WARM SPRINGS —
Thomas Jefferson ventured through mountain wilderness to get here and soak his weary bones in the balmy, bubbling pools, hoping the experience would help his rheumatism.
Over the years, others have taken to the waters seeking cures for dyspepsia, paralysis and just about anything else that ailed them. Whether the effervescent mineral water is truly healing is open to debate, but there’s no dispute it’s utterly relaxing.
Steeped in history, the pools of Warm Springs — known as the Jefferson Pools — still attract locals and visitors seeking a watery respite. All these years later, the water’s unchanged, still continuously fed by several natural mineral springs deep beneath the earth’s surface, still a steady 98 degrees, still crystal clear.
But the historic wooden buildings surrounding them are a different matter — broken windows, missing roof shingles, decrepit boards. You’re left to wonder if the most recent coat of paint was slapped on by Jefferson himself.
“We depend on tourism for our community, and they’re an important part of attracting people here, so we don’t want them falling down,” said Janice McWilliams, a longtime Warm Springs resident and retired owner of a nearby inn, “and they’re about to.”
McWilliams is a member of Friends of the Pools, a grass-roots group formed to figure out a way to save the bathhouses — one is for men, the other for women (and clothing is optional in each). The men’s octagonal house, built in 1761 and considered to be one of the oldest such structures still in existence in the United States, turned Warm Springs into a spa resort. The women’s house was built in 1836. The bathhouses are registered as national and state historic landmarks.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, in the September/October issue of Preservation magazine, lists the bathhouses as “threatened.” Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit statewide historic preservation organization, in 2010 listed the pools among the “most endangered historic sites in Virginia.”
So what’s the hold-up?
The pools are owned by The Homestead, the luxury resort a few miles down the road in Hot Springs, and officials there are not saying what, if anything, they have planned. Organizers of Friends of the Pools said they have not heard back from The Homestead following a request for a meeting; resort officials did not respond to several requests for interviews for this column.
Warm Springs, in appealing and aptly named Bath County, is a three-hour drive west of Richmond, nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. The pools are on the side of U.S. 220, situated in a pretty setting featuring a footbridge spanning a stream of warm water from the springs.
On a recent visit, the first thing that caught my eye was the yellow caution tape stretched across a rickety section of the boardwalk outside the women’s pool house. Paint seemed to be peeling off the buildings in sheets. Boards were missing, walls pulling apart. An intended rustic experience has gone way beyond that. These are the original structures, though surely various pieces have been replaced over the years (but apparently not recently).
The pool houses were constructed open to the elements, with giant holes in the middle of the roofs that allow steam to escape; the unplanned holes scattered about the ceilings, however, are due to missing shingles. In declaring the houses “threatened,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation noted “floors in the structures sag from dampness and wear … beams and posts have deteriorated. Preservationists fear the National Register-listed structures will deteriorate beyond repair if maintenance continues to be deferred.”
There is much work to do, but there’s no telling when or if it will start — or what exactly needs to be done or how much it might cost. The first step is a detailed study, but that can’t be undertaken without the cooperation of The Homestead, which includes championship golf courses and a ski resort.
“Our attitude is, if it’s not of value to them, then let’s talk about letting someone run or own it … to whom it is a value,” said Phil Deemer, another member of the grass-roots group. “If they want to focus down here, fine, but don’t continue to own something and neglect something that’s of tremendous value.”
But Deemer and McWilliams stressed — and the point was made in a recent public meeting — that Friends of the Pools does not want an “adversarial” relationship with The Homestead or its parent company, California-based KSL Resorts. The group would like to work with The Homestead to find a solution.
“We want to be seen as people who just want to help and get it done,” McWilliams said.
The Homestead has been helpful in past issues involving historic preservation, said Elizabeth Kostelny, executive director of Preservation Virginia, so she hopes that track record will continue.
“There are not bad guys in this,” she said. “There are no bad guys in this. We’re just looking for a way to make sure these are preserved.”
For a $17 fee, you can soak for an hour in the history- and mineral-rich pools, an experience that McWilliams, who regularly takes to the waters, finds “wonderful.”
“You go in and just relax in the water,” she said. “There’s a little bit of effervescence, so you get this bubbly fresh water that’s nice and warm. Some people feel it’s therapeutic. Whatever it is, it’s very pleasant.”
The bathhouses, she said, are “just a treasure we’d hate to see gone.”