The Crystal Bathhouse in Hot Springs (Garland County) was the first purpose-built bathhouse to exclusively serve the needs of African Americans in Arkansas. It opened in 1904 and became a destination for those who were attracted to the nationally known thermal waters of the Spa City during the era of the Jim Crow segregated South.
The Crystal Bathhouse was located at 415 Malvern Avenue on Block 66 in the black business district of town. Two local contractors, Michael H. Jodd and Albert P. Aldrich, built the bathhouse. They chose architect John McCaslin to design a two-story brick building with parlors, dressing rooms, cooling rooms, tubs, vapor cabinets, restrooms, and eleven rooms for lodging accommodations. Externally, the building had double-hung sash windows and a galvanized iron cornice with a crown mold that extended down both sides of the building from the front to the back.
On July 31, 1903, Jodd and Aldrich signed a ten-year lease with the Department of the Interior for access to the thermal waters. The lease began on August 1, 1903. The bathhouse formally opened on April 1, 1904. The black community finally had a bathhouse that it could use without restriction. (Even bathhouses that had operated segregated facilities often restricted black usage to non-optimum hours.)
However, within a year, the Crystal Bathhouse was not meeting with financial success. In order to increase business, Jodd and Aldrich successfully sought approval for additional tubs to create a discount department in a new building annex. The annex opened in 1907, but by June 1908, the bathhouse was still not meeting financial expectations. On July 31, 1908, Jodd and Aldrich sold the bathhouse for $22,000 to the Knights of Pythias of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia (KoP), an African-American fraternal organization. The KoP wanted to acquire the bathhouse and increase its services by adding a sanatorium.
The financial conditions did not improve under the ownership of the KoP. In mid- to late 1911, the KoP subleased the bathhouse to two local men, Dr. Claude M. Wade and John T. T. Warren, for a period of two years beginning on January 1, 1912.
On September 5, 1913, a major fire destroyed fifty blocks of the downtown Hot Springs area, including the Crystal Bathhouse. Once again, blacks would not have an establishment in which to bathe in the thermal waters. Indigent black citizens could still bathe at the Government Free Bathhouse, but non-indigents could not bathe at the facility unless they swore a false pauper’s oath. Some chose to perjure themselves, while others refused to submit to the segregationist policies of a lower-quality facility.
Even though the Crystal Bathhouse was never a financial success for its owners, it provided beneficial spa services to African Americans not just in Arkansas, but from around the country during the days of segregation. That legacy would continue as the KoP rebuilt after the fire. The new establishment included a sanatorium and opened in 1914. It was called the Pythian Bathhouse and operated until 1974.
For additional information:
“African Americans and the Hot Springs Baths.” Hot Springs National Park. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/african-americans-and-the-hot-springs-baths.htm#:~:text=Hot%20Springs%20National%20Park%20When%20Jim%20Crow%20laws,by%20African%20Americans%20emerged%20in%20the%20early%201900s. (accessed December 9, 2021).
McDade, Bryan. “The Crystal Bathhouse.” The Record 53 (2012): 79–100.
Paige, John C., and Laura E. Soullie`re. Out of the Vapors: A Social and Architectural History of Bathhouse Row: Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Service, 1988.
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