FORDYCE BATHHOUSE GENERAL HISTORY
(including links to related primary documents)
Sam Fordyce, the founder of this bathhouse, was an affluent businessman brought to Hot Springs for its known health-restoring waters. In the 1800's and early 1900's, baths in hot springs were known for curing rheumatism, gout, malaria, alcohol and drug addictions, constipation, paralysis, syphilis, as well as many other illnesses. Mr. Fordyce was given only six months to live in 1872 due to a Civil War injury, so after being healed by baths taken while visiting Arkansas the next year, the entrepreneur considered investing in this bustling spa town. Sam Fordyce shortly moved his family, originally from Huntsville, Alabama and St. Louis, Missouri, to Arkansas. Among several other investments in the city, he lavishly constructed the Fordyce Bathhouse where the Old Palace Bathhouse had once been. Building the bathhouse as a "testimonial to the healing waters," he stated "I felt I owed my life to Hot Springs." It was built on the government-owned, federally-restricted Bathhouse Row.
Unfortunately, the Fordyce Bathhouse was built a bit too extravagantly. Before the bathhouse was even completed, there were slight problems with finding enough funds to continue building. Several times, the project manager J.F. Manier wrote to Sam Fordyce requiring more money than the planned budget allowed (see a report of the estimated budget of one month). To compensate for the high building costs, its bathing prices were set higher than most of the other bathhouses in Hot Springs when it opened in 1915 and in the following years. The higher rates caused bathers to go to the other less lavish, yet attractive bathhouses in the city. According to the "Fiscal History of Fordyce Bathhouse Report" compiled in 1962, net earnings were never large for Fordyce in the early years, in fact negligible if depreciation had been taken into account.
Throughout the Great Depression from 1929-1939, bathing prices steadily rose as they had before despite the lack of extra money among patrons. However, in the mid-1940s when the economy of the United States was once again strengthening, business was booming at the Fordyce.
Contributing to the unnecessary and expensive magnificence of Fordyce, advancements in medical technology brought about a sharp decline in the whole bathing industry after 1946. People no longer saw bathing in the natural hot springs as providing mysterious healing powers to their ailments.
Medical breakthroughs also resulted in criticism of the bathing methods used. As early as the 1930s, John Fordyce, the owner at the time and son of the founder, wrote a report entitled "Bathing: Past, Present, and Future in Hot Springs National Park." He proposed changes to comply with modern techniques (see excerpt of "Bathing Past, Present and Future"). These renovations surely cost a great deal of money.
On June 29, 1962, the Fordyce Bathhouse closed down. According to a United Press article, it was only supposed to close down temporarily as it converted to more modern techniques of bathing.
Due to operating and plant problems which have made it impossible for the Fordyce to gear into the initial phases of the conversion program, the management has requested permission of the National Park Service to suspend operations pending solutions of these problems.
The Fordyce Bathhouse never reopened. For years to come, what was to come of the bathhouse was debated by the National Park Service, city of Hot Springs, and Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. In 1967, a newspaper article was written on the fate of Fordyce. The article mentioned two suggestions, including the conversion of the bathhouse into a new home for the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce or a new Senior Citizens Center. In 1970, a detailed prospectus of the use of the Fordyce Bathhouse was written. In it, an economic study of Arkansas outlined the trends of higher incomes and "tendency for the consumer to spend more on services, including travel, longer paid vacations and improved retirement benefits;" "all of which have enhanced the demand for leisure activities." It went on to discuss the development of travel and leisure oriented businesses in Arkansas. The prospectus concluded in proposing that the Fordyce Bathhouse be used as a museum and visitor center. In May of 1988, Fordyce Bathhouse, newly restored, did in fact open as a museum and visitor center.
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