Eight bathhouses still line Central Avenue downtown, including the Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been in continuous operation since 1911. There's also the Quapaw, reopened in 2007 with modernized facilities; the Lamar Bathhouse, which houses a National Park Service gift shop; the Ozark, which functions as a cultural center; the Maurice (closed since 1974 but available for lease); the Hale (closed since 1978 but the potential site of a new bed and breakfast); and the Superior, which now functions as Superior Brewery, the only brewery in the world making beer from thermal waters.
There's a lot to take in with this visitors center -- including history, recreated salons, a lot of plumbing and a whole lot of interesting stories and stained glass. Here's a photographic tour to the top and then the bottom of the Fordyce Bathhouse.
There's an operating fountain outside the Fordyce, and whether it's cold or warm outside, there's bound to be steam. The waters come from one of the 47 springs that bubble up throughout the park. The temperature is always 143 degrees, though a cooling plant at the north end of Bathhouse Row reduces the temperature of the water from most of the springs before piping it on to other locations, such as the Arlington Hotel.
The Fordyce has always been fancy. Even the exterior showcases fine details such as moldings around the windows, awnings, patterns made with the very bricks. It's gorgeous, but still nothing quite what you experience when you walk inside.
The front porch at the Fordyce is a popular place for travelers to perch and watch the world go by.
From the moment you step inside, the ornate luxury of the bathhouse is apparent. This fountain graces the lobby.
Above the Check Room window, a single Bible verse from the Book of Jeremiah greets visitors.
Valuables could be kept in a safe box at the front desk. There today, you can pick up a floor plan for the building, which will show you where you can explore.
There are things to see on all three floors and in the basement as well.
Off to the south of the lobby, you'll find the ladies cooling room. Accommodations for men and women were separate, and the ladies section of the bathhouse was on the southern side. Inside this porcelain enameled room, ladies cooled off after baths.
The next room is the ladies pack room. This one is enhanced by three stained glass windows. You'll see a lot of magnificent stained glass throughout the Fordyce. Within the pack room, each person was usually wrapped in a sheet, and hot or cold water-soaked packs were applied to ailing areas. It was customary for individuals to take a needle shower in the next room before retreating to the cooling room.
There are fountains of different sorts all over the Fordyce -- some for bathing, some for drinking.
You can view various products used in the pack room closet.
The next room is the ladies bathhall... where eight individual tubs are enclosed in booths that are open at bottom and top to the room at large. These massive cast iron and porcelain tubs were large enough to immerse almost any soul; attendants would draw the baths and keep an eye on the bathers.
The bathhall also included needle showers, carefully attended with employees making sure the water was the right temperature and pressure. You'll notice each of these knobs connect with a round of jets inside the shower.
The hall also includes a steam cabinet and sitz bath, a bath where one sits in the water with the legs out.
One of the stained glass windows in the ladies bathhall.
Additional steam cabinets, a tub, another needle shower, a table and some rather ominous looking hoses are located next door in the Hydrotherapy suite, which could be closed off to either the mens or ladies sides. The tub was once used for "electric baths," which sound absolutely demonic. No deaths were reported from these. This room was usually used for doctor prescribed treatments.
The steam baths were usually administered for specific maladies -- such as syphilis, jaundice, rheumatism and obesity. Vapors between 110 and 140 degrees were administered within the cabinet with nothing but one's head protruding from within for sessions of up to 30 minutes. As you can imagine, it caused profuse sweating.
The mens bathhall is through the next doorway, in the center of the building. Overhead, a massive stained glass skylight gleams over a famed fountain statue of Hernando de Soto receiving the gift of the thermal waters from a Native American maiden. This scene is iconic for the bathhouse; once completely open, half the bathhall is now cordoned off to preserve the facilities.
Here's a more detailed look at the stained glass skylight. It's meant to represent Neptune's daughter and marine life, and there are more than 8000 pieces contained in the matrix.
The first time I saw this statue, my first reaction was "why's this girl giving a guy a duck?"
The mens bathhall was a phenomenal place to lounge after taking in the waters. Men would drink from the (then operational) fountain and cool off on marble benches around the room.
An exhibit room and theater encompass the former mens cooling room on the first floor.
The exhibits include memorabilia from the grand days of bathing.
These tokens were used to record how many customers an attendant had served over the course of a day.
Talk about inflation. You could purchase a book of 18 baths for $37.70... today, a single bath at the Buckstaff Bathhouse, the last of the original operating bathhouses, is $31.
Here are books from several of the famed bathhouses.
The Fordyce Bathhouse was very fancy -- fancy enough to have a very special elevator, a real luxury in 1916. The translucent glass closet opened on either side, and either male or female passengers were transported from floor to floor. It also served as a message center for couples, who would learn of where their companion was in the building from the lift operator. The elevator is still operational, and you can ride it to any of the floors.
One of the men's dressing rooms on the second floor has been altered to include exhibit space. The room on the northwest corner includes bathing exhibits and a video. Here, notice bathing accessories, such as a bedazzled shower cap.
Much of the second floor space was comprised of rows of dressing rooms. These mere closets are relatively tiny compared to today's facilities. A hook for clothing, a small mirror and a bench were all these contained. Still, the wooden doors for dressing booths at the Fordyce were superior to the cloth curtains at most of the other facilities.
Important belongings could be stored in a small locker.
Sunbathing nude was encouraged on the mens private sun court. While you can see over part of the sunlight towards the ladies sun court today, when the Fordyce was in operation there were a bevy of tropical plants around each section.
Massage rooms were located on the east end of the second floor.
One of many implements for electrically assisted treatments on display.
Electrical massage fell out of use in the 1930s, and manual massage became the norm.
In the ladies dressing hall, there are more booths, along with a parlor. Some of the furniture in this room was salvaged from the Palace Bathhouse, which preceded the Fordyce.
While men were encouraged to sunbathe naked, women were not. The ladies court, being on the south side of the building, was usually shadowed, allowing sunbathing ladies in their swimsuits to take in just enough sun, not enough to mar fair complexions.
Foot treatments and pedicures were offered to women in the Chiropody Room, next to the second floor elevator. It had entrances on both the mens and ladies sides and could be closed and curtained off.
Patients who couldn't walk were brought to the Hubbard Tub on the third floor for treatment. This early hydrotherapy tub was accompanied by a wooden stretcher lift to help patrons in and out. It was used to treat polio, paralysis, rheumatism and arthritis, stiff joints and weak muscles.
This is the sort of bathing suit one would wear in the Hubbard Tub in the 1950s.
The entire front gallery of the third floor was centered by an assembly room, where men and women could congregate together. It was a place for socializing, and sometimes was used for concerts. The Assembly Room is well known for its famous arched stained glass skylight, which runs its length. On either end there were parlors for men and women.
It's almost impossible to showcase all the stained glass above. Even with my wide lens, I still could not get an entire panel in my shot from the edge of the cordoned off zone.
Throughout the bathhouse, intricate tilework varied from room to room. This is the Assembly Room's floor.
This is the floor just outside the Assembly Room.
The mens parlor on the northwest corner was a place for guys to congregate and play games. Note the fireplace and spittoon. This room was eventually converted into an office for Colonel Fordyce.
The ladies parlor was also a music room. It was eventually converted into a beauty parlor.
Ladies could take advantage of the beauty parlor, which took up a few rooms on the third floor. Here, one could have a shampoo, finger wave or permanent, or obtain a manicure.
Ladies massages were conducted on the south side of the third floor, once again sometimes aided by electrical devices.
This particular room was utilized for electromagnetic massages... and when those fell out of favor, it was converted into a room for mercury massage.
There were 22 staterooms available at the Fordyce. These weren't overnight accommodations; rather, they were a place for one to rest in private after treatment. They were kept somewhat spartan to keep rates low.
The idea behind a spa wasn't just to take in baths or get massages -- it was to get fit. The Fordyce was equipped with a complete gymnasium on its third floor, with all sorts of exercise implements. There was even, for several years, a "physical culture director" who oversaw this facility. Parallel bars, a climbing rack, punching bags and pulley weights were among the many items available for exercise use.
There was a garden atop the Fordyce, but it proved to be impractical to visit, since someone in the garden could look over to the sunbather's court below.
Now to head down to the basement. When the Fordyce was still in operation, the basement was almost always sweltering hot, thanks to its plumbing and proximity to the hot water reservoir from the thermal spring that fed it. There were separate rooms for both male and female attendants, and an ice machine and cold water resources for the cold packs that often accompanied hot water treatments. Today, the basement contains displays, public restrooms and views of the original waterworks beneath the Fordyce.
This is the mechanism used for the elevator.
And this is the Fordyce Spring. It was uncovered while excavating the foundation for the bathhouse, then covered with glass so patrons could view it. It was so popular, a ceramic surround was created for it. The quartz crystals around the spring came from a local mine.
The Fordyce Bathhouse was a wonder when it was open, and it remains a wondrous opportunity for travelers to visit today. Slot some time for this visit -- it may take you a bit to get all the way through. For more information, check out the National Park Service site.