Bathed in HISTORY Hot springs: Since the 18th century, people have been soaking up the mineral waters in Bath County, Va. Modern travelers can also avail themselves of other pleasures at the elegant Homestead resort.

April 28, 1996|By Lynne Muller | Lynne Muller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Spotlighting the surface of the crystalline pool with a bright patch of turquoise, sunshine pours through the circular roof of the women's bathhouse at Warm Springs, Va.

A few bathers float in and out of sunshine and shadow as the sun's rays penetrate to the rocky bottom of the clear spring water. The bathhouse, which has stood here since 1826, is illuminated in soft green light.

Next door is the 1761 men's bathhouse, the oldest spa structure in America.

I soak up history along with iron, calcium and bicarbonates. The bathhouses and pools 75 miles north of Roanoke are built around natural springs and were once a fashionable stop for Virginia aristocrats such as Thomas Jefferson. Between the two bathhouses is a covered drinking spring where travelers socialized while sipping warm mineral water.

There are few bathers here, but two extremes are conspicuous -- a young French Canadian woman floating nude in the 96-degree water and an older woman, still much too young to be wearing a suit designed early this century, complete with short bloomers.

The second woman catches me staring and laughs before she volunteers a brief history lesson. A long-time visitor to the Warm Springs pools from Richmond, Va., she tells me that the old-fashioned suits are a tradition, hand sewn by a now-retired matron who greeted bathers for many years at the spa entrance. The loose cotton suits allow the mineral-laden water to circulate freely on the skin.

As we sit atop huge boulders that rise from the natural, rock-covered floor of the pool, my new informant points out an uneven wall section in the 21-sided-structure.

"That wide place was once a door specially constructed for Mrs. Robert E. Lee," she says. The wife of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia used a wheelchair. "They pulled her through the door and lowered her, in a specially designed chair, by ropes into the water."

The Homestead resort in Hot Springs, five miles south of the Warm Springs pools on U.S. Route 220, administers the pools and has its own historical significance.

Route 220 in Bath County curves along a valley in the Virginia Appalachians, through a landscape of old stone buildings and horse pastures. The 521-room Homestead, a red brick, multi-winged hotel, looms suddenly on the left around a curve in the road, with the small town of Hot Springs on the right. The resort can be dated to 1766, says Homestead historian Johnny Gazzola, because an inn was built then by Commodore Thomas Bullit. Bullit was stationed at Fort Dinwiddie, founded by George Washington.

Inside the Homestead today there are no traces of humble origins. On the contrary, it's easy to imagine illustrious guests, including 13 presidents, strolling the 211-foot-long Great Hall. This elegant, wide lobby has welcomed Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Lady Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt and other turn-of-the-century notables.

The present site of daily afternoon teas, the Great Hall is the place to sit and watch the comings and goings of other guests, as did Elizabeth Taylor when she was first Lady of Virginia. "I often saw her and Governor Warner sitting over there," says Mr. Gazzola, 70, pointing to mahogany and velvet chairs near the Solarium.

American Versailles

Ms. Taylor, who once said, "I consider the Homestead the Versailles of America," doesn't drop by much anymore, but plenty of other movers and shakers do, many from Washington. However, Mr. Gazzola chooses to feature yesteryear's rich and famous in his anecdotes, including John D. Rockefeller Sr., who visited often to play golf.

Mr. Gazzola says Rockefeller was not a generous tipper. "He'd line up the caddies by a shallow stream, throw a bunch of shiny silver dimes into the water and watch the men go scrambling after the money.

"The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited for a month in 1943 and left without paying their bill," Mr. Gazzola says. Staff noticed them packing and alerted the front desk. "They were presented with a bill, but the duke simply looked at it in astonishment and asked, 'What am I to do with this?' "

Mr. Gazzola, whose father began working in the kitchen in 1917, also remembers wartime interment of Japanese. "From Dec. 29, 1941, through April 1942, the Homestead was commandeered by the State Department for Japanese diplomats with their children and entourage -- 330 in all."

Just off the Great Hall in the East Wing, where lithographs of 19th-century Virginia hang, is the inviting library. The walls are lined with photos and displays as well as bookshelves. The pictures tell the Homestead's story, starting with Bullit's hotel. Because many travelers seeking medicinal cures were drawn to the springs, he started an inn to protect his own home from uninvited guests.

But the Homestead's eight springs, including Boiler, Hot Sulphur and Soda, were known for many years before that. An old story goes that in 1600 a Shawnee messenger survived a winter by sleeping near the water of Octagon Pool, the main spring in front of the present-day spa.

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