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Relaxation Flows From Koreatown Hot Spring

August 31, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Descendants of an early settler in the Western Avenue area wondered for decades what to do with an artesian well that pumped out 250,000 gallons of hot mineral water daily in the middle of Los Angeles.

It was not until three years ago that Yang Cha Kim, who holds the Korean degree of doctor of Oriental medicine, and her husband, Chang Bum Huh, a weightlifter for Korea in the 1964 Olympics, came up with the answer--a thermal spa, the only one in Los Angeles.

Hearing of the unused well from an acquaintance who lived in the area, Huh and Kim got a loan, bought the land and built the Beverly Hot Springs, an oasis of steam baths and saunas only steps from Beverly Boulevard and Western Avenue.

There, as traffic roars by outside, bathers shed their towels and sink languorously into steaming pools much like those of the famous hot spring resorts of Europe and Japan.

Once a Wheat Field

But this is Koreatown. Tucked behind a row of nondescript shops, the spa is fed by a strong flow of 96- to 105-degree water from the artesian well that Richard S. Grant found when he bought the land--then a wheat field--to subdivide for a housing development in 1910.

Once covered by a shabby warehouse used for water-bottling, the well has a new building outfitted with a two-story fake waterfall, grand piano, beauty shop and snack bar serving seaweed soup.

There is also a life-size, gold-painted, three-dimensional acupuncture chart in the form of a nude man. Koreans generally drape such mannequins with a loincloth for modesty, said Dhang Huh, a relative of the owners and vice president of the spa. An American-born visitor argued against drapery, Dhang Huh said, noting that nudes are routinely on display at museums and sculpture gardens. So a compromise was reached: A green paper sign reading "Do Not Touch" covers the sensitive areas.

Clothes are not needed in the spa, where men and women are segregated in upstairs and downstairs facilities.

Both chambers feature hot pools fed by tile-lined fountains hooked to the old well pipe that now shares a basement storage room with boxes of soap and stacks of towels.

Room for a Nap

After a hot soak, bathers can take a cold plunge and move on to a sauna, steam bath and cool room, where wooden couches are available for naps. The spa, developed at a cost of $2 million, is furnished with an herbal pharmacy, including a big box of deer antlers. The antlers are ground up and taken with herbal tea as an energy booster.

"The Oriental theory is, we try the natural way," Dhang Huh said.

"We believe every plant has medicine in it, except poisons, of course. How you eat them, how you cook them is different depending on the prescription. This has been done for many hundreds of years. We just follow that way."

Soaking in hot mineral water is part of that philosophy, he said. Dug near the turn of the century by drillers looking for oil, the 2,200-foot well supplied early residents of the area near Western Avenue and Beverly Boulevard until city water mains were installed in 1915.

The water was especially popular among red-eyed men who found the sodium bicarbonate and other minerals it contains soothing on Monday mornings. It was once bottled as "Wonder Water" under the Angelus Club label and with the slogan "Nature's Own Formula."

Business flagged after World War II, however, and the stream of bacteria-free water was turned down to a feeble flow just strong enough to keep clear the one pipe coming from the well.

According to a chemical analysis made in 1931, the alkaline water contains silica, iron and aluminum oxides, magnesium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate and sodium chloride.

'Beneficial to Many'

The major mineral, at 82.6 grains per gallon, is sodium bicarbonate, according to the report by Smith-Emery Co., a testing firm.

"The presence of these mineral salts are considered beneficial in cases of acidity in stomach and, as this is the cause of rheumatism and similar ailments, the water should be found beneficial to many persons," the report said.

Although modern medicine may not agree--in fact, most doctors find the term rheumatism too broad and instead speak of arthritis, tendinitis or myalgia in describing symptoms of stiffness or pain in the joints, tendons or muscles--the advertising language of 57 years ago was firm.

"The water is beneficial for the following Ailments: Acidity, Rheumatism, Ulcers in Stomach, Kidney, Bladder, Gallstones and Similar Troubles," an old flyer declares. "The water is Soft, Soothing and Neutralizes the Acid."

Dhang Huh makes no such claims, although he said many such hot springs in Korea and Japan are considered to have healing properties.

Oriental Medicine

"Here in this country, we just say you enjoy it," said Huh, who says that he, like Kim, is trained in Oriental medicine, a specialty that includes acupuncture and herbal knowledge. Neither is licensed to practice medicine in the United States.

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