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Hot Springs held hostage.

Hot Springs Held Hostage

With Melvyn Bell No Longer Bathing In Bucks, Spa Searches For A New Savior

Former President Truman was known to read his newspaper in the lobby of Hot Springs' Arlington Hotel and then take a stroll beneath the stately magnolia trees that line Central Avenue.

During that stroll, Truman would pass the architecturally significant bathing establishments that comprise the heart of Hot Springs National Park.

Bathhouse Row.

For more than half a century, film stars, gangsters, professional athletes and the nation's business elite came to Hot Springs for recreation and bathing. Recreation often included gambling. Bathing included "cures" for incurable diseases and prayers for prolonged youth.

The waters of Hot Springs were considered miracle waters.

But Little Rock businessman Melvyn Bell could not deliver a financial miracle for ailing Bathhouse Row. Now, with the bathhouses deteriorating, Hot Springs business leaders are wondering if there will be a savior.

Mayor Melinda Baran is a fifth-generation Hot Springs resident. To her, Bathhouse Row is more than a living testimony of the town's past. Baran and many other residents of the town that surrounds the 4,800-acre park (the nation's only urban national park and the oldest federal land reserve in the country) claim Bathhouse Row as an integral part of their lives.

Love for the "valley of the healing waters" goes back hundreds of years. When Hernando De Soto came to the valley in 1541, he was surprised to learn that Native American tribes, who fought bitterly elsewhere, would lay down their arms to bathe peacefully together in the waters.

It was the summer of 1987 when Bell was awarded a 50-year lease on five bathhouses by the National Park Service. It had the potential to be the largest rehabilitation project in NPS history.

That fall, a stock-market crash brought Hot Springs' knight in shining armor to his knees.

Bell Retaliates

Four years later, downtown Hot Springs was freed from its nightmare -- Bell's lease on a large part of Bathhouse Row and his failure to do anything with it. The lease was terminated May 13.

But Bell is not going to exit quietly. Kirby Williams, a partner in the Hot Springs advertising agency Kirkpatrick/Williams and Associates, recently found himself in hot water with Bell over the subject of Bathhouse Row.

Williams, active in the community and outspoken about preservation concerns, was quoted as saying, "I think it [the lease termination] is great news. I only have a fear it is the first in a domino effect."

He was referring to Bell's other real estate interests in Hot Springs, many of which appear on the verge of bankruptcy.

"I hope he'll be more supportive of business interests downtown," Williams said.

Williams says Bell is asking a reasonable price for the Medical Arts Tower, in which the Kirkpatrick/Williams agency is located. But he refuses to sell the parking lot next door.

Williams' comments provoked an irate 8 a.m. telephone call from Bell. During the five-minute telephone conversation, Bell reportedly cursed Williams repeatedly.

Williams' agency is located on the 14th floor of the Medical Arts Tower in the only suite that still has the original arched doorways and moldings, high ceilings and ceiling fans. The agency was issued an eviction notice immediately following the telephone conversation between Williams and Bell.

Williams says he attempted to call Bell on several occasions, but his telephone calls were never returned. The agency was to have vacated its offices by Saturday.


Downtown Hot Springs has suffered along with Bell, a man who repeatedly was unable to uphold his end of the bargain. But Baran and others are forging ahead with recovery plans for Bathhouse Row.

Last year, once she could tell Bell would be unable to live up to his lease agreement with the National Park Service, Baran began gathering ideas for the development of Bathhouse Row.

Among those providing input was Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr., D-Ark., who as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee was instrumental in developing tax credit legislation making adaptive reuse of the bathhouses more attractive to investors.

"Perhaps the only ones who can afford the cost of renovating and maintaining the bathhouses are large corporations or governments," Baran says.

Her revitalization plan focuses on turning Bathhouse Row into a sort of international cultural center. Under the plan, foreign investors would lease bathhouses and turn them into bathing spas and visitor centers fashioned after spas in their own countries.

Following the termination of Bell's lease, there was a wave of media interest in Hot Springs. The Dallas Morning News used the plight of Bathhouse Row as the lead story in its May 19 Southwest section, for instance.

Tony Clark, Cable New Network's Dallas Bureau chief, produced an eight-minute segment that was viewed worldwide May 23-24.

Baran and Park Superintendent Roger Giddings took full advantage of the opportunity to advertise the bathhouses' availability for lease.

Interior Department Involvement

Anthony encouraged Baran to contact Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. The secretary responded and plans to visit Hot Springs this summer.

In Baran, the interior secretary will be dealing with a dreamer. The mayor envisions Hot Springs becoming a place where artists and educators from around the world will focus on health and understanding other cultures. Mineral water will serve as the common denominator.

Many people believe it to be little more than a fantasy. But the fact a member of the president's Cabinet will reaffirm Baran's vision with his presence is an indication that the mayor may be onto something.

When Baran speaks about Bathhouse Row, it is with an electrified energy. Sounding much like the politician she is, Baran talks about making an investment in creation rather than destruction, peace rather that war, employment rather than unemployment, education rather than illiteracy, friendship rather than hatred.

"We have a God-given asset here that we haven't done a very good job of sharing with the world," Baran says.

Stabilization Plans

The key is the National Park Service's commitment to stabilizing the bathhouses under Bell's old lease -- the Hale, Quapaw, Superior, Ozark and Maurice.

Humidity caused by the hot springs under the bathhouses is slowly dissolving the structures.

One architect says, "The condensation in winter causes those buildings to sweat like a cold beer on a hot Arkansas summer afternoon."

There are plans to spend from $5 million to $10 million to stabilize the bathhouses. This federal expenditure would involve installing new roofs, removing asbestos and restoring damage to exterior walls.

Work on the interiors would be left to private-sector lessees.

Giddings estimates the stabilization project will be completed in two years.

"Some money already is available for asbestos removal," he says. "But the bulk of the money will have to be appropriated by Congress. Congressman Anthony has introduced legislation for funding, and we are hoping he will receive the support of his colleagues."

Bell's Plans

Although Bell's plans for renovation never came to fruition, the architectural firm he hired met every deadline. The end product was a two-inch thick binder on each of the five bathhouses. The reports are exhaustive.

During the four years, Bell's plans changed a number of times. The last plan called for turning the Superior Bathhouse into a musically oriented museum that would feature a collection of calliopes, Wurlitzers and even a carousel.

The Hale Bathhouse was to be an outlet for Architectural Antiques, Bell's antique collection that was assembled during his worldwide buying sprees. The collection, once valued at more than $10 million, recently was auctioned for just more than $1 million.

The Maurice and Quapaw bathhouses were to be turned into health spas, tying into a master plan for seven buildings across the street. Bell leased the seven buildings from noted Hot Springs landlord Hill Wheatley with the idea of developing a European spa atmosphere. He had hoped to renovate the Central Avenue buildings into suites housing guests and providing them with planned meals and structured exercise routines. The exercise would be followed by relaxing baths across the street.

The Ozark Bathhouse was to be transformed into a fishing museum. Bell had plans to buy a famous collection of lures. The architects were designing water tanks with moving water to demonstrate how the lures worked.

"We think he had excellent ideas," Giddings says of Bell. "I regret that so many things have happened since he signed the lease with us."

The Park Service's original selection process was thorough. There were 19 submissions, one of which immediately was thrown out.

The remaining 18 applicants were asked to submit additional information. The field was narrowed to five applicants and then two. Of the two finalists, only Bell proposed to take on all five structures. Criteria included financial and managerial capabilities as well as compatibility with the national park.

The new selection process should prove to be just as thorough considering the enormous investment by the government in exterior renovation of the five bathhouses.

"Private businesses built these buildings," Giddings says. "It seems appropriate to have the private sector involved in the bathhouses even though they might have other kinds of businesses in them."

PHOTO : THE QUAPAW: Under plans submitted by Little Rock businessman Melvyn Bell (inset) to the National Park Service, Hot Springs' Quapaw Bathhouse was to have been a European-style spa. Bell had leased seven buildings on the other side of Central Avenue with the idea of creating suites to house guests using the Quapaw and the Maurice bathhouses. In 1987, Bell was awarded a 50-year lease on five bathhouses by the Park Service. The lease with Bell was terminated last month.

Ruth Mitchell Arkansas Business Staff
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park
Author:Mitchell, Ruth
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 24, 1991
Previous Article:Banker's dozen: January - May 1991.
Next Article:Diamond in the rough?

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