Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Trip to the Springs

In the mountains connecting Virginia and West Virginia, there are countless mineral springs. Many of the springs became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, first as healing springs and later as resorts. The different minerals and compositions of the waters were thought to heal most any ill either by drinking or bathing in the water. Most of these places had hotels at one time and traces of the resorts can be found in the landscape as well as in descriptive road and community names: Red Sulphur, White Sulphur, Blue Sulphur, Green Sulphur, Yellow Sulphur, Sweet Sulphur, Sweet Chalybeate, Sweet, Hot, Warm...

We were fortunate this weekend, to have the opportunity to attend a conference at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. While the first resort buildings were built in the 1700s, the large brick hotel seen today wasn't built until the early 1900s. The building was built in the Colonial Revival style with plenty of columns, pilasters, floor-to-ceiling windows to let in natural light, and sumptuous spaces to delight the preservationist in me. Sitting in the Grand Hall, you can imagine well-known guests from years past arriving with their entourages or making their way to dinner. The Homestead has hosted presidents from Washington to Clinton and the rich and famous from financiers like J. Pierpont Morgan to well-known names like Thomas Edison. 

The Homestead is, today, still a place known for its excellence and not one that we can frequent often, but it is fun to imagine the past while we are there. To imagine the intrepid travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries who came to Hot Springs by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach, from Eastern Virginia and other areas of the South, climbing the curvy mountain roads, carrying their many trunks of elegant clothing, to heal in the springs or enjoy resort activities. Even today, there are many roads to The Homestead, but no easy way there. It is a slow, winding, uphill trek in a car on paved roads, but by horse on dirt roads? Wow.

We also stopped to visit the bath houses at Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs. Unfortunately, though owned by The Homestead, they don't seem to be faring as well as the hotel. The Gentlemen's Spa was built in 1761 and the women's in 1836. Both are large frame buildings inclosing the spring-fed pools that naturally run at about 98 degrees. Though still open to the public, the exteriors of the buildings show wear with missing wooden shingles and rotted boardwalks. The buildings were placed on Preservation Virginia's Most Endangered List in 2010 and were listed as Threatened by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011. The local Friends of the Pool have mobilized to save the bath houses, but without hotel's blessing, that can't happen. Hopefully, The Homestead will decide soon to preserve and restore the bath houses to a level becoming of such a luxury hotel before it is too late.

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