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I couldn't recall seeing the lobby of the iconic Arlington Hotel more crowded. It was the second Friday night in March, and I was on my annual pilgrimage with friends to watch high school state championship basketball games in Hot Springs. As we walked from the Bank OZK Arena to the hotel late that evening, we noticed how many people were on the streets.

There was a line waiting to get into the Ohio Club. At the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the window seats were all taken. At the Arlington, we had to force our way through the crowds just to get to the elevators so we could check out the hotel's Babe Ruth Suite.

A week later, the city was even more congested. Attendance at Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes (which was broken into two divisions this year) was estimated at 45,000. Since Oaklawn no longer charges admission, exact attendance figures are impossible to obtain. One longtime regular at the track told me that he thought the crowd might have topped 50,000. The next day, thousands of people packed downtown for an annual St. Patrick's Day parade that draws national media attention.

Hot Springs is hot, and additional projects are on the drawing board as the old spa attempts to again be a nationally known attraction. Oaklawn's plans to add a casino, meeting facility, hotel and more restaurants at a cost of $100 million have been publicized in recent months. But there's a lot more going on as real estate investors eye available properties and contemplate what the expansion of gaming will mean for the city's overall visitor numbers.

New fine-dining venues such as 501 Prime, The Vault at 723 and The Avenue have put the city back on the map for foodies. Meanwhile, hotel renovations are being planned in an attempt to satisfy a higher-spending class of visitors. I've even noticed a trend toward upscale boutiques in the downtown retail corridor. These aren't the cheap T-shirt shops that once dotted Central Avenue.

Out on Lake Hamilton, Rejesh Mehta announced in December plans to spend more than $20 million to transform the Clarion Resort on the Lake into a DoubleTree Hotel. There will be improved boat docks, an expanded beach on the lake, a pool area with cabanas, a new restaurant and 142 remodeled rooms. Mehta has called it a hotel "the likes of which they have never seen before."

Back downtown along Bathhouse Row, we ran into Mayor Pat McCabe. He's about to open the Hotel Hale along with his wife Ellen in the Hale Bathhouse. The Hale is named for early bathhouse owner John Hale and is at least the fourth building to use the name. Much of the present structure was built in 1892. Noted Little Rock architects George Mann and Eugene Stern designed an expansion in 1914 that enlarged the red-brick building and changed its style to Classical Revival. The building has 12,000 square feet on two main floors. The lobby was used as a sunroom where guests relaxed in rocking chairs, and one of the hot springs was captured in a tile enclosure in the basement in 1917. The bathhouse was remodeled again, this time in the Mission Revival style, in 1939 by the Little Rock architectural firm Sanders, Thompson & Ginocchio. The Hale closed on Oct. 31, 1978.

The McCabes negotiated a lease from the National Park Service and obtained a $1.25 million construction loan. There will be seven guest rooms and two suites in the boutique hotel. Even more exciting to me, as someone who likes to eat out, is the news that the McCabes have hired one of the best chefs in the state, Fermin Martinez. He once operated the beloved Bohemia on Park Avenue, later changing the name to Park Avenue Bistro. I never had a bad meal there. Martinez will oversee the food at Zest (which will be open Tuesday through Thursday for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Friday and Saturday for breakfast and lunch) and Eden (which will serve dinner on Friday and Saturday nights and brunch on Sunday).

Farther north on Central Avenue, I'm told that developer Rick Williams is taking over The Springs Hotel, though he has yet to announce redevelopment plans. Williams, who already has completed several first-class renovation projects in the city, is taking on the rehabilitation of what originally was the Hill Wheatley Downtowner Motor Inn.

The hotel opened in 1965 when wide-open gambling was bringing crowds to Hot Springs. It was designed in the Modernist style by the Little Rock firm Eichenbaum & Erhart. The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2016. It's considered to be among the region's best examples of Modernist architecture.

Wheatley brought on architect Nolan Blass Jr. in 1963 and tasked him with designing a building unlike others downtown. Wheatley reserved the 9,000-square-foot penthouse suite on the 10th floor as his family residence. The site previously had been occupied by a Greek confectionary and the Virginia Apartments.

"When it opened in 1965, the Downtowner was touted as a European beach hotel without the beach," Kelly Braxton writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "The sleek, 10-floor tower was set back from Central Avenue to allow maximum sunlight and a feeling of openness on the streetscape. With its signature redwood screens hanging on many of its exterior windows, it was a perfect example of the Modernist architecture of the early 1960s. Its rooms came in five decor styles--English, Spanish, country French, contemporary and Oriental--reinforcing the international image."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 03/30/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: The comeback continues

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