper: “We are comfortable being pioneers. Our Louisville property is in a similar situation, on the west edge of the central business district. In the early 2000s, it was a very different place than it is today. We’re very proud to have played some role in the redevelopment of that part of the city.”

These folks sound perfect for downtown Hot Springs, don’t they?

In Lexington, 21c plans to redevelop the First National Building and adjoining downtown properties while keeping the original facades intact. There will be 90 rooms in the Lexington hotel with a project cost of $40 million.

In addition to 21c, the leadership of Hot Springs and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission should approach investors who might want to renovate a downtown building and then affiliate the hotel with a hip national brand such as Aloft (part of the Starwood family of hotels) or Hotel Indigo (part of the Intercontinental family of hotels).

And don’t forget that last month Belz Enterprises of Memphis announced that it wants to expand its Peabody brand. Yes, I know the company sold its Peabody hotels in Little Rock and Orlando.

The company wants out of the business (except for the downtown Memphis flagship) of owning large hotels that cater to convention attendees. Belz just wants to manage smaller luxury hotels owned by others, which would be rebranded under the Peabody name.

Peabody Hot Springs anyone?

Douglas Browne, the president of Peabody Hotels & Resorts, said: “We’ll be looking for independently owned properties in the full-service, luxury sector that are looking to gain a unique presence within their market.”

Now, let’s move from the three Rs to the bathhouses.

Hot Springs National Park superintendent Josie Fernandez and her staff at the National Park Service have done an outstanding job of restoring the bathhouses and finding uses for them.

The Buckstaff is the one bathhouse that never stopped serving bathers. Following an extensive renovation, the Quapaw joined the mix. Thus there are now two spa choices among the eight bathhouses.

The Fordyce serves as the main visitors’ center for Hot Springs National Park and has recently undergone another renovation.

The Lamar is now being used as a bookstore and gift shop.

The Superior is now a microbrewery. The Superior, which opened in 1916, is the smallest of the eight bathhouses and the closest to the Arlington Hotel. It had been empty since 1983, but a brewer named Rose Schweikhart Cranson changed all of that.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Contemporary Art has ceased operations in the Ozark.

Meanwhile, the Muses Creative Artistry Project, which had operated a café and bookstore in the lobby of the Hale for a time, gave up on its dream of using the rest of the Hale for performing arts spaces, studios, meeting spaces and an artist-in-residence apartment. The Park Service has spent more than $1.5 million to preserve the Hale, including an update of the heating and air conditioning systems. Built in 1892, the Hale has 12,000 square feet on two main floors. In 1917, one of the hot springs was captured in a tiled enclosure in the basement. That feature is still in place. The Hale closed on Halloween Day 1978.

So uses are needed for the Ozark, the Hale and a large bathhouse known as the Maurice.

Here are three suggestions that would add to the mix for visitors to downtown Hot Springs and complement each other:

1. Approach Alice Walton and convince her to put a small branch of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in one of the bathhouses. Not much renovation would be necessary for this. Mainly, it would be a place where pieces of the Crystal Bridges permanent collection could be shown for several months at a time along with traveling exhibits. There would be no permanent collection in Hot Springs. It would be a way to entice visitors to spend a few additional days up in northwest Arkansas. A whole new group of tourists would learn about Crystal Bridges. It’s a win-win proposition.

2. Open a baseball museum to further build on Hot Springs’ niche as the birthplace of spring training. The 2012 creation of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail by Visit Hot Springs has been a boon to tourism. There are more than 25 markers across the city that are linked to digital technology, allowing visitors to hear about each site. More than 45 percent of the inductees into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., trained or played in Hot Springs at one time or another. Now, it’s time to take the next step with a museum and perhaps even an affiliation with the Baseball Hall of Fame so traveling sports exhibits can come through.

3. Create the Arkansas Political Hall of Fame and place a political museum in a bathhouse. The city of Hope has a national historic site to mark President Clinton’s birthplace. Fayetteville has the home where Bill and Hillary Clinton once lived open for tours. Little Rock has the presidential library. There’s very little that’s Clinton related for visitors to see in Hot Springs, the town where he spent his formative years and graduated from high school. This museum would change that. It also would tell the story of other colorful Arkansas politicians. Note that there’s a Louisiana Political Museum in tiny Winnfield, the home of Huey P. and younger brother Uncle Earl Long. The Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame was created by an act of the Louisiana Legislature in 1987. The museum is housed in the old Winnfield railroad depot. One of the bathhouses at Hot Springs would be a perfect spot for an Arkansas version of what Louisiana has done. There are a heck of a lot more visitors to Hot Springs than there are to Winnfield.

So there you have it. Some brainstorming for downtown Hot Springs.

As those historic buildings along Central Avenue continue to deteriorate, we must understand that the clock is ticking.

The time for action to revive downtown is now.

17 Responses to “The three Rs for downtown Hot Springs”

  1. Kay says:

    From your mouth to God’s ear.

  2. David Grimes says:

    Good stuff Rex.

  3. Great ideas! The only problem is, and I can testify first hand to the following as the owner of a successful downtown attraction for the last 6 years in Hot Springs, the owners of the properties you blog about absolutely will not sell. Period. The owner of the property in which my business thrives (directly across from Bathhouse Row) will not consider any offer, so what’s a guy to do? Since I have arrived in 2007, there have been many offers made on the majority of properties on Central Avenue from California investors with very deep pockets — and none accepted. The majority of the property is owned by tax-free foundations, with the leasors paying the property tax for the owner and most repairs done at the tenant’s expense, and there is a waiting list for people to rent that property. So the question is: how do you get a horny bull to walk away from a herd of willing cows? It has become clear to me that the answers to Central Avenue you pose are more than just wooing deep pockets from Kentucky. It more likely will return to its glory due to a generational change, because Hot Springs has experienced many catastrophic events, namely, fires, floods, and a Republican governor who didn’t need any money. You can bet on one thing, we will mop up and march on. P.S., Keep up the good writing.

  4. Pat Scavo says:

    We are a downtown business & building owner. We have great hopes for Hot Springs – and as the center of a National Park, the City needs all the interest and support from every direction. We need for everyone to heed the
    words written by Rex and take action !!!!

  5. rexnelson says:

    Thanks for what you are doing with the Gangster Museum, Robert. That is exactly the type of attraction that is needed downtown — something that draws on the city’s colorful past and provides a reason for people to be downtown.

  6. patti says:

    The majestic is on fire as we speak. Sorry this is happening. you have a great blog.

  7. Kin Bush says:


    All great ideas.

    Some good stuff here.

    The great ideas are not in short supply.

    The willingness to promote the systemic changes required to do it is.

    There’s a couple of things that have to happen in order for these things to come to fruition. Email me for details.

    And thank you for the first article on the Majestic. Sometimes is takes something as simple as this to rev things up…which I know was your intent.


  8. Charlie says:

    Is anyone watching the news? Fire has engulfed the Majestic Hotel!20

  9. Dave T Reagan JP#1 says:

    Inertia has been the tradition in downtown Hot Springs for decades. While we hate to see historic landmarks like the Majestic Hotel disappear, it is safe to say the unmaintained architectural jewels along central continue to root Hot Springs firmly in the past with little hope for the future. Fire has a way of making change occur suddenly. Now, maybe we’ll see your vision of downtown more clearly when the smoke clears. The same things that attracted the first peoples to Hot Springs thousands of years ago are still drawing folks today. Let’s work with Nature to promote green living, active transportation, upscale accommodations, a healthy environment and economic development is bound to follow.

  10. Darlene Simpson says:

    Hi Rex…..I am a Baby Boomer and moved from Kansas City to Hot Springs 8 months ago because of the many many things Arkansas has to offer….in close proximity… i.e., clear lakes (unlike Missouri!), hiking, zip lining, hang gliding, scenic drives, etc. The Historic Downtown Hot Springs area grabbed my heart FIRST, and the rest followed….I visited the area in May, went back to KC, packed and moved. A large part of what attracted me was the knowing there is a real “community” here. The milder temperatures and the lower cost of living….icing on the cake. I have a lot of experience to share and worked on the Downtown Kansas City revitalization project in terms of residential housing. I am here to help in any way possible. Darlene Simpson,

  11. Darlene Simpson says:

    P.S. To earlier post.

    I should mention that while living in Kansas City for many years, I was a member of a business club (the Central Exchange) with over 1,000 members, mostly women. I founded and ran the special interest group named the Wellness Lifestyle Group. It was the most successful special interest group the club had. :-). References can be provided. Anyway, the point being, Downtown Hot Springs is the best place in the US to develop a wellness experience as the main attraction. That water has been percolating up for “us” for 4,000 years….our gift. I know I can help, just need to brainstorm with everyone.

  12. Sherry says:

    How many acres are available on the Majestic property? In Shenyang, China there is large international park, financed in part by countries from around the world that might be a development model worth consideration. Each donating country is allotted a space in which their national theme is displayed. What IF, the NPS and City could acquire the land and open up a stretch of the Hot Spring Creek that runs below the property? (Is it environmentally possible for people to experience the hot springs in Arkansas as we do in say, Costa Rica?) What IF there were FFS real access to slightly cooled springs there? What if other cities around the globe with the name of “Hot Springs” were approached to donate/contribute small space exhibits/benches/ native stone/history/specimen/ etc about that Hot Springs? Could Hot Springs, Arkansas serve as the global epicenter of the hot springs around the globe? What marketing, cooperative and economic development initiatives might develop as a result? Could such a park be enclosed by glass so that it is available year round to complement the bathhouse row? What is an ideal space use for that property and how might it be leveraged for the benefit of anchoring the businesses and strengthening the economics of that end of town? What other buildings exist that can be targeted as part of a long term restoration, economic development plan for the city? What process might city leaders employ to immediately capitalize on optimize the interest, talents and spirit of volunteerism that now exists before it fades?

  13. I was once the tourism coordinator for Hot Springs, back in the ’80s, and I can tell you the majority of calls and request that came in were for cabins or B & Bs in the woods, etc. Not downtown H.S. I also owned a business (not a building) in the historic Spencer’s Corner. We could barely survive and race meet killed down town. The majority of those coming to race meet wanted to go to the races, eat-party where they ate-go dancing and drive back to the hotel or wherever (partly or mostly) intoxicated. Maybe things have changed, as to the calls for room these days. But that is still the number one call in the Mena area (where I live).

    You left out the one very, maybe most, important word in downtown Hot Springs-PARKING. If there is one thing that is a deterrent to going downtown H.S. it is a lack of parking. No matter what is done with the historic buildings (and my life has been spent promoting preservation) you have to consider the maintenance and the parking.

    We formed a non-profit in the tiny town of Norman, Arkansas, 45 mins. from Hot Springs, when our old high school was about to bite the dust. We have raised more than $400,000 on our own, no big donations, no tax dollars and with very little help. We have saved our old school and it now serves as a museum (upstairs) and a flea market downstairs. A strange mix, to be sure, but we needed income and garage sales-the one thing that works-were getting old. But you are so right, it takes tenacity and a thick skin for someone to take on such a project. We now have the building up for sale, because we don’t have the money to hire someone to run in, or the volunteers. Time for me to retire-again, after spending 14 years on this project. We do get most our or visitors to the building from Mena, Hot Springs, and Glenwood, and tourist passing through. The point being, most people at home never seem to realize the treasures they have, nor do they support them. Come visit our web site and see our progress. Our building was in worse shape than any of those you speak of.

    Love reading your article and it could have been written by any Main Street Arkansas, project leader. The Main Street Arkansas is a great project, just needs a little revitalizing of its own.

  14. Jody Blonde says:

    Bring back Maxine’s, once one of the most famous bordellos anywhere, with photographs of some of Maxine’s most famous customers. That would get some attention.

  15. Anyone interested your in luck the Majestic Hotel is for sale! Tax incentives are available for anyone interested in pursuing one of Rex’s ideas. Visit to find out more information on how you can help bring back part of Hot Springs Majestic history!

  16. Tommie Kelly says:

    As a native and current resident of Hot Springs, I am so grateful to have Rex as a strong voice for our city. As we approach Easter, what better time for a resurrection story of our downtown? God Bless You, Rex Nelson!!!

  17. Rosario J. Dispensa II says:

    I am Coy Theobolts nephew and the only surviving member of his kitchen. I was taught by him the ideals I now hold about serving our community and the importance of keeping Hot Springs an exclusive resort town and how much downtown contributed to our stature. I followed in his footsteps opening my first restaurant downtown. Keeping his standards by putting my name on the door and the concept “the boss is in the kitchen” was my way of honoring one of Hot Springs greatest sons and a man who was very much like a father to me. My restaurant was Rosario’s Ristorante. We remodeled the Marquette Hotel and opened the restaurant there. We were on the ground floor of the restoration of downtown and came to love the area and the old world feeling it exudes. After he sold the restaurant, he would travel and when he was away, I made the seasoning salt and delivered it to the new owners. One of the ingredients to the seasoning was taken off the market in the 80’s. I recently found a way to get that ingredient and am considering marketing the seasoning. I would like to find a group of investors to reopen Coy’s Steakhouse in its original form. Aging the meat on site, which was abandoned by the new owners and using the original recipes, which, as far as I know, I am the only person who has them. If you know of anyone interested, please let me know. I have wanted to come back to downtown for a long time. I truly miss it. Rosario J. Dispensa II

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