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Going with the Flow

Project: Quapaw Bathhouse Restoration, Hot Springs, AR

Architect: Taylor/Kempkes, Architects, PA, Hot Springs, AR; Anthony Taylor, AIA, Bob Kempkes, AIA, principals

By Eve M. Kahn

For nearly three decades, tourists in Hot Springs, AR, have hoped to immerse themselves in waters that spout from the earth at around 143 degrees Fahrenheit. Along the town’s central avenue, eight bathhouses, built between 1892 and 1923 in various Classical Revival styles, have been shuttered since the 1980s. Modern medicine had made the mineral springs’ therapeutic properties seem obsolete, and the tiled cubicles for treatments looked too anodyne to appeal to recreational spa-goers. So frustrated visitors have strolled the avenue, trying the push-bars on locked doors, and peering into empty screened porches.

No developer could figure out how to make a profit while reviving the facilities, which belong to the National Park Service. But last year, a local architecture firm, Taylor/Kempkes, Architects (with partners Don Harper and Steve Strauss), creatively solved the number-crunching problems and brought a landmark back to life. The partnership, Quapaw Baths, LLC, (consisting of Anthony Taylor, Bob Kempkes, Don Harper and Steve Strauss) has signed a 55-year lease for the Quapaw bathhouse, the row’s largest facility. After a $2 million restoration (funded by their own bank accounts, plus loans and some federal rehab tax credit syndication), Quapaw Baths & Spa now welcomes hundreds of bathers daily to hot and tepid pools beneath stained-glass skylights.

"There’d been so much pent-up demand, and so many people who’d come here over the years and left disappointed, but were willing to try again," says Anthony Taylor, AIA, principal.

His firm was drawn to the stuccoed Quapaw not only because its 20,000-sq.ft. interior is roomier than the neighboring bathhouses, but also because its copper cupola and mosaic-tiled dome, patterned in bright chevrons, "are so noticeable on the avenue skyline," Taylor explains. The Quapaw also comes with Hot Springs’ most intriguing legends. In 1854, the town’s first commercial bathhouse was built at the Quapaw site, atop springs laced with manganese and calcium. Members of the Quapaw Indian tribe are said to have bathed there for centuries, in "a long passage winding back into the mountainside that had streams of hot water gushing from the walls," according to Hot Springs historian Sharon Shugart. However, Shugart has been unable to find any proof in town archives backing up those longstanding geological rumors; the tunnel was probably just a deep crevice, she concludes, since the local tufa soil "is porous and honeycombed with cavities."

Despite the lofty claims that ancient cave waters were flowing through the plumbing, the Quapaw’s operators kept their entry prices lower than those of competing spas, and never installed highbrow amenities like billiard rooms, beauty parlors or bowling alleys. An exterior wheelchair ramp was installed as early as 1923 for access to the Quapaw tubs, which were all on the ground floor. The bathhouse did offer a few visual luxuries, though; scallop seashells and spiny fish are molded into the swooping parapets, and barrel-vaulted skylights in grid patterns illuminated the men’s and women’s bathing sections.

The partners started strategizing ways to reactivate the Quapaw in the 1990s, soon after they moved to Hot Springs (Taylor is from Memphis, Kempkes from Denver, and Harper from Detroit). "We had an out-of-towners’ perspective," Taylor recalls. "We could not believe what everyone here was saying, that there was no way anymore to bring people into the waters." Reuse proposals had been floated for the buildings; most sputtered out, although in 1989, the Park Service converted a 1915 brick bathhouse, with stained-glass ceilings depicting mermaids, into offices and a spa museum.

In 1998, Taylor/Kempkes signed a lease for the Quapaw, but restoration funding fell through. The architects and partners leased the place again in 2007, this time with themselves as the client. (The Park Service by then had already performed some major structural work at the Quapaw, reinforcing the dome with a new compression ring, upgrading HVAC, and adding catch-basins to the leaky basement.) "We ended up succeeding where others had failed because we’re architects," Taylor says. "We could do the upfront work ourselves, rather than paying out fees."

To reinvent the Quapaw as a resort, the architects first needed to tear out the white-tiled cubicles. "Our philosophy," says Taylor, "was that coming here should be a very appealing, sensual event, not clinical or medicinal." The architects have transformed the men’s section into multi-user pools, and adapted the women’s corridors into private cabanas where customers can set their own water temperatures and undergo body treatments. In removing and shifting around partitions, Taylor reports, "we reused as much clay tile as we could for the new walls. We took hardly anything to the dump from the site." (The firm has filed for LEED certification for the project.)

Taylor/Kempkes worked with a number of contractors on the project, including GTS Inc., Jarrell Plumbing Co. and Poole Plastering & Construction Co. (all from Hot Springs, AR); and Fleming Electric Inc. of Little Rock, AR.

The former men’s and women’s zones are illuminated again by barrel-vaulted skylights. The architects found the original panes, which had been replaced by dropped acoustic tile, moldering in storage. "They’d been sitting in boxes for so long that we only had enough intact pieces left to make the men’s skylight whole again," Taylor explains. Soos Stained Glass of Maumelle, AR, restored the surviving glass for the pool area and replicated the other skylight from scratch. There’s a subtle difference between new and old, Taylor reports: "You can see that some old glass is stained and obscured, from being exposed to all the calcium and manganese here over the years."

The new walls along the pools, café, treatment rooms and gift shop are already showing their own signs of manganese stains and calcified deposits. "We gave up frantically trying to clean away that patina," the architect says. And visitors seem to appreciate the antiqued look. The facility is operating "past our fairly conservative projections for occupancy rates," Taylor notes. "People sit in rocking chairs on the porch in the morning, waiting for us to open."

The users are typically foreign-born, and come from countries with centuries-old traditions of soaking in hot mineral water. Busloads of tourists, including many Koreans, are spending full days at the Quapaw (paying just $15 per head). Locals, especially Slavic immigrants, have bought memberships and start each day with an hour-long soak. "Some days when I’m in the pool," Taylor reports, "I hear no English spoken all around me, just a cloud of Spanish and Slavic and Asian languages."

The Quapaw is particularly attractive to foreigners because there’s no quintessentially American chlorine smell inside. Only salt is needed to purify the waters: "We use less than the percentage of salt in a tear. You don’t know it’s there," Taylor says. Environmentalist-leaning locals of all nationalities approve of the bathhouse’s lack of chemical additives, as well as the basic green-ness of the idea of bathing in water heated by nature.

"The water comes to us so hot that we actually have to cool it down before anyone can get in, by mixing it with 90-degree water that the Park Service sends us from a reservoir," the architect explains. "What a shame it was, for all those years, that people were cut off from one of the few places on earth where water comes out of the ground this hot." TB

 

 

 
 

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