I spent a whole post on the bathhouse experience that I have to write a separate one to cover the rest of our day in Hot Springs! We breezed through the whole Buckstaff baths experience in under 2 hours, and felt so relaxed and limber leaving that I was tempted to return to the hotel and take a siesta.
But Hot Springs beckoned and so we pressed on. Our next stop was the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center and Museum (aka Fordyce Bathhouse). The building is recognizable by its green awnings. It enjoyed life as the largest bathhouse when it first opened in 1915 at a cost of just over $200,000. From the copper and glass on the outside to the marble on the inside, the stained glass windows, the decorative ceiling in the men’s bathhall, the music room, massage parlors, and the gymnasium, the owners spared no expense in putting together a topnotch experience for their customers.
The Fordyce was also the first bathhouse to go out of operation in 1962. It was then restored to its former glory in 1989 and now serves as the bath museum and visitor center. Tours are free and self guided, although there are guided tours available. The building has three floors, all of which are visit worthy. And dont forget the basement, either.
The Fordyce has refinished rooms that provide a glimpse of the original bathhouse. The luxurious bathhalls with their tubs, steam vapor cabinets, sitz baths, the variety of hydrotherapy room equipment, needle showers, pack rooms, and cooling rooms are all presented as they were then. Signage in each room gives brief but necessary information. It was interesting to see the uber luxurious men’s bathhall with a large domed skylight and symbolic fountain from which flowed “health-giving stream of water”.
The basement gives an idea of the extensive pipes, tubes, plumbing and ice machines that formed the core of the bathhouse function. Here spa workers sweated constantly as the water from the nearby hot springs and the underground hot water reservoir kept the temperature soaring at all times. There is the pulley system for an old elevator as well. Several display panels explain the origin of these springs and their importance on the growth of the city.
On the second floor, I found the chiropody room very fascinating. People with podiatric ailments like cysts, bunions and corns would find their way here seeking relief. The art of Chiropody did not involve surgeries, but rather crushing and sideward knuckle punches to remove the disorders; not quite my idea of pain relief!
The majority of the space on this floor is taken up by exhibits outlining the discovery of the springs, the bathhouse tradition and its development and eventual decline. The information is laid out in a tasteful manner and keeps the visitor engaged. The rest of the floor shows the refinished dressing rooms for men and women and the massge rooms’ setup. A video exhibit on this floor details the steps involved in a traditional bathhouse and is worth watching for those not planning on experiencing the bathhouse firsthand.
The third floor was the most luxurious: it contained the music room, a socializing parlor for the women, the ladies’ beauty parlor, womens’ staterooms. On the other side of the floor lay all the same amenities, but for men. Towards the back end of the floor is a large gymnasium. The gym was well equipped with barbells, medicine balls, trapeze, Indian clubs, calisthenics wands, etc. Among others, stalwarts like Babe Ruth worked out here.
The Hubbard tub room on this floor also caught my fascination. It was reserved for non ambulatory people like those with strokes or polio who could benefit from extensive physical therapy. It had an overhead tram to which wooden stretchers were attached and patients were transported from the elevators next door and lowered into the tub. The whole set-up appears very futuristic and I was impressed by its ingenuity.
Back on the first floor, we watched a 15 minute video on Hot Springs called Valley of Vapors before heading out. There are three small springs that pour out from a small cavern behind the Visitor center, which we went to see and touch; the temperature of the water was hot, indeed. There is also a small drinking fountain with hot springs water for visitors. After getting cups from the museum front desk, we each tried a little bit. It was, as promised, colorless, tasteless and odorless, but very warm as it slid down our throats.
By then, it was past 2 pm and we made our way to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery at the end of Bathhouse Row. It’s the only brewery in a National Park and uses thermal spring water to brew its craft beer. The brewery was very crowded at that hour and we had a 25 to 30 min wait. Except for Mr. JJ, we were all famished, so we left to go to the Zest, a restaurant inside the Hale Bathhouse. It was completely empty, which gave us a bad vibe. But we did want to try the Impossible Burger, so we ordered and waited a good half hour before the food was delivered. Mr. JJ ordered the Socca, a veggie loaded flatbread. It was very dry and he didn’t quite enjoy the meal. While the children really enjoyed the burger, I did not quite like its texture or taste. To boot, the burger was served with veggies but no cheese which made it dry and difficult to eat. I would highly recommend sticking with the crowded Superior Bathhouse Brewery, just be sure to get there before the hunger pangs begin.
After lunch, we walked across the street to the Gangster Museum of America. The tour there lasted about an hour and cost $15 per person. The tour started by entering a secret door, built like a vault. From there, we were led to seven different rooms, each with a video outlining Hot Springs in the 1930s and onwards when gambling, bootlegging, and other pleasures attracted the rich and famous gangsters from all over the US. It started with Vern and Leo, the then judge and the mayor of Hot Springs who organised illegal gambling and changed the economy of the town. Then onwards to the Owen Madden gallery, a mentor of sorts for all things mob related, the Al Capone Gallery with the piano he gifted his mother, to the baseball gallery, the outlaw gallery where John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde starred. Then, to the New York mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. Each gallery has memorabilia related to the events outlined on the video. The visual experience was buttressed by observations and comments from the tour guide. It was a gripping look at a time in the history of Hot Springs, when decadence and quaintness coexisted.
Outdoors once again, we made our way to the Fat Bottomed Girls Cupcakes shop next door where we indulged our tastebuds. We got the six for five deal and tried out different flavors, the kids truly enjoyed the cupcakes, I liked them since they weren’t too sweet and the flavor options were unique and plentiful.
We then decided to drive up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, located in the adjoining National Park. It’s about an hour hike one way from the city below. There is an easy and picturesque drive from the city to the tower parking lot. We paid the $8 pp admission and took the elevator to the top of the tower, a whopping 216 feet above the Hot Springs mountains. There were two levels to explore, one enclosed and the other open. We spent about half an hour here before driving back down.
Our original plan had been to spend the day around Central Avenue until dinner time when we could return to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery to dine and taste their craft beer. But we were stuffed full with burgers and cupcakes. And too relaxed after the bath to do much more. We debated about joining the ghost tour at 730 pm, but the room and some relaxation beckoned. So back we went to the hotel, calling it a day. We hadn’t done much at all, yet we had been upto something the whole time.
That’s Hot Springs for you!