My friend Rex Nelson wrote a piece titled “The Shame of Hot Springs” and posted it on his blog, www.rexnelsonsouthernfried.com, on Feb. 21. In it he decried the deterioration of downtown Hot Springs, symbolized by the nailing of plywood over the windows of the old Majestic Hotel on Park Avenue.
A week later the hotel burned down.
That’s one way to end a historic preservation debate.
I have no reason to believe that Rex’s article, or reaction to it, had anything to do with the fire, but it’s quite a coincidence.
“It’s not just the Majestic. …” Nelson wrote. “It’s the other historic buildings that have been empty for years. Rather than being charming relics, they’ve become eyesores. And they send the message that this once-great American resort is in a tailspin that can’t be reversed.”
A shorter version appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Nelson followed up with another blog post a few days later. The first piece had obviously struck a chord because more than 10,000 people had read it, by far a record for his blog.
As one who was born around the corner from the Majestic in what was then St. Joseph’s Hospital and spent the first 20 years of my life in Hot Springs, I had a special interest in “The Shame” article and the Majestic fire.
Like many Hot Springs natives, I’ve never spent the night in the Majestic, and the same was true about its equally historic sister hotel, the Arlington, until the 40-year reunion of my high school class. I always had a place to stay because my mother lived there.
But for one summer after my sophomore year in college, I spent part of almost every day at either the Arlington or Majestic, or both. My assignment then for the local newspapers was to cover whatever convention was in town, and there was always at least one. Most of them were at the Arlington, which had the facilities to handle a national organization’s meetings, but some guests stayed at the Majestic up the street because its Lanai Towers and Suites were newer and nicer.
I did some interviews in the courtyard formed by the Lanai buildings and the 1926 section of the Majestic. The Lanai Towers, standing at the junction of Central, Whittington and Park avenues, overlooking a fountain street divider, became the icon of the Majestic. A steady stream of vehicles has always circled around that fountain and headed back up Central.
That wasn’t what burned down last week. Lost was the oldest building of the hotel complex, a U-shaped section that had stood since 1902, topped by a neon Majestic sign.
Firefighters apparently managed to save the Lanai buildings and the 1926 section by pouring tons of water over them. Also saved was the newer but also closed Velda Rose Motel, once a glittering “motor hotel” alternative to the traditional downtown hotels. You could drive right in and park near the lobby or even on the roof.
Its Round Table Restaurant became a popular place for local meetings, including my senior banquet, so I spent a lot of time there, too. Only a few years ago, we still took my mother there for Mother’s Day dinner.
That all those buildings in that row are closed and one in the center is now gone is indeed a shame for Hot Springs and Arkansas.
The deterioration of downtown buildings is commonplace. Jonesboro has revitalized its downtown by the introduction especially of a variety of restaurants. Parking has been added downtown, but a parking spot is still hard to find, even on a Monday afternoon.
However, Jonesboro had a special circumstance that worked to its advantage — a change in state laws allowing restaurants to operate a private club in an otherwise dry county — thus encouraging the development of an entertainment district. Without that, downtown Jonesboro might be mostly vacant.
Why those mostly unique, locally owned restaurants congregated in downtown is a matter for debate, but the first ones found interesting old buildings that could be leased or acquired and converted cheaply. Success then breeds more success.
For Hot Springs and many other cities, that just hasn’t happened. Despite still being a tourist town, Hot Springs has relatively few downtown restaurants and hotels. The Arlington is still open, but many Arkansas organizations won’t meet there because of its deterioration and a somewhat unfair reputation for poor service.
Bathhouse Row is both a blessing and a curse. Though the National Park Service has kept the buildings up, they take up valuable space and, because most are shuttered, add to the “ghost town” feel along Central Avenue. On-street parking is virtually non-existent, and few parking lots are available in convenient places.
When traveling, wife Pat and I prefer to stay in hotels with character and history, rather than the cookie-cutter high-rise complexes. We’ve found a couple especially attractive in Mobile, and two years ago we stayed at the refurbished Savoy Hotel in Kansas City, where we had two of the best breakfasts ever.
Hot Springs has similar possibilities, including the remaining Majestic buildings and Velda Rose, but it will take money and determination to turn things around. If the Majestic fire is a catalyst for a movement in that direction, all of Arkansas will benefit.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.