Places To Go: Hot Springs, Arkansas

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Bathhouse Row, with the Arlington Hotel behind.

Bathhouse Row, with the Arlington Hotel behind.

Architecture thrived in this resort, where Al Capone came to the hot springs to escape the heat. Bathhouse Row is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the colorful stories never end. Bill Clinton was born here. Rural splendors are nearby, and you’ll find all the activities associated with a tourist destination. Best of all, you can still get a bath and massage on the Row, no gentle New Age thing: Middle-aged women with massive arms knead you after you’ve soaked in a very historic metal tub. There’s nothing like it.

Lookout Point on Lake Hamilton.

Lookout Point on Lake Hamilton.

In Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Ouachita Mountains fold in such a way that rain that fell 4,000 years ago bubbles up out of the earth at 143 degrees Fahrenheit. The clean, mineral-rich water has always attracted tourists. By the 1820s, a boardinghouse was taking guests for $1 a day, leading Hot Springs to call itself “America’s First Resort.” In 1832, Congress moved to protect the hot springs, making this the oldest (and smallest) park in the National Park System. The federal government leased real estate to establishments built to serve visitors to the thermal waters, and the railroads promoted the trip. Well-situated amidst Lake Hamilton, Lake Ouachita, and Lake Catherine, Hot Springs is easily accessible to most of the mid-South. By 1873, six bathhouses and 24 hotels and boardinghouses stood near the springs.

The next 100 years brought the titled, the wanted, and the glitterati in record numbers. In 1947, over a million medicinal baths were administered. The community tolerated gambling until the 1960s, so famous gangsters hid from the law while being pampered. Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred racing facility, has been in operation since 1904.

Three lakes surround Hot Springs.

Three lakes surround Hot Springs.

Today, eight temples to “taking the waters” stand on Bathhouse Row, a monument to a glamorous heyday from the late 19th to mid-20th century. The neoclassical Buckstaff has been in continuous operation since 1912 and continues to provide baths, Swedish massages, and steam cabinets. The 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival Quapaw Baths & Spa building was the first of the restored bathhouses to reopen as part of the National Park’s revived leasing program. The Ozark Bathhouse is now the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Fordyce Bathhouse, which houses the National Park Visitors Center, has 23 restored rooms; while closed for renovations in early 2013, the center will operate out of the 1892 Hale Bathhouse, the oldest on the Row. African-American bathhouses, including the Crystal, the Pythian, and the Woodmen of the Union Building, stood on Malvern Avenue.

Anthony Chapel, a meditative wedding venue, at Garvan Woodland Gardens.

Anthony Chapel, a meditative wedding venue, at Garvan Woodland Gardens.

Dominating downtown is the 1924 Arlington Hotel, the third building so-named here since 1875. Pipes bring the hot waters into the hostelry. Anchoring downtown’s other end, the 1929 Park Hotel still has its original brass doors and the elevator used by President Harry Truman. To see more of the town’s notable late 19th-century residential architecture, stroll or drive on Prospect, Park, and Whittington avenues.

The 1884 Wildwood, Victorian home of the Ellsworth family, is now a bed-and-breakfast inn. Far less lavish is the Scully Street childhood home of President Bill Clinton. Just outside of the town center are the Mount Ida crystal mines.

When aspirin and antibiotics became commonly available, the healing qualities of thermal waters fell into disrepute, and most of the bathhouses closed. Healing or not, hot springs feel good, and Americans continue to come here to take the waters.