Nov 20, 2011

Hot Springs: America's First Resort

One of the great joys of travel is learning about new places. John and I had never been to Arkansas. To say that we were impressed with Hot Springs would be an understatement. Although many places claim to be “America’s First Resort,” Hot Spring is the only one that can claim to be the first federally protected area having been so designated in 1832. Hot Springs was, in essence, America’s first national park even though it wasn’t official until 1921. At first the accommodations were rudimentary – mainly a tent over a spring. But as more and more people arrived to enjoy the springs American entrepreneurs continued to improved accommodations ultimately creating luxurious bathhouses.

The Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center is housed in what was the Fordyce Bathhouse. The 1915 Spanish Renaissance Revival building has been restored. Interestingly the men’s bathing side with a beautiful stained glass ceiling is much larger and more elegant that the women’s side. In 1913, Colonel Samuel W. Fordycea planned a "...veritable temple of health and beauty…” because he felt the springs had saved his life."

An informative video in the Visitor Center explains the geology of the area. The hot springs are not volcanic in origin as many thought. It takes about 4000 years for the rain water to percolate down to a depth of 8000 feet. As is descends the water gets increasingly warmer. The result is 47 springs – most of which are 147 degrees and pure enough to drink.

The Fordyce is the starting point for exploring Bathhouse Row. In the 1960s many of the bathhouses closed and fell into disrepair. By 1985 only the Buckstaff Bathhouse remained open. Then in 2004 the National Park Service began to rehabilitate the vacant bathhouses and lease them out under the Historic Property Leasing Program. Today guests can enjoy the thermal waters of the newest spa, the Quapaw Baths & Spa with four large hot-water soaking pools along with private bathing rooms attended by they trained therapists. One of the most unique aspects of the Quapaw is their Natural Steam Cave. The bathhouse was built in the early 1920s over one of the natural thermal springs. A small man-made cave created at that time has been upgraded and is now a unique sauna/stream room where the spring still bubbles forth. Like the Buckstaff, the Quapaw offers a full range of massages and therapies along with a gift shop and café.

Not all the bathhouses are being resurrected as bathhouses. The Ozark Bathhouse opened to the public in 2009 as the Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum advertises that it “displays one of a kind pieces to create a one of a kind experience.” I’d have to agree. The artist, Boban, has created expressive full-size sculptures of athletes, angels, and musicians that shows fluidity of motion by welding together spoons. Equally expressive are the works of Liu Miao Chan whose life-like figures in leather show amazing emotion. He says, "Leather is soft, alive, like skin. It is warm and allows for movement. It gives life to the work."

The newest bathhouse to be revitalized is the former Hale Bathhouse, which now houses The Three Muse’ Arts Café and Bookstore run by a not-for-profit group that plans to eventually feature visual and performing arts. At one time there were eight operating bathhouses. Hopefully, all of them will reopen and once again in one form or another.