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Luxuriate in Spa City’s Bathhouse Row history

By JACK SCHNEDLER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published May 1, 2014 at 2:20 a.m.

hot-springs-national-parks-visitor-center-is-located-in-fordyce-bathhouse

Hot Springs National Park’s visitor center is located in Fordyce Bathhouse.

HOT SPRINGS - Bathhouse Row, the heart of Hot Springs National Park, is looking its sharpest in quite some time.

Six of the eight vintage bathhouses along Central Avenue, a procession of exuberant architecture, are now open to the public in one way or another.

The Fordyce, back in business after a thorough renovation in 2012-2013, houses the park’s visitor center. Its 23 restored rooms display and explain the various water-based treatments from Hot Springs’ health-resort heyday in the first half of the 20th century.

Two other structures, the Buckstaff and the Quapaw, offer hot baths and other spa treatments at a range of prices. The Superior, which calls itself a “craft beer tasting room,” expects to be brewing beer sometime this summer. The Ozark has reopened as an art gallery. The Lamar houses the park’s amply stocked gift shop. Only the Hale and the Maurice remain shuttered.

The visitor center is the best place to begin. If you’re thinking about taking the waters at the Buckstaff or Quapaw but are new to bathhouse procedures, a video on the second floor shows how it works. Titled “The Process of Bathing Today,” the video is instructive if a bit hokey.

By the time you reach the second floor, the luxurious qualities of the old Fordyce and its Bathhouse Row siblings will have become evident. A first-floor dazzler, the men’s bath hall, is graced by a domed skylight crafted from 8,000 pieces of colored glass. The hall’s centerpiece is an ornate fountain depicting explorer Hernando de Soto and an American Indian maiden.

The much smaller women’s bath hall is evidence that this was indeed a man’s world during Hot Springs’ peak years as a therapeutic and recreational resort.

That fact of life is reinforced by the layout of the open-air courts in the second floor’s atrium, decorated with plenty of potted plants. The men’s side is about twice the size of the women’s, with a privacy barrier separating them. A sign notes that men generally used their court to sunbathe in the nude. Women were expected to remain clothed.

On the top floor, the women’s lounge is equipped with a grand piano, while the men’s lounge sports a pool table. The gymnasium on the floor’s opposite side takes visitors on a fitness time trip to an era of medicine balls, Indian clubs, trapezes and punching bags.

Back at ground level, the “African Americans and the Hot Springs Baths” exhibit serves as a reminder that the South’s Jim Crow laws applied on Bathhouse Row as elsewhere.

After the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction, it is reported, “African Americans found that, though they were still free to work in the Hot Springs bathhouses, they did not have free access to bathing in them.”

Blacks could claim to be indigent and use the Government Free Bathhouse established in 1878 and in business until 1957. Blacks-only private operations included the Crystal Bathhouse, Pythian Bathhouse and Sanitarium and National Baptist Hotel and Sanitorium.

Hot Springs has an abundance - even a plethora - of places to eat and drink. But Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery, at the row’s northern end, makes for a handy refreshment stop after touring the Fordyce or bathing at the Buckstaff or the Quapaw.

Open since last summer, the Superior purveys 16 draft beers and more than 40 bottled brands along with sandwiches, salads and other food. Once its brewing permits are in place this summer, it promises to be “the world’s only brewery to utilize thermal spring water.”

The visitor center in Fordyce Bathhouse is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is free, with guided tours available at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Opening days and times vary for other bathhouses. There is a range of charges for bath and spa services at the Buckstaff and Quapaw.

For more information on Hot Springs National Park, call (501) 624-2701 or visit nps.gov/hosp.

Weekend, Pages 38 on 05/01/2014

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