Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park


When I parked in downtown Hot Springs to visit the Fordyce Bathhouse, I put enough change in the meter to give me 30 minutes.  I figured that would be plenty of time to tour the park’s visitor center inside the old Fordyce Bath House.  Fortunately, I didn’t get a ticket, because I ended up spending nearly an hour inside.

The Fordyce is much more than just a typical national park visitor center.  It’s a complete re-creation of what the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse would have looked like during its years in operation, from 1915 to 1962.

There’s no admission to the Fordyce Bathhouse, and there’s no need to hook up with a formal tour.  Grab a brochure at the reception window, then start wandering around.

The first room you’ll see is the Ladies’ Cooling Room, where women would relax at the end of their treatment, allowing their body temperature a chance to return to normal.

After the cooling room, there’s the Pack Room, which essentially looks the same.  In this room, the staff would apply moist packs to ailing body parts.  After being treated with packs…

… it was common to take a shower in a contraption like this one, before heading to the cooling room.  This shower is in the women’s bath hall, which is much less luxurious than the men’s bath hall (below).

The next stop is the steam cabinet room, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Apparently, these things didn’t just exist in cartoons.

The men’s bath hall is quite elaborate, with a statue of explorer Hernando de Soto in the middle of the court.  Men could lounge around the fountain while waiting for their turn in the tubs.

Adding to the elegance, there’s a beautiful stained glass ceiling directly above the statue.  Above the stained glass window, there are two courtyards, separated to allow a place for men and women to lounge outdoors, in a clothing-optional setting.

On the second floor, there’s a chiropody room, where employees tended to foot problems…

… and the women’s dressing room, which is divided into dozens of department-store-fitting-room-sized compartments.

The tour winds around the back of the second floor, with through-the-glass displays of electrotherapy, mechano-therapy, and massage equipment.

At the top of the stairs on the third floor, check out the elegant music room, complete with a grand piano and a stained-glass ceiling.  Don’t forget to walk around the elevator…

… for a look at the Hubbard Tub.  This huge tile tub was used for physical therapy.  It was installed in 1939, and included a system for lowering patients into the water.  A system of tracks that ran along the ceiling allowed people to be moved in and out of the room easily.

Head down a hallway on the third floor, and you can see the gymnasium.  It was the largest gym in Arkansas in 1915.  The equipment looks medieval by today’s standards.

Finally, I wandered down into the Fordyce’s basement, where the elevator’s motor is on display…

… along with some of the tanks and pumps that collected the spring water.

While exploring the basement, I was beginning to worry about my expired parking meter.  In the rush to get back to the car, I left the basement without seeing one of the most important sights in the building.  The Fordyce Spring — the actual source of the water used in the building — can be found in a tile room in the basement.  You can see pictures of it here and here.

I remember seeing the sign for the “spring exhibit”, and just assumed it was a room full of boring signs explaining how a spring works.  What an idiot.

After a quick stop at the gift shop on the first floor, I headed back to the car, and hit the road — heading north, once again, on Arkansas Route 7.

Yellowstone claims to be America’s oldest national park, but the true holder of the title may be Hot Springs.  The springs were set aside as a federal “reservation” in 1832, to protect the water source.  It didn’t receive the actual title of “national park” until 1921.

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