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Lack of funding plagues hot springs; Bathhouse Row is added to list of most endangered historic places.

HOT SPRINGS N.P., ARK. -- Six of the eight buildings that comprise Hot Springs National Park's historic Bathhouse Row are dilapidated and in need of repair; only two of the structures are operational, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP).

The National Trust included Bathhouse Row on its annual "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" list in hopes of calling attention to the need to preserve the buildings.

"Bathhouse Row has been languishing for decades," says Daniel Carey, director of NTHP's southwest office in Fort Worth, Texas, "but the problems lie within or underneath [the structures], so they are not always obvious to the casual observer."

Lead paint, water infiltration, humidity, and vapors from the bathhouses' basement-level hot springs are among the buildings' biggest problems. The staff have done work on the roofs to halt leaks, but their efforts offer only a short-term solution. Roger Giddings, Hot Springs' superintendent, says that park staff work hard to ensure that the bathhouses' have, at least, a respectable surface appearance.

Carey applauds the Park Service's maintenance of the buildings' exteriors; however, the structures require extensive interior work. Hot Springs staff have removed asbestos from the bathhouses, which still need new roofs and floor coverings as well as electrical, air conditioning and heating, and plumbing systems. The buildings also suffer from rusting metal concrete beams and bath stall panels, broken windows, and spawling plaster and paint.

"We certainly don't point the finger at the Park Service," says Carey. "With heritage tourism on the rise ... we look at [adding Bathhouse Row to NTHP's 2003 list] as an opportunity to bring attention to a very significant set of historic buildings--the nation's attention, Congress' attention."

The masonry and stone edifices constructed along a four-block stretch of Hot Spring's thoroughfare between 1911 and 1922 were at one time the Arkansas park's most celebrated architectural features. Therapeutic baths made The Row a popular tourist attraction. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Al Capone were all visitors.

Today, only the Buckstaff, used as a spa, offering massages and therapeutic soaks in hot springs water, and the Fordyce Bathhouse, a Spanish Renaissance Revival structure that serves as the park's visitor center, are open to the public. The others--Superior, Hale, Quapaw, Ozark, Lamar, and Maurice--stand vacant.

Total restoration costs for the bathhouses are estimated at $17 million. The price tag for renovating the three-story, 23,000-square-foot Maurice, which closed in 1974 and is in the worst condition of all the bathhouses, may be as high as $6 million.

"Hot Springs is in hot water," says Blake Selzer, director of NPCA's Americans for National Parks campaign, a coalition of more than 250 groups working with Congress and the administration to increase funding for all of the parks by $600 million annually. Selzer says that annual funding for Hot Springs has remained flat for several years. "If the park doesn't get the annual funding it needs to maintain the park--as well as money to restore the historic buildings--the problems will boil over."

The chronically underfunded Park Service has lacked the necessary money to renovate all of the bathhouses. Giddings believes that the construction-funding program planned for the bathhouses in the next three years will be a giant step in their preservation and in making them available for lease or concession operations.

Leasing the bathhouses, an option proposed by the park, would allow some of the rehabilitation costs to be covered by the private sector. In the past, though, private investors have not been willing to commit to the project because of the high costs involved.

Although Hot Springs hopes to attract outside developers to refurbish Bathhouse Row, it must be careful to balance legitimate, well-funded offers with those that may not prove to be in the park's best interest.

"The Park Service is waiting for a good, sensitive adaptive use proposal," says Carey, adding that the structures along The Row need not be turned into "a slew of T-shirt shops." Its legacy must be preserved, he says.

Superintendent Giddings remains hopeful. Giddings says the park will soon award a $3.8 million stabilization contract for the vacant buildings and that Hot Springs is in the process of acccomplishing nearly $1 million worth of lead-based paint removal. "I believe we are on the edge of doing great things with the bathhouses."

Carey, too, is optimistic. "I think with the '11 Most' list the message will be clear to Congress and other donors and entities that might assist that these are important American places that need to be properly treated."
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Title Annotation:Historic Preservation; Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Author:Talley, Jenell
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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