November 1, 2013

Springing Back: Restored Bathhouses in Hot Springs, Arkansas

After decades of decline, restored Hot Springs, Arkansas, bathhouses are welcoming visitors with more than just a therapeutic soak.

"Disrobe and get in.”

It would have sounded like a churlish, borderline indecent command had it not come from the kindly elderly gentleman whose job it was to lead me through a five-step, hour-and-a-half-long whirlpool mineral bath and massage treatment at the Buckstaff Bath House in Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park. And to be fair, I probably needed the gently barked order to snap me out of my deep reverie—brought on by an equal mixture of extreme self-consciousness at being dressed in nothing but a white sheet (prompting a loop of John Belushi at the Animal House toga party to play in my head) and an eagerness to take in my surroundings.

Gazing around, what struck me first was that the high-ceilinged treatment room at the Buckstaff is the antithesis of today’s luxury spa. A laboring industrial-sized fan, not dulcet New Age music or burbling water, provided the background noise. The unadorned porcelain tubs and marble walls gave the place a quasi-institutional feel. Yet when I finally did as I was told and settled into the roiling 100-degree water and felt my muscles instantly exhale, it was easy to understand not only why this no-frills approach to relaxation has kept the Buckstaff in continuous operation since 1912, but also why people who simply wanted to feel good (or at least better) have been flocking to Hot Springs since the 1800s. Indeed, the list of visitors to the city where, as multiple signs around Hot Springs point out, former President Bill Clinton grew up is impressive: everyone from sports icons and screen stars such as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Mae West, and Rudolph Valentino to scofflaws such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, who for years was so ensconced in town that he had his own favored suite at the downtown Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa. (Guests can still request it today.)

The primary reason millions from multiple generations have made the trek to this small city with 47 natural springs tucked tightly into the Ouachita Mountains of Central Arkansas—about an hour’s drive southwest of the capital city of Little Rock—literally bubbled all around and enveloped me as I luxuriated in the tub. In fact, the thermal waters that get pushed up from deep in the ground and steamily emerge in places like the Buckstaff and at numerous fountains around the area were alluring enough that the U.S. Congress and President Andrew Jackson agreed to preserve the area’s natural springs way back in 1832; eventually, Hot Springs National Park (at around 5,500 acres, the nation’s smallest) was established to ensure that folks like me could forever drink and soak in the waters.

But there has always been something a little different about the preservation ethos in Hot Springs. From its discovery, this has been a place that has gleefully used its most coveted resource for commercial purposes.

To reach the Buckstaff from my base at the Arlington Hotel, I strolled along the main thoroughfare of Central Avenue, a pleasant tree-lined street, the most famous section of which is known as Bathhouse Row. Along this stretch of road in the shadow of Hot Springs Mountain sit eight bathhouses, including the Buckstaff, all of which were built at the turn of the last century, a time when people of all income levels shared the conviction that the waters here had near magical curative powers. The owners of the bathhouses, which each catered to a specific clientele (e.g. the wealthy or mere commoners), were keen to stoke that belief, and their success at doing so still stands in the form of these grand yet eclectic temples. With architecture styles ranging from the Renaissance Revival to Spanish Colonial Revival to Classical Revival, the bathhouses represent an era when Hot Springs was known as “America’s Spa City.”

Views of the surrounding mountains and Bathhouse Row can be had from various trails and an observation tower above Hot Springs National Park.

While a soak in the waters at the Buckstaff was mandatory during my two-day trip to the hybrid town and national park that constitutes Hot Springs, I had purposely saved it for my last stop, a fitting end to my stay in a place that is constantly adapting and using its rich legacy to remain alluring to visitors. Certainly, some of the appeal is timeless. I began my day early, making the short walk from the Arlington Hotel to one of the seemingly endless webs of trails that lead through dense oak and hickory forests. As someone who grew up hiking in the steep and rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire, the leisurely stroll to the top of Hot Springs Mountain, along paths originally built to encourage spa-goers to get some regenerative exercise, was a departure. Unlike their northern brethren, where a lot of sweat and toil are often required to earn a scenic view, the diminutive Ouachitas are almost embarrassingly generous in handing out eyefuls of the area’s many deep blue lakes and, in autumn, flowing carpets of colorful foliage.

Still, while the water and the natural setting will always be a draw, the truth is that Hot Springs, and particularly Bathhouse Row, are at the tail end of a long and tumultuous redefinition, one that began with the post-World War II demise of bathhouse patronage. In their heyday, the bathhouses welcomed many visitors seeking relief from arthritis and disease. But as Michael Kusch, the chief of interpretation and cultural resource management at Hot Springs National Park, told me, the introduction of cortisone and penicillin suddenly made the waters less appealing. “Beginning in the 1960s until the 1980s most of the bathhouses closed; they couldn’t do business,” he said. “And then during the 1980s the buildings deteriorated because nobody was in them.”

After my hike—and an indulgent breakfast of hubcap-sized flapjacks at The Pancake Shop, a downtown eatery open since 1940—I met up with Hot Springs National Park superintendent Josie Fernandez at the 3 Arts Café and Bookstore, which was up until recently located in the Hale Bathhouse. Fernandez came to Hot Springs in 2004 after a stint at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and still vividly recalls the reaction she had to first seeing the exterior of the ornate bathhouses—and then walking inside. “My first impression was, wow, great,” she said. “And then I wanted to cry.” The unoccupied bathhouses were in disrepair. Charged with the upkeep of the buildings—and not anticipating a wild resurgence of bathing popularity—Fernandez knew she had to find both updated uses for the bathhouses and entrepreneurs to take the risks and do the work.

The Hale, where we sat and enjoyed a coffee in the sun-dappled lobby, is a reminder of how tough a task Fernandez has taken on. After fending off an effort to put a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum there, Fernandez, a woman who seems to bounce with energy, worked with a group known as the Muses Creative Artistry Project to re-imagine the Hale as both a café and a performing arts center. It was a natural fit for Hot Springs, given that the city is dotted with small galleries and is home to many artists and performers. But in May 2013, not long after our interview, the 3 Arts Café and Bookstore announced it was unable to fund a long-term lease at the Hale and instead relocated elsewhere in town. But Fernandez has had more successes than failures. Working with entrepreneurs—who, importantly, were willing to invest both a significant amount of money to upgrade the building and to do it in a way that adhered to the park service’s historic preservation guidelines—she saw the Quapaw Bathhouse revamped into the sort of gleaming modern-day spa you would expect to find in Scottsdale or Palm Springs. Other accomplishments include the Ozark Bathhouse, which became the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the ornate Fordyce, now the park’s visitor center.

The Ohio Club, Arkansas' oldest bar, was once owned by Al Capone and is still popular today with bikers and locals.

At the Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery, Rose Schweikhart Cranson hopes to use stainless steel bathtubs, made in small numbers for the bathhouses, in the fermentation process.

The latest of the bathhouses to take on a new life is the Superior, which had been empty for nearly 30 years and catered to the hoi polloi during its heyday. Now, thanks to the efforts of a 30-year-old Illinois transplant named Rose Schweikhart Cranson, the doors are open to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery. (A tasting room serving craft brews opened this past summer, and Cranson expects to be making her own beer this fall.)

To walk into the lobby of the Superior is to instantly grasp how well suited it is to this rebirth as a one-of-a-kind brewpub. The hulking marble check-in desk where bathers used to start their treatments is now the bar. A tall bank of metal cubbyholes behind the bar was once a repository for visitors’ valuables; now it’s set to be a place for regulars to stow their favorite mugs. There is not a bad seat in the lobby-turned-tasting room—with standard tables and chairs near the street and high tops toward the back, everyone has a view out of the large windows looking onto Central Avenue.

Guests enjoy the "soft opening" of Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery.

And then there’s the water. Cranson brought me back through what used to be the males-only bathing area and is now home to the tall, stainless steel and copper brewing tanks. In a cramped room, she lifted up a heavy square trap door, the historic entry point for the spring water. A home brewer who also served as de facto contractor in the extensive renovation of the Superior, Cranson knows this is her trump card. “As far I know, we are the only brewery in the world brewing with hot spring water,” she said. “It’s normally not potable—just think about Yellowstone—but ours is fantastic.” Besides giving a boost to the taste of the stout and red ale she plans to brew, Cranson says there is another significant advantage to using Hot Springs water: At around 140 degrees, it doesn’t require the normal amount of energy necessary to heat during the brewing process. “It saves us time, and time is money,” she said.

In many ways, the transformation of spring water into alcohol at the Superior is an apt development in the latest chapter of this quirky little city. After all, Hot Springs has long had a conflicted soul, part of it devoted to healing and rejuvenation and the other part to sin and indulgence. Seriously, would Lucky Luciano and Al Capone really have spent so much time here just to soak in some hot water?

On the night before I met up with Cranson and Fernandez, I looked for some of the less virtuous hangouts that attracted both mobsters and the many baseball players, like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, who descended on Hot Springs when it was a popular spot for teams to hold spring training. I could have ventured away from downtown to Oaklawn Park, an art deco horse track opened in 1905 where races are held in the spring and gamblers still descend year-round. But there was really no reason to go that far. Across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row I had my pick of former dens of iniquity. For a drink or dinner, I could have settled in at Maxine’s, a one-time brothel that now has a good selection of beers and is a frequent venue for live music, poetry readings, and cabaret shows.

Instead, I headed into the Ohio Club, said to be Arkansas’ oldest bar and one of Capone’s and Bugsy Siegel’s favorite places to gamble. Although the walls of the dark, two-story pub are covered with memorabilia from that raucous time of history, it’s calm and friendly inside. A young man played an acoustic guitar near the open front door, and passersby often stopped to linger on the sidewalk to catch a snippet of a song. Hearing that I was from out of town, a local man near me at the bar whipped out his phone to show some photos of what Central Avenue once looked like. During an interlude in the music, I got up from my seat, looked out the window, and gazed at the glowing lights on inside the Superior. In that moment of quiet, past and present pooled together, the future of Hot Springs rising like steam from the warm water.

Chris Warren is the former editor in chief of Photon Magazine, a solar industry trade publication. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, and the Oxford American Magazine.

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