A couple of centuries after Hot Springs was discovered by Hernando de Soto, people began to visit for the healing power of the springs. Hotels and bathhouses began to sprout up to accommodate them; casinos, brothels, and gangsters followed, and it became a pretty rowdy town. Once modern medicine made cures quicker and easier than a trip to Hot Springs, and once the gangsters were forced out, the casinos closed, the town collapsed, and the bathhouses shut down. Today, it’s still a little sleepy, but that’s what makes it quite charming. And, with the exception of one building, all of my favorite architecture here is within easy walking distance from one another. These are my favorites.
#1 Anthony Chapel
Garvan Woodland Gardens occupies a peninsula that juts into Lake Hamilton in the Ouachita River, lending it a perfect location to spend some time outdoors. I was intending to just take a leisurely stroll through some nature, but surprise after surprise turned this little walk in the woods into a memorable afternoon. Run by the University of Arkansas, Garvan opened to the public when local resident and self-taught gardener Verna Cook Garvan bequeathed the property upon her death in 1993, specifying that it be used to educate and serve the people of Arkansas, and noting that she hoped it remain a natural preserve to counter the environmental devastation encountered throughout much of the 20th century. Garvan got her wish. Today, it is one of the world’s top 10 botanic gardens. My biggest surprise here came when I turned onto a trail that led to the great Anthony Chapel. Dedicated in 2006, this gorgeous 160-seat chapel made me want to get married right on the spot; indeed, it’s one of the most requested wedding venues in all of Arkansas, the site of more than 200 nuptials annually. Blending harmoniously into its surrounding, the chapel is an architectural feat. Yellow pine beams and columns support the steeply pitched 57′-high roof, which almost appears to float in the middle of the forest thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows. I stepped inside and walked down the flagstone aisle to the simple altar, with the windows bringing nature—the perfectly blue sky, the autumnal yellows and oranges of the changing leaves, the green conifers—right inside. I imagined it must be as beautiful in winter, illuminated by exterior lights and inside sconces against a cobalt-blue dusk sky, as in any other season—and it was the very last (and most memorable) thing I expected to see in a botanic garden.
#2 Quapaw Bathhouse
Bathhouse Row, part of Hot Springs National Park, which was founded in 1832 and protects 47 hot springs, is a strip of about seven bathhouses, only two of which are still operating as such. Quapaw Bathhouse is one of them. This beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival–style building replaced two previous bathhouses on the same site. Completed in 1922 and named after a Native American tribe that once held land in this area, the entire bathhouse is covered in white stucco. A central arched portico bears a cartouche with a carved image of presumably a Quapaw, set in a decorative double-curved parapet. A gorgeous mosaic-tiled dome, atop an octagonal base at the Spanish-tile roof and capped with a copper cupola, framed by two large finials, remains one of the city’s defining architectural highlights. From this entrance, arcades run in both directions, leading to two wings, also with double-curved parapets, capped with scalloped shells with small spiny fish. It’s a fantastic place to enjoy a treatment, whether you want to soak in a thermal pool under stained-glass skylights or take a steam in the manmade cave, built in the 1920s over a natural thermal spring so that the radiant heat from the 143˚ water gathers in the room and releases all your worries.
#3 Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa
The largest hotel in Arkansas, with nearly 500 rooms and suites, the current Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is the third version of itself. The first, opened in 1875, was razed in 1893 and replaced by the second, which was destroyed by fire in 1923. This version opened in spectacular style on New Year’s Eve 1924. At the point of its triangular location, I stopped to admire this huge 11-story V-shaped building, completed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Ground-floor arcades run along the wings, where urns stand in niches. Fantastic twin towers with domes and balconets cap the entire structure. I climbed the lengthy staircase to the two-story stucco-covered portico, trimmed with orange, blue, and sea-green tiles, and entered the lobby, packed with guests enjoying lunch and the colorful mural behind the lobby bar. Throughout its history, the Arlington has hosted hundreds of galas, balls, and social events. Its guests have included Babe Ruth, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Rudolph Valentino, Yoko Ono, and presidents Truman, Clinton, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush—and one very notorious chap whose favorite room was #443 and who spread his staff and bodyguards along the rest of the floor. In the lobby, proudly displayed, is his bulletproofed car, painted the same colors as Chicago police cars so that it would blend in while he was conducting his, well, business in the Windy City. He had a specially designed rear window that could drop down so his gang could shoot back at the police cars chasing them. Thankfully, the Arlington is a more peaceful place today than when Al Capone was one of its guests.
#4 Fordyce Bathhouse
The largest and most ornate of the bathhouses, at around 28,000 square feet, opened in 1915. With three main floors and two courtyards, Fordyce Bathhouse was a luxurious destination at its peak; it was also the first of the bathhouses to go out of business and close, in 1962. Nearly 30 years later, it was extensively restored and now functions as a museum and the visitor center for the national park. The Renaissance Revival structure bears both Italian and Spanish elements. The limestone foundation supports two upper two floors clad in two shades of light-brown brick, with an eye-catching lozenge pattern. Gorgeous window frames and a cornice in terra-cotta lend an exotic air. The fancy stained-glass and copper marquee, extending across five of the building’s seven bays, provides a sheltered welcome. Inside, I made my way around the museum. I appreciated the patterned tile floors and the marble lobby with a terra-cotta fountain with cherubs. The former men’s and women’s facilities both have stained-glass windows with aquatic motifs; the men’s also contains old metal steam cabinets that look like torture devices, and a statue of DeSoto with a female Indian kneeling at his feet along with a fantastic stained-glass skylight above it, with figures and fish floating in a swirling sea of blue and green. On the third floor, I checked out the massive ceramic-tiled therapeutic bathtub as well as the assembly room with its arched vaults and curved stained-glass skylights. Even though the basement bowling alley and rooftop garden are things of the past, a visit to the Fordyce, representing America’s “Golden Age of Bathing,” will undoubtedly put you in the mood for an indulgent treatment just a door or two down in one of the still-functioning bathhouses.
#5 Army–Navy Hospital
Behind Bathhouse Row, I strolled along the lovely brick promenade, where I looked uphill to the massive structure looming over the city. The old Army-Navy Hospital was the first general hospital in the United States that provided treatment to both Army and Navy patients. It opened in 1887 and was replaced in 1933 by the current building for a bargain $1.5 million, considering its size, including space for 500 patients. The Spanish Revival–style building is veneered with light colored brick, trimmed with white stone and ornamented with decorative bronze. The central tower rises 12 stories to a height of almost 200’. The entrance features an elegant canopy and a cartouche with a caduceus. Two wings spread from it at angles, with a long row of arched windows on the top floor. The hospital’s activity peaked during the World War II era, admitting nearly 15,000 patients from 1941 to 1945. Its operating rooms and equipment were thought to be the finest in the country; the facilities also included an X-ray wing and temperature-controlled morgue. Patients included Joe DiMaggio, Al Jolson, and Helen Keller. The hospital also trained dentists, pharmacists, and surgeons, and it housed the first enlisted medical technical school for the Women’s Army Corps. In 1960, the Army sold it to the State of Arkansas for $1, and it became a residential rehabilitation center, renowned for its treatment of arthritis and polio through hydrotherapy. The building changed hands again in 2009, when it became the Arkansas Career Training Institute, which lasted only for one decade, until the building was abandoned and shuttered in 2019. It remains unoccupied today, unless you count the spirits that are still allegedly haunting it.
- Buckstaff Bathhouse (1912)
- Ozark Bathhouse (1922)
- Visitors Chapel A.M.E. (1913)
- Mountain Valley Spring Water Company Building (1910)
- Plaza Hotel (1918)
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