Fordyce Bathhouse Turns 100

By: 
 Updated: 
The Fordyce Bathhouse on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park. Photo by Z. Clift.

The Fordyce on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park turns 100 this year.

Bathhouse Row is a National Historic Landmark District and eight picturesque and historic bathhouses are located there, including the Fordyce, which serves as the park’s visitor center.

The Fordyce opened March 1, 1915. Owner Colonel Samuel Fordyce spent over $200,000 dollars to build the facility, which became known as the most luxurious bathhouse in the city at the time and a beacon of prestige in town. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Fordyce in 1936 when he came to Hot Springs to celebrate the Arkansas Centennial.

The Fordyce closed in 1962 and remained vacant until its reopening as the park’s visitor center in the late 1980s. Located in the middle of Bathhouse Row, the Fordyce today has exhibits on the thermal bathing industry. Via a self-guided or guided jaunt, you can check out the many different rooms, which appear as they did during the Fordyce’s prime.

“Samuel Fordyce, the owner and operator, wanted his bathhouse to be the leader in modern technologies of thermal water treatments,” said Nalissala L. Allen, park guide at Hot Springs National Park. “He spared no expense in building the Fordyce, from the mosaic tile floors and Carrara Italian Marble walls to the stained glass skylights in the men’s bath hall and assembly room. Samuel wanted the Fordyce to be a testimony for his own health and well-being. He wanted the bathhouse to reflect how the thermal water had healed him.”

Allen, who has been a guide at the park for five years, said when visiting the Fordyce that seeing the first and third floors are a must, especially if you are short on time. “The first floor is the bath halls for men and women, as well as the hydrotherapy room,” she said. “Here is where most people can imagine how and why the early settlers came here. On the third floor [at the gymnasium] you can learn about how, as a society, we have changed our perception of physical fitness. The assembly room is where men and women came together to socialize with one another, by playing a friendly game of cards or billiards, singing a song around the Knable piano or just sitting and enjoying a nice conversation with someone.”

Allen added that the Fordyce, which is located at 369 Central Avenue, also offers a 15-minute movie about the park’s history and geology and there is a 9-minute bathing video that shows the traditional bath routine in one of the operating bathhouses.

“The Fordyce is a window into our past,” said Allen. “Here we can see the history of our culture and modern medicine. It is a great place to spend the day and imagine how things were back in that time. You can do either a self-guided or guided tour. Watch the movie and the video or just relax and sit down in one of the rocking chairs on the front porch and watch the day go by. People have been coming to the Fordyce for many years. After you take a look around, you will see why it was considered to be the best.”

Along with the 100th anniversary of the Fordyce, overall there is positive momentum taking place on Bathhouse Row. The Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery now makes its own brew on site and is the world’s only brewery and distillery using thermal spring water as the main ingredient. Two facilities still operate in their original capacity as bathhouses.

The park’s objective is to open all the buildings to the public. “Most of the bathhouses will open as adaptive reuse,” said Allen. “This means the bathhouses may not be used to provide baths or spa services, but will be used in other ways, such as the current brewery and cultural center [Ozark Bathhouse Cultural Center]. At present the park is negotiating a lease for the Hale, and the Friends of Hot Springs National Park are raising the necessary funds to repair the Maurice for investment by a future lessee.”

When touring Bathhouse Row, Allen said visitors should be sure to see the park’s namesake attraction. “The thermal water is the reason why the park was set aside,” said Allen. “The springs in Hot Springs National Park were the first, and continue to be, the only federally controlled hot springs in the United States to be managed for both public health and consumptive use. Hot Springs National Park is the only unit of the national park system that is mandated to give away its primary natural resource to the general public in an unending and unaltered state.” Allen said to note that these are not thermal springs that you can jump into. “The springs are 143 degrees (F) and they are hot,” she said.

Thermal springs occur elsewhere in the U.S., particularly where there has been recent volcanic activity. The water of Hot Springs National Park, however, is rare, especially in the central part of the continent. “An unusual set of geologic conditions of the Ouachita Mountains has created and maintained the flow of hot waters here in a small valley in central Arkansas,” said Allen.

Allen said along with Bathhouse Row, the national park is home to 5,500 acres to explore including over 25 miles of hiking trails that lead to scenic vistas and to destinations like the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, which offers an aerial view of downtown Hot Springs and the surrounding Ouachita National Forest. For more details on Hot Springs National Park, visit NPS.gov/hosp.