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From the Research Files

Highlighting African American history in Arkansas from 1870 to the present, From the Research Files explores the growing historical research files of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Regularly updated entries include biographies, historical essays and book reviews exploring the accomplishments, struggles and contributions of Arkansas's African Americans.


Pythian Bathhouse, Hotel, and Sanitarium

12/11/2009

 The Pythian Bathhouse and Sanitarium was one of the most important attractions for the African American community in Hot Springs, Arkansas. While the famed Spa City employed hundreds of African Americans in the bathhouse industry, access for African Americans to these baths was limited, segregated, or restricted. The Pythian Bathhouse was the most successful bathhouse to exclusively offer African Americans an opportunity to bathe in the famous hot springs during the first half of the twentieth century. 

The bathhouse and sanitarium was located at 415 Malvern Avenue. The bathhouse took its name from its owners, the Knights of Pythias of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia (KoP), an African American fraternal organization and benevolent society.

During its existence, the Pythian Bathhouse attracted thousands of African Americans from around the country to Arkansas. In 1949, Ebony magazine reported that the “guest register reads like a ‘Who’s Who of Negro America’.” Some of these guests included entrepreneur & activist Madam C. J. Walker, baseball club owner Andrew “Rube” Foster, boxers Kid Chocolate and Jack Blackburn, Illinois Congressman Arthur Mitchell, Chicago Defender columnist Jay Gould, and Chicago Banker Jesse Binga. 

In April 1904, Michael H. Jodd and Albert P. Aldrich opened the Crystal Bathhouse at 415 Malvern Avenue. This business venture was not successful, and in 1908 the KoP obtained the lease. Five years later on September 5, 1913, disaster struck when a major fire destroyed 50 blocks of the downtown Hot Springs area including the Crystal Bathhouse.

The KoP chose to rebuild after the fire. They selected African American architect Walter T. Bailey of the Tuskegee Institute to design the new building. The new bathhouse and hotel officially opened on December 27, 1914. In August 1916, Manager John T. T. Warren spoke about the bathhouse at the 17th annual session of the National Negro Business League in Kansas City, Missouri. He stated, “We have the most complete and best equipped bath house in the world for colored people.”

Business steadily increased and on July 21, 1920, the KoP announced that they would spend $200,000 for repairs and improvements to the bathhouse. After a two year planning process, the KoP closed the bathhouse on May 1, 1922 for renovation.  

Nine months later on January 31, 1923, the KoP dedicated the newly enlarged building.   Several weeks later, Arno B. Cammerer, the acting director of the National Park Service visited the renovated bathhouse and reported that he, “. . .found it is by far the best equipped bathhouse in Hot Springs as to appointments and fittings. In fact, I judge it is some twenty-five or thirty years ahead of the times in its facilities. It is practically marble throughout.”   

The management of the bathhouse continued to make improvements during the next four decades. The Alice Eve Hospital was added in 1935 and $40,000 was spent on renovations in 1945. In 1965, a waning bathhouse industry had become completely desegregated, and attendance at the Pythian began to decline. Finally, in December 1974, the Pythian Bathhouse closed.

In 1984, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program asked the Historic American Building Survey to document the building with measured drawings and photographs.   
One year later in 1985, the Pythian Bathhouse was demolished. Today, the site of this famous African American landmark is a parking deck for the Austin Hotel.

For Additional Information:

African Americans and the Hot Springs Baths,” Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Hot Springs, [n.d.], on accessed 4 August 2009.

Paige, John C., and Laura E. Soullie`re. 1988. Out of the Vapors: A Social and Architectural History of Bathhouse Row: Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. [Washington, D.C.?]: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Service.

Shugart, Sharon,“The Hot Springs of Arkansas through the Years: A Chronology of Events, -Excerpts-,” Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Hot Springs, 2004 (accessed 4 August 2009).

Hot Springs National Park, Visitors Center, Hot Springs, Arkansas

Garland County Historical Society Archives, Hot Springs, Arkansas

Thanks to Sharon Shugart, Alyssa Warrick, and the Hot Springs National Park Library for assistance in preparing this article.

Bryan McDade, Curator of Collections


Advertisement of the National Baptist Sanitarium and the Pythian Bathhouse appearing in the Hot Spri

A postcard of the Pythian Bathhouse (showing post 1923 renovations). 2009.01.091, Mosaic Templars Cu

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS ILL, 16-CHIG, 33-2

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