Saturday, June 28, 2008

A day in Hot Springs

Hot Springs is a great town, filled with lots of old buildings and an interesting history. I do wonder about the people, however, who drive by on the freeway and see the sign for "Hot Springs National Park," and turn off thinking they are going to find a natural place like the hot springs at Yellowstone, only to find a row of old bathhouses surrounded by a touristy town?

But Hot Springs, located about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock, does have a neat history. It's the site where 47 springs bubble out, producing about a million gallons of 143-degree water every day. Ever since they were discovered, they were thought to be special, so much that the US Congress set aside the land as a federal reservation in 1832, technically making it the first national park in the country.

But in 1832, of course, they didn't have a good idea what to do with preserved land. So unlike the lands set aside later on as national parks, the springs were capped and the water diverted to several bathhouses built on the edge of the federal property. Hot Springs would soon turn into a resort town, where people would flock to take in the waters, thinking it would heal all their wacky illnesses and such.

Some fancy bathhouses were built, along with some fancy hotels, which catered to the throngs of people coming into the town. There were also numerous casinos, which were illegal back then, but not many people cared. The mob soon followed, and the town was a popular spot for Al Capone and other mafia people to visit. The city was at its peak into the 1950's, until the state decided to crack down on the illegal gambling, and when people figured out that sitting in hot water probably wasn't going to solve all their health issues.

So for the past few decades, the town has still been a touristy area, but not able to retain its previous glory from the olden days. Much of the architecture of the town's heyday still remains, and there are several great old buildings there. Sadly, it seems like many of the old buildings are abandoned and torn down with depressing regularity. Last weekend I was sad to see an old building across the street from the Documentary Film Festival theatre was gone and replaced with nothing except a concrete lot.

But it is still a neat town. There is an interesting contrast there. You can visit the museum in the fanciest of the old bathhouses, and see the old Victorian touches there. Then you cross the street to the touristy-trap stores and can but whatever tacky stuff you want. My favorite is still the t-shirt with the lady in the bikini (classy!). I love Hot Springs.

But enough of the history lesson - time for pictures. I got into town and went to visit a few old buildings. The first was the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, a neat old church that was built in 1908.
St. John the Baptist Catholic Church

After that I became a tourist and started visiting some of the sites. The first was to take one of the driving tours, going up on a hill with overlooks of the city. At one overlook was this sign, where the park service people should have realized that a sign warning against graffiti and vandalism was just going to get vandalized with graffiti. Nice try, though...
Nice try, though...

Then I went and parked the car and made my way to Bathhouse Row. From the parking deck along Central Avenue, I got this shot of the Buckstaff Bathhouse and the old Army and Navy Hospital in the background.
Hot Springs

I then got this shot of one of the small fountains outside of the national park headquarters:
Hot Springs

Then I walked on up the hill and got this shot of the front of the old Army and Navy Hospital, which is now a rehab center. It's a cool old building, but a bit creepy. I think it looks like the setting for some sort of haunted house movie.
Old Army & Navy Hospital

After that I went back and started walking along Bathhouse Row, and got a few shots of the bathhouses. This is the Ozark Bathhouse...
Bathhouse Row

And a color shot...
Ozark Bathhouse

And the Fordyce Bathhouse, which was considered the fanciest of the bathhouses there. It now serves as the national park museum. I went in there to enjoy some air conditioning, since it was about 90 degrees out that day.
The Fordyce

There is some good architecture across the street from Bathhouse Row, though most of it is used by the tacky touristy stores. One of my favorite buildings in Hot Springs is the old Medical Arts Building, a 16 story Art Deco building built in 1929. When it was built, it was the tallest building in the state. It doesn't seem like the upper floors of the building are in use now, which is a shame.
Old Medical Arts Building

Just down the road from the Old Medical Arts Building was the old Aristocrat Hotel, which is now a home for senior citizens. Across the street is the Arlington Hotel, built in 1924. When Al Capone came to town, he would always stay in room 442 there.
The Aristocrats!

After that I decided to take a break and went inside the Arlington to have a nice cold drink at their lobby bar. I had a few options to consider. There are some more cool old buildings farther from Bathhouse Row and the National Park, including some neat older motels. I thought I might visit some of the old motels, and try to get a picture of some of their retro signs before heading back downtown for some dusk shots.

So I went back to the car and drove around town. There are many old motels, all with old neon signs that would be great for taking pictures of. But every time I found one, there would be some random motel worker standing around, so I felt nervous about stopping to take pictures. I thought I'd drive on to one of my favorite old motel signs along Central Avenue, but found that it was gone and replaced with a boring modern sign. Feeling like this part of the trip was going nowhere, I went to get some dinner (Kings Chinese, awesome), and would try again for something later.

On the way back downtown I visited this old advertisement, just up the road from Bathhouse Row, for Tom Moore cigars. Apparently you could get them for just 10 cents, and they were America's Favorite!
America's Favorite, only 10 cents...

Then I went and had a walk along the promenade, which runs along the hill above the bathhouses. Along part of the way was a water fountain, which I thought might make an interesting shot. So I stood in the middle of the path, trying to get a shot, when a woman pushing a stroller came by and startled me. I jumped and turned to her, giving a look that meant to say, "don't mind me, just taking a picture of this here water fountain." She in turn gave me a look that said, "stay away from me insane person." The pictures of the water fountain were all blurry, but here is a shot of the promenade, anyways.
The Promenade

I wanted to stick around to get a shot of the Arlington Hotel and the Medical Arts Building at dusk, from a spot along the promenade. I got a shot from there a few years ago, at night, and wanted to try for another shot again. The spot I wanted was right above the display spring, where the park service lets one of the springs flow out and run into a little fountain. The promenade runs right above the display springs, and gives a nice free view of the hotel and Central Avenue. But I didn't realize that the trees would have leaves on them now, and it cuts out much of the view. Looking for a decent shot again, I walked along the paths around the spring, and ended up getting this shot of the way down...
Hot Springs

Realizing that I still had some time to kill before dusk, I went back down the hill to the Arlington Hotel, and had another beer in the lobby bar. This made me feel quite cosmopolitan (or like an alcoholic), but it killed enough time for me to head back up the promenade to see what the view would be like. The trees really cut out much of the scene, so I scrambled on down to try to get some views from street level. This worked out, and I got a few shots of the old Medical Arts Building:
Central Avenue

And of the Arlington Hotel:
The Arlington

I tried to find a view that would get both the Medical Arts Building and the Arlington in the same shot, but couldn't find one that didn't involve me standing in the very busy Central Avenue. When the light was finally gone, I packed it in and decided to head on home.


Ready Maid said...

Wow...some of the best images of Hot Springs I've seen recently.

Thanks for sharing.

Rebecca McCormick,
Travel Journalist and Photographer,
The Sentinel-Record

(Are youLinkedIn?)

Cormackphotos said...

Thanks Rebecca, I love Hot Springs, it's a great place...

Jonw said...

I always suspected you hung out at Bathhouses... Really nice shots--the tone you chose for the B&W's almost looks like a selenium toner...without all that cancer risk and poison. Nice to see the variation in style as you try some new things!

Cormackphotos said...

Ha, thanks Jon.