The Double Life Of Hot Springs

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Dating from the early part of this century, these palaces project a variety of architectural styles that scarcely refer to their actual location or function: the white-painted Ozark with its twin Spanish-style towers and red-tiled roof; the Buckstaff—the only house on the Row currently in operation—boxy but enhanced by two-story columns topped by Grecian urns; the Quapaw, with its Xanadu-style dome and intricate Byzantine designs; the Hale, replete with French Quarter wrought iron; the Georgian-style Superior; the Maurice, white-stuccoed and red-tiled, with a Mediterranean flair; and the Fordyce, now wonderfully restored by the Park Service, complete with a Grand Central Terminal-style canopy and topped by brickwork in a quilted diamond design. The grandiose mixture of details and flamboyant disregard for immediate circumstances give the Row the air of a colonial encampment, the unreality—though it is on a smaller scale—of compounds of wealth during the Raj or in contemporary Palm Beach or Palm Springs. Or perhaps even more to the point, the style suggests Las Vegas and Atlantic City, early casino on a less than Trumpian scale.

Elegant niches in the hillside behind the Row, the little water parks with alcoves where a spring briefly breaks forth or a decorative drinking fountain is ensconced in a high wall, all add to this exotic flavor. The Grand Promenade that curves through landscaped grounds at the base of Hot Springs Mountain exploits the natural beauty of its environs even as it looks onto the backs of the bathhouses. Picturesque even from this perspective, the fanciful structures here reveal their plumbing, firmly rooted in the Arkansas soil, the pumps and pipes that make possible all the front-door fantasy. And beneath everything the indestructible native novaculite provides a foundation sufficient against even such disasters as the 1990 flood.

Inside the restored Fordyce the lobby and veranda and the long music room connecting the ladies’ lounge with the men’s billiards room all are decorated with wicker furniture arranged into leisure areas for writing and conversation. A beauty shop once helped restore coiffures damaged by the baths, and day rooms used to be available for those who wanted more time to recuperate and required the service of maids. The place has the air of the old resorts of privilege and of mansions like George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore; ever, the gymnasium, with its punching bags, Indian clubs, and climbing ropes, seems more a playroom for Teddy Roosevelt and his affluent friends than a center for serious therapy. But the other rooms give the secret away.

 

In addition to steam chambers and bathing tubs to facilitate the purging of unclean fluids and the intake of the purifying waters of the springs, there is on the third floor a room once used for treating syphilitics with mercury and later given over to a deep Hubbard tub designed for treating polio patients. The elevator in the hall, the monorail suspended from the ceiling, and the hydraulic lift inside the tub made these facilities accessible to wheelchair-bound patients and even today are reminders of grim determination. Rooms devoted to less dramatic ailments also have a disturbing look, mostly because of the array of machinery in which at one time or another so much hope and advertising were invested: “tissue oscillators” and other instruments designed to enliven worn or damaged bodies with electric shock or light or sound.

Bathhouse promotion mingles science and magic, chemical analysis of the water’s composition side by side with legendary accounts like the Maurice’s insistence that it is built over a sort of Aladdin’s cave where the most beneficial waters flow. So too the exteriors’ suggestion of magic is matched on the inside by technology, and the pretentious buildings convey a sense to all patients that heretofore exclusive luxuries are about to be theirs. The Buckstaff, though never so opulent as the Fordyce, continues in operation today, offering bathing and massages. Visitors register in the lobby, leaving their valuables, including the appropriate fees for the bath, before entering the changing areas. From this point on, dress consists only of a sheet, draped toga-style over one shoulder, and that only for transit between stations along the pilgrimage.

Early visitors often described their bathing experience in ambivalent terms. “Crowds swarm in these baths,” the novelist Stephen Crane wrote. “A man becomes a creature of three conditions. He is about to take a bath—he is taking a bath—he has taken a bath. … In the quiet and intensely hot interiors of the buildings men involved in enormous bathrobes lounge in great rocking chairs. In other rooms the negro attendants scramble at the bidding of the bathers. Through the high windows the sunlight enters and pierces the curling masses of vapor which rise slowly in the heavy air.”