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Soaking Up a Little History at Hot Spring Spas

May 14, 1989|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — In the early decades of the century, the wealthy and wild poured into this central Arkansas town, joining the sick and the stiff for the warm, mineral-rich, bacteria-free waters said by local Indians to have curative powers.

Just as they did at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., visitors also came for the race tracks, gin mills, bordellos and opulent gambling casinos, where people could get soaked when they weren't actually soaking.

The town's rich and ribald history, especially the boom years from the turn of the century through the Roaring '20s, has the makings of a great potboiler of a novel, if not a movie. But beginning with the repeal of Prohibition, this once wide-open town began a long decline, speeded--say locals--by cortisone, Las Vegas and California-style hot tubs.

Now, in an effort to revive the town, the National Park Service, which owns the springs and a good part of downtown, wants to restore the old spas along Central Avenue's "Bath House Row" and cut into the foot of Hot Springs Mountain.

Town fathers and mothers, together with the National Park Service, are doing all they can think of to lure tourists off the beaten interstate (I-40, an hour away) to what they are calling the "Vacation Capital of Arkansas."

The Buckstaff, one of the eight bath houses, is offering "tingling surges of Hot Springs Thermal Water" and massages for about $10 each. The 27,000-square-foot, Classic Revival structure, in continuous operation since 1912, averages 30,000 baths a year these days, about 10% of the traffic in the boom years.

Less than half a mile away is the Leo N. Levi Arthritis Hospital, built in 1914 by the B'nai B'rith national service organization for indigent arthritis suffers of all faiths. It is still operating with the group's support, and is still treating stroke and chronic pain victims.

The first of the bath house row restorations--the elegant Fordyce--opened this weekend as a visitors center, following a two-year, $5-million face lift.

The structure, built by Col. Samuel W. Fordyce, a colorful railroad entrepreneur, is stuffed with original and restored furnishings, some donated by local residents. The National Park Service also is mounting photographic exhibits.

Private 'Staterooms'

The three-story Fordyce, considered "the most architecturally significant" structure on the row by the National Park Service, was completed in 1915 and built on the site of a previous bath house called The Palace. The colonel purchased a Knabe grand piano for the grand parlor, and equipped the lounges with phonograph machines and billiard tables.

In addition to separate baths for men and women, the Spanish Renaissance Revival structure featured 22 private "staterooms," marble statuary, a gym, a library, music and assembly rooms, separate parlors, two bowling alleys and a roof garden.

When Barbara Bush visited Hot Springs during the presidential campaign, she rode down Central Avenue on the Mule Trolley. But the best way to get the feel of the town is on foot.

An energetic, hourlong walking tour of the historic district would begin with the Arlington Hotel, at one end.

The twin-towered structure, described in Cutter's Guide Book of 1882 as "the most elegant and complete hotel in America," was where Al Capone used to stay--in Room 442, facing the Southern Club, a gambling house, with his bodyguards and gang occupying the rest of the floor.

Other guests at the Arlington have included former presidents Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, H. L. Hunt and film producer Marvin Schenck. The hotel is open for guests and conventions, and mineral baths are available on the third floor. A hand-operated elevator, lined with beveled glass and polished brass, has been in use since it was installed in 1924.

Inspection Tour

From the Arlington, the next stop would be the Fordyce, then an inspection tour, if not a bath, at the Buckstaff. Period street lamps and new benches have been installed on Central Avenue, along with new landscaping.

And, in conjunction with the Fordyce opening, a group of locals called "Friends of the Fordyce" are beginning regular tours, dressed in period costumes. Horse-drawn carriages will soon be available.

After a tour, a short hike up Reserve Trail leads to the Promenade. This 18-foot-wide, tree-shaded brick walkway is cut into the side of Hot Springs Mountain, parallel to Central Avenue, behind and above bath house row.

Along the half-mile route--which is about eye level with some of the ornate, bath house domes--are benches and a permanent checkerboard. The promenade ends just above the Arlington Hotel.

A good guide for such a circuit is "The American Spa" (Rose Publishing Co., Little Rock), an illustrated, anecdotal history by Dee Brown, author of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Brown writes of one shootout between rival gambling bosses, a Canadian named Frank Flynn and Maj. S. A. Doran, a Confederate veteran from Texas, in the 1880s:

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