Rebecca Martinez/ROVING REPORTER
WARM SPRINGS — A cape of steam lifted off the stream running between the two rustic bath houses and rose high above the February snow.
The indomitable white buildings, chipping and weathered, create sanctuaries over pools filled by persistent geothermal hot springs that have soothed visitors for centuries. Very little about the Jefferson Pools, credited as the oldest American bath houses still standing, has changed since they were built, and bathers still are welcome to experience the pools in all their untampered glory.
Nell Carpenter, 63, of the Bath County Historical Society visited the pools throughout her youth, and she said she’s always loved the tranquility and the connection with nature while floating on her back and staring at the sky through the open roofs.
“When you’re in the middle of that bubbling water, you’re in the Earth, you’re part of nature,” she said. “You can just be. As you’re floating, your mind is as unfettered as your body is.”
Carpenter said the pools always have had a charismatic draw for people. Since childhood, she’s seen travelers from all over the world visit to bathe. She’s been to church baptisms and mint julep parties at the pools.
“It’s a desire to be part of something you didn’t invent,” she said.
Bathing in history
The Warm Springs bath houses were built as the early components of a spa resort — the octagonal men’s bath house in 1761, and the larger and round women’s in 1836. They’ve seen little renovation since, save for occasional and necessary replacement boards around the pools’ decks and on sections of walls.
Wealthy vacationers came to Warm Springs as early as the mid 1700s to “take the waters” — meaning they drank the water, as well as floated in it — to achieve medicinal healing effects. Notable bathers have included Alexander Hamilton, Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson, a regular for whom the pools later were re-named.
The Jefferson Pools — and the same mineral-rich, chlorine-free spring water — now are operated by the nearby The Homestead Resort.
Quiet, unobtrusive and unencumbered by dress codes or lifeguards, the pools are open to the public for five hours on weekends during the winter and daily during the warmer months when the demand increases. Guests are on their honor to preserve the pools’ steamy, tranquil atmosphere, but they’re there on history’s terms, and the raw, authentic experience requires them to rough it a bit.
Kim Trout and Rick Morris of Charlottesville spent an hour floating in the men’s pool during a belated Valentine’s Day trip last Saturday and marveled at their historic surroundings. Trout liked the “character” of the baths and said floating there felt like a unique opportunity to experience them the way they were built.
Bathers pay by the hour to soak, and families can visit either pool for the first two hours of the day. Later, the pools open to adults only — men in the men’s pool, women in the women’s — and they’re bathing-suit optional. Women are still welcome to borrow an old-fashioned sun suit, a jumper-bloomers hybrid garment handmade from a sherbet-colored cotton. Fresh towels and Styrofoam pool noodles are made available to each guest.
Instead of water jets, guests can climb down a flight of stairs and let a waterfall of warm spring water rush over their heads and backs on its way out of the pool.
Time’s wear and tear
The dressing alcoves surrounding the perimeter of the pool decks are unheated, some containing chipping paint, splintering floors, broken antique stools and coat racks and mold-covered ceilings.
Morris, the bather from Charlottesville, said the bath house was probably very elegant when it was built, but visible effects of time’s wear and tear on the structure might diminish the experience for some. He said proper renovation could restore the building to its former glory.
Eileen Judah, the Homestead’s marketing manager, said that some guests have balked when they’ve seen the structures, expecting the pools to have been renovated or to possess a more modern feel. But bathers usually are locals, resort guests and people who are drawn to the history of pools and the authenticity of the structure.
Nathaniel Wood of Providence, R.I., stopped at the Jefferson Pools on a southbound road trip. He said other springs he’s heard about on the East Coast are closed to the public or reserved for private clubs.
“Why are these natural wonders kept for the elite or made inaccessible by the powers that be? I have no idea, because it seems that natural hot mineral water that bubbles through the bedrock of the earth over thousands of years should be accessible to anyone who seeks it out,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Wood said he and his companions were charmed by the bath houses. “There were no gimmicks, no high-priced special effects,” he said. “It was peaceful beyond belief, and when we got on our way, we felt relaxed and healthy down to our bones. So much so, that after driving back north on our way home, we went out of our way to stop again.”
Hesitant to compromise such well-preserved structures, the resort handles urgent repairs and has commissioned professional evaluations concerning the pools’ condition against their historical value, Judah said. The Homestead has yet to decide whether to renovate the pools completely or to build another, separate, modern bath house nearby.
If You Go
- What: The Jefferson Pools bath houses When: Noon-2 p.m. for family soaking, 3-5 p.m. for adults on weekends through spring. Then, open daily.
- Where: Va. 220 in Warm Springs, five miles north of the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs
- Cost: $17 per hour
- More Info: www.thehomestead.com or call 839-7741
Look Back at History
In the women’s bathhouse at Bath County’s Jefferson Pools, a wooden easy chair in one of the dressing rooms off the deck was once chained to a winch, where pool attendants would lower the wheelchair-bound Mary Anna Custis Lee — wife of General Lee — into the waters off the main pool. Time has corroded the chains and withered the chair, and the pools are no longer handicapped accessible.
Nuts and Bolts
The circular men’s and women’s pools measure 40 and 50 feet across, and 6-feet-8-inches and 4-feet-10-inches deep, respectively. They receive a constant supply of crystal-clear, 98-degree spring water, chock full of minerals — including calcium, iron and aromatic but not over-powering sulfate — from separate springs.