By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; F06
In a town called Hot Springs, I expected to bathe in actual hot springs.
I expected wrong.
The National Park Service long ago covered many of the 47 springs in Hot Springs National Park to protect them for use by the bathhouses that lined Central Avenue in the city's historic downtown.
During the Golden Age of Bathing, people flocked to this Arkansas town looking for a cure for such ailments as syphilis, hemorrhoids and just plain weary old bones. Among the crowds were gangsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano and others, who also frequented the town's casino, racetrack and nightclubs. (And let's not forget that President Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs, though let's not dwell on that, either.)
To get oriented, I took a stroll down Bathhouse Row, which a sign declared to be "a significant national landmark in the culture of leisure." The architecture of the bathhouses varies from Victorian to Mediterranean to Mission Revival; inside some are elaborate stained-glass windows. Business here was at its peak in 1946, but by 1974, the miracles of modern medicine had made the baths obsolete. Only two of the bathhouses are in operation; five others are being restored, and one is now the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Fordyce Bath House, which operated from 1915 to 1962, is a museum displaying traditional bathhouse equipment, such as the Hubbard Tub, installed in 1939. An overhead transport lowered patients into the deep tub for syphilis treatments. "Is this the torture chamber?" asked another visitor as we studied the unusual contraption.
Thankfully, there was no such device at the Quapaw Baths & Spa, where I had my first bath. Instead, there were four mineral-water pools in one large coed bathing area. "When you're done, your skin will feel like this," said the middle-aged woman at the front desk, holding out her arm. I hoped my skin would end up as smooth.
I put on my swimsuit and went out into the bathing area. Each pool was set at a different temperature: 91, 94, 101 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I positioned myself in front of one of the jet streams in the 91-degree pool for a back massage. The water felt a little cool, so I moved over to the 94-degree pool, where a Hot Springs resident named Vic was soaking, as he does almost every day for the water's therapeutic effects. "It works," he told me.
My adventurous spirit kicked in, and I went straight to the 104-degree pool. Too hot. I returned to the 94-degree pool, but after a few minutes I craved more heat and got into the 101-degree pool. Perfect. But I'd been soaking for an hour, and my skin was getting prunish.
The next morning, I returned to Quapaw for a private bath. The attendant led me to a room with a whirlpool bath that smelled like lavender. She pointed to a golden bell and told me to ring if I needed her. "I'll be back in 20 minutes," she said.
Twenty minutes later, another attendant banged on the door, interrupting my reverie. "Time to get out," she said.
* * *
In the lobby of the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is a green-and-black 1928 Cadillac that was custom-made for Capone (the rear window was hinged to drop open and allow for shooting). Room 442 was always on reserve for the gangster. He chose it because it overlooked his favorite nightclub, the Southern Club, now a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (sorry, Al).
It piqued my interest enough to lead me to the Gangster Museum of America, opened in 2008 in a building that once housed a bordello. On display were Capone's fingerprints, a roulette table once used at the Southern Club and a menu from the Vapors Club, where legend has it that Tony Bennett first sang "I Left my Heart in San Francisco."
"I used to go to the Vapors in the 1950s," Fayetteville, Ark., resident Jo Kauffman told me as she looked at pictures of celebrities, including Rosemary Clooney, who had performed there. "I don't remember who I saw, but I saw some of them."
From the museum, I drove to the Oaklawn racetrack. I watched the horses getting ready for a race, but I had no clue how to bet on them. A man wearing a fedora told me to place a bet on four horses. They'd all have to be in the top four for me to win, but it wouldn't matter what order they finished in, he said.
I bet $2.50 on 2, 3, 7 and 12 because I liked their names: Smart Reality, Dustball, Storm's Tour, Hot Diggity Dog. I watched anxiously as two of them lost. Which meant I did, too.
I tried again, betting on three horses for $3. Lost again.
Before departing, I made a quick stop at the casino, hoping to recoup my $5.50. I inserted $5 into a 25-cent slot machine and watched it disappear in a matter of minutes. Then I found a coupon for a $10 casino credit in my racing form. I took it to the cashier, and she handed me $10. I was happy to break even. Almost.
* * *
For my final bath, I chose the Buckstaff Bath House, which has been in operation since 1912. It still uses the same equipment it did back then, which makes for an authentic, albeit strange, experience.
After I undressed behind a curtain, the locker room attendant instructed me to turn around so that she could wrap a blanket around me, toga-style. She transferred me to Sarah, my bather, who led me to an area that looked part hamam, part hospital. Sarah instructed me to get into the 98-degree bath, where she scrubbed my skin with a loofah mitt. Then she turned on the whirlpool, an odd-looking rust-colored device that produced waves much stronger than anything I've felt in a modern Jacuzzi.
After 20 minutes of soaking, it was time for the sitz bath, a tub in which your buttocks and hips are immersed as if you're sitting in a chair. A nearby sign promised that the bath would cure lower-back afflictions, hemorrhoids and prostate problems. It also warned that the immersed area could become red and irritated for 10 to 12 hours. (Thankfully, that didn't happen to me.)
"Ready for some steam?" Sarah asked 10 minutes later.
We walked past a woman in a steel steam cabinet that truly looked like a torture device. All I could see was her head. Sarah had me sit in an identical cabinet, then closed the door and the lid. She wrapped a blanket around my neck to contain the steam. I felt like a jack-in-the-box and lasted just two minutes.
Next came hot packs, which Sarah placed on my shoulders and lower back as I lay on a leather gurney for about 15 minutes. Then it was needle shower time. I stood inside a stall with shower heads above and to either side of me. The water came out with the force of a fire hose. Surprisingly, it felt great.
Finally, I had a 20-minute massage.
I might not have gotten to soak in any hot springs, but at Buckstaff I found the next-best thing.