The first 15 floors of the 90-year-old Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs have been sold for $1,175,000, and its new owner plans to turn the former "Skyscraper of Health" into an upscale hotel.
The landmark Art Deco building, at 236 Central Ave., is directly across from the Arlington Hotel Resort & Spa, and, except for its first floor, has been vacant for decades.
VIPA Hospitality Management, through its subsidiary, Trilochan LLC, bought the first 15 floors from three different owners, according to Amber Henson, the broker and go-between among all the parties. The owner of the top, 16th floor has so far chosen not to sell, Henson said Wednesday.
"I love history. I love old architecture. I love old buildings of historic nature, and in my opinion, if it's able and if the building's not gone structurally, I think every effort should be made to save these buildings," Parth Patel, VIPA's president for development, told the Hot Springs Sentinel Record in an article published Wednesday.
Patel, who couldn't be reached for comment by the Democrat-Gazette, also told the Hot Springs newspaper that the building's structure is solid but its interior will need to be gutted as part of a renovation that will take at least 18 months. He also told the newspaper that he felt confident that a sale of the 16th floor will occur.
Henson said her company, Urban Living and Development, has been marketing the property for about three years, with the most intense work coming in the past 10 months with VIPA's interest.
"You can imagine how hard it is to get such a large group, basically involved in three different sales, to agree on things," Henson said. "A broker who had the property before me sent me a message this morning, saying, 'Wow. Congratulations. I never could make it work."'
One owner had the first floor. Another owner had floors 2-14, and a third owner had the 15th floor, she said.
Henson said she listed the availability of the building several years ago -- and received inquiries from 72 parties.
"Now, I do think most of those were kick-the-tire sort of inquiries, mainly out of curiosity," Henson said. "The elevator doesn't work and hasn't for years, so I'd already climbed those 16 stories countless times. I knew enough by then that I probably should set some sort of pre-qualifying conditions for showing the place because I didn't particularly want to climb those steps 72 more times."
Vandals and the building's exposure to rain, snow and wind have taken a toll, Henson said.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and, by 2012, it was on the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas' list of the state's most endangered places.
"It has long been recognized as one of the top Art Deco skyscrapers in the southern United States," according to the building's entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Bas-relief limestone carvings on the frieze and on the facing of the main entrance are among the building's notable features, along with the bronze grille work above the doors."
The Medical Arts Building and Little Rock Central High School had the same architect: Almand & Stuck.
Construction on the Medical Arts Building began in 1929 and was completed the next year. It gained the nickname "Skycraper of Health," for being home to some 55 medical offices. Until 1960, with the completion of the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock, it was the state's tallest building.
Large-scale vacancies started occurring in the 1980s. The Medical Arts Building and another Hot Springs landmark, Magic Springs amusement park, became part of the bankruptcy saga of Melvyn Bell, a prominent Arkansas businessman in the 1980s and 1990s. Bell died in 2006.
In August 1995, the 16th floor was sold at a foreclosure auction, at the minimum bid of $3,305.66, according to Democrat-Gazette archives. The buyer in 1995 apparently isn't the current owner of the 16th floor.
"We are very excited to see this iconic building being brought back to life by Parth Patel and the VIPA Hospitality team," said Steve Arrison, executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. "They already have contributed so much to our hospitality community. I can't wait to see this project completed. It will be a wonderful addition to our historic downtown."
VIPA owns six hotels in Hot Springs. Last fall, it purchased the 108-year-old Frederica Hotel in Little Rock out of foreclosure. The Frederica, on Capitol Avenue near downtown, was formerly known as the Legacy Hotel and Suites, and for decades before that, as the Hotel Sam Peck. The hotel is being renovated, with a possible reopening this summer, VIPA said last year.
"I think it's very exciting that the Patels purchased the building, or at least the first 15 floors," said Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough. "They have a long history of successful hotel operations here."
Burrough said renovating the building will be a challenge. "I'm not a structural engineer, but the building appears to be sound," he said. "It's steel and concrete, mainly."
Burrough said he once visited the building's upper floors, after interior walls that were not load-bearing had been removed. "It was just amazing to see, standing there in the wide open with just load-bearing columns remaining, how large a single floor was."
Burrough said the lack of a working elevator is a major problem and an expensive fix. The lack of parking is another, just as it is for most businesses along the Bathhouse Row and Central Avenue, Burrough said. "There are challenges to every endeavor," he said.
Scott McClard, an amateur filmmaker, said Wednesday that he was thrilled with the news.
McClard rambled through the Medical Arts Building in 2015 and shot a 16-minute video of the decay -- and, possibly, of the promise -- of the building. The video is posted on the website of Abandoned Arkansas, a nonprofit group that seeks to bring forgotten historic structures to the attention of possible investors.
"My immediate reaction is elation," McClard said. "I've been worried about this building ever since I started exploring [abandoned buildings]. "It's such a huge part of Hot Springs' history. To see it just sit there, rotting away, was disheartening. Renovating it will be a huge undertaking, but I think Mr. Patel can do it."
McClard said he noticed that the building's basement always seemed to be flooded. Its upper floors, with many broken windows, have been exposed to years of "cold, snow, wind and heat," McClard said.
"I've looked out the windows up there and dreamed of it being a hotel," he said. "When that happens, it's going to have the most beautiful views in the city."