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Opulence Endures at Hot Springs' Most Famous Spa

If you look through a stack of old U.S. picture postcards, circa 1905 or so, you're sure to find scenes from beach resorts like Atlantic City, New Jersey. Likely among them will be images of opulent bathhouses on the boardwalk.

In the so-called golden age of bathing, people of means flocked to bathhouse palaces for the pampering. Others went to bathhouses in remote mountain towns in the belief that their mineral-rich waters, bubbling from springs deep beneath the earth, offered curative powers. Treatments at bathhouse spas were said to cure everything from nervousness to gout to syphilis.

In 1915 in the Ozark Mountains town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Samuel Fordyce built perhaps the most luxurious bathhouse since the Roman baths of Caracalla. In addition to whirlpools and hot tubs, the Fordyce Bathhouse offered massage and napping rooms – even a music room.

In the Spanish Renaissance-style men's bath court, patrons gazed at an 8,000-piece stained-glass ceiling depicting mermaids and Neptune's daughter. There and in the women's hall, customers shed their clothes and stepped into tubs, where attendants assisted in vigorous scrubs. Next came a curative sweat in what was called a vapor box, followed by a needle-like cold shower.

Advances in medicine killed off most bathhouses. So did less-strenuous alternatives such as golfing resorts and theme parks.

The Fordyce Bathhouse closed in 1962. But the National Park Service took it over, gave it a multi-million-dollar facelift, and opened it to public tours. And there are still a few other places on Bathhouse Row where one can take a gingerly dip in Hot Springs' famous steaming-hot waters.