The Whittington Park Historic District in Hot Springs has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places! Part of the nomination is repeated below.
The Whittington Park neighborhood encompasses many significant themes relevant to the growth and prosperity of the Hot Springs Reservation as a health resort and is therefore being nominated under NRHP Criterion A for its association with community planning and development. In addition, the neighborhood represents a cohesive grouping of residential resources associated with African Americans and their contributions to the success of the health resort industry of the area during the early- and mid-twentieth century. Therefore, the Whittington Park Historic District is being nominated under NRHP Criterion A for its association with Ethnic Heritage. Finally, the neighborhood serves as a good example of a racially diverse working class neighborhood constructed in part to house laborers in the health resort industry of Hot Springs Reservation. The Whittington Park Historic District is being nominated under NRHP Criterion A for its association with Social History.
Many resources are good examples of architectural styles popular during the period of significance (1896-1960), especially those adapted to, and typical of, working class neighborhoods. There are significant groupings of Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Ranch-style homes in the neighborhood. Therefore, the Whittington Park Historic District is being nominated under NRHP Criterion C in Architecture.
The Whittington Park Historic District retains significant historical associations, and its built environment exhibits strong elements of architectural significance; therefore the Whittington Avenue Historic District is being nominated for listing in the National Register at a local level of significance.
Developmental History/Historic Context
The Hot Springs Valley was first visited by European trappers and traders in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. When the land became United States territory in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, settlers were quick to capitalize on the curative properties of the natural hot springs. As land claims for the region increased, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature sought protection of the valuable natural resource and requested the United States set aside the land as a federal reservation. From April 20, 1832, until current day, the United States has managed the land and the Hot Springs Reservation has boomed as a result of the subsequent health resort industry using the natural hot springs. The early built environment of Hot Springs included crude wooden buildings erected along the Hot Springs Creek. After a devastating fire in 1878, the earlier buildings were replaced by more elaborate and highly decorative bathhouse and hotel counterparts, built over a period of time from 1880 until the 1940s. Hot Springs grew rapidly in the period from the early 1880s until the 1960s when the health resort industry experienced a major decline in tourist visitation. Many of the grand bathhouses and hotels closed during this period and sat vacant for almost fifty years . A revitalization campaign began in the 1990s and at this writing, almost all the bathhouses along Bathhouse Row have been rehabilitated and are currently in use. Even though much of the historic fabric witnessed a strong decline in the mid- to late-twentieth century, the central downtown and surrounding residential areas of Hot Springs National Park have retained their unique sense of cultural and architectural heritage and stand as an excellent representation of the historical and architectural significance of the area.
The Design and Construction of Whittington Avenue and Whittington Lake Reserve Park
By the 1870s, disputes over land ownership between the federal government and private citizens led a federal court to formally exert government control over the area. The region was surveyed into separate blocks and lots, establishing the specific area under the management of the federal government. All remaining lots surrounding the government land were sold to private citizens. Under government control as part of the Department of the Interior, strict building requirements were established and public infrastructure constructed. The Secretary of the Interior appointed U.S. Army Captain John R. Stevens to oversee the construction projects at the reservation. The Hot Springs Creek was enclosed using a stone barrel vault and the ground above was fully landscaped. This served as the start of an extensive building and landscaping program undertaken by the federal government at the end of the nineteenth century .
The firm of Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design an overall landscape plan for the Hot Springs Reservation. After disputes between Olmsted and the U.S. Department of Interior could not be resolved, the Secretary of the Interior ordered Captain Stevens to continue on with Olmsted’s drawings for the area, which included an extensive landscaping plan for the section of the reservation that would become Whittington Park . The contract for the development of Whittington Lake Reserve Park, located between the valley of the West and Sugarloaf Mountains, was ordered on February 28, 1896, and approved July 14, 1896, for a total cost of $20,000. The plan included two lakes with bridges, two lake pavilions, a tennis court with two pavilions, and a five-room gardener’s cottage .
The construction of Whittington Park was wrought with complications. Workers excavating for the two lakes hit bedrock at five feet and thus the lakes could not be as deep as originally planned. The natural curves of Whittington Creek were straightened to accommodate the park design. A flood on March 17, 1897, caused all the newly excavated and packed earth back into the lakes. As a result, dams were constructed to limit the flow of the creek into the lakes. By 1905, due to the shallow depth of the lakes and the low flow of the creek, the lakes had become stagnant and were infilled .
The construction of the park also brought the development of a residential neighborhood surrounding the park. Single-family homes, constructed primarily in the Queen Anne style, were constructed on both the north and south sides of the park. Some of these homes are still extant, including the Charles Prager Residence (750 Whittington Avenue), the residences at 504 Whittington Avenue and 217 Sabie Street, and the Frank Spauls Residence (701 Whittington Avenue). In addition to the residential neighborhood, an amusement and entertainment district was formed west of the Whittington Lake Reserve Park. An ostrich farm was established in 1900 and an alligator farm opened in 1902 on upper Whittington Avenue. Whittington Amusement Park was constructed west of the bend of Whittington Avenue and featured vaudeville shows, merry-go-rounds, roller coasters and other attractions. The amusement park would continue operations until the 1920s .
Prosperity in the Early Twentieth Century
As the health resort industry continued to grow and prosper along Bathhouse Row and Central Avenue in the early twentieth century, additional residential construction occurred along Whittington Avenue. Census records from 1900 and 1910 indicate most of the housing along Whittington Avenue was used as rental property for working class families. Residents were predominantly employed in the hotels and bathhouses as managers, physicians, porters, cooks, waiters, and maids. Others worked as real estate agents and in construction. This is a testament to the major role the health resort industry played in the economic development of Hot Springs Reservation and in turn, Whittington Avenue .
Review of census records also indicates the make-up of the Whittington Avenue neighborhood was ethnically diverse during the early twentieth century. Anglo-Americans lived alongside African Americans on both North and South Whittington Avenues. Sarah Henderson, an African American widow, owned the property at 365 Whittington Avenue and in 1910 is listed as living with her son, Harry, and granddaughter Mable Page. She continued to live in the home with her children and grandchildren into the 1920s. During the 1920s, her son, daughter-in-law, and their oldest son were all employed by local hotels. A comparison of the 1915 and 1925 Sanborn maps indicates a number of alterations were made to the residence to accommodate the growing number of family members during this period .
During the 1910s, the federal government made significant improvements throughout the reservation, including Whittington Lake Reserve Park and West Mountain Drive. A sidewalk and water trough was constructed in front of the Whittington Avenue cold spring (at the present site of the NPS Maintenance Complex, 613 Whittington Avenue) in 1911. Retaining walls were added to the same site the next year. West Mountain Road was constructed in 1916 and opened to automobile traffic during the daylight hours .
Modernizing the Built Environment
Hot Springs Reservation became a national park on March 4, 1921, five years after the National Park Service was established by an act of Congress . The health resort industry continued to prosper throughout 1920s, with many wooden Queen Anne style bathhouses demolished and more substantial high-style stone buildings took their place. One of the most popular architectural styles used for bathhouse and hotel construction during this period was the Mission Style. Likewise, the number of residences along Whittington Avenue increased during this period and some older wood-frame cottages were demolished. As with the bathhouses, the earlier Queen Anne homes were forsaken for smaller Craftsman-style bungalows. These bungalows are still the predominant architectural style for the residences within the Whittington Avenue neighborhood. Thirty Craftsman bungalows dating from the period of 1920 until the 1940s are still extant. The makeup of the working class neighborhood remained largely unchanged with most residents employed as support staff for the bathhouses and hotels. The 1920 census lists many residents along Whittington Avenue as servants, masseurs, housekeepers, and porters .
The Great Depression and Federal Worker Relief Programs
Although the Great Depression affected Hot Springs National Park, it did not have the same economic impact as other communities across the United States. Administrators initiated an early closure of the park in order to compensate for the decrease in park concessions. Construction continued on buildings and infrastructure throughout the park . The Great Depression did have a significant impact on outlying areas and the entire nation and federal, state, and municipal governments sought solutions to move the country back to its prewar status. In 1935, laborers employed by the Civilian Works Administration began work on multiple projects including the Maintenance Complex on Whittington Avenue (631 Whittington Avenue). Together with laborers from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, site and infrastructure improvements and buildings were completed at the Maintenance Complex. The architectural design of the utility buildings was a top priority since they would front South Whittington Avenue and become part of an established neighborhood. In addition, the site layout enabled the “unsightly scars” resulting from the use of the high bluff at the rear of the property as a borrow pit to be hidden from view by pedestrians .
During this same time period, significant changes were made to Whittington Park and the surrounding neighborhood. In 1932, the Whittington Park band pavilion, part of the 1897 building program and initial design for the park, was demolished rather than repaired. The trolley service that ran along Whittington Park and Bathhouse Row was discontinued and all tracks and associated wiring were removed. Craftsman bungalows continued to replace earlier structures along North and South Whittington Avenue and infill previously vacant properties. In 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) assigned to Hot Springs National Park and the surrounding region began work on mountain roads and trails, and landscaping and naturalizing the creek in Whittington Park. This work was likely a result of continued problems with flooding due to the 1897 building program that straightened the Whittington Creek. The work of the CCC, completed in 1943, is still present today and serves as one of the most character-defining features of the park .
Modern Growth and Development
The prosperity that swept the United States after World War II was also experienced in Hot Springs. Tourists again began to travel after the war and 1946 served as a record year for visitation . This trend is also exhibited in the built environment of the Whittington Avenue neighborhood. The Craftsman bungalow, the most popular style in the neighborhood from the 1920s until the 1940s, was replaced by the more modern Ranch-style residence. Seventeen Ranch-style residences were constructed in the Whittington Avenue neighborhood from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s. The evolution of this style is noted within the neighborhood from the modest Minimal Traditional c. 1950 dwelling at 220 Sabie Street to the larger and more linear 1963 example at 635 South Whittington Avenue.
A significant addition to artist industry in the Hot Springs National Park occurred in 1956 when A. James Dryden converted an ice plant at 341 South Whittington Avenue to his pottery manufacturing facility in 1956. Dryden began his pottery manufacturing business in Ellsworth, Kansas, after returning from service in World War II. His pottery was created from the finest clay and ash fields in Kansas and he personalized pieces by inscribing family names on custom orders. In 1956, Dryden relocated his business to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to take advantage of the high visitation numbers of the resort town. As was his practice in Kansas, Dryden used local products from Malvern, Bryant, and the Ouachita Mountains. Dryden opened his plant to tours – complete with ramps, viewing areas, and guides. Not only did Dryden produce valued pottery pieces, his plant also served as one of the local attractions of Hot Springs .
The growth of the tourist industry was short-lived and many of the popular attractions began to discontinue operations starting in the early 1950s. The Ostrich Farm, which opened at upper Whittington Avenue at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, closed in 1953. Many of the grand bathhouses closed their doors in the early 1960s after suffering a significant decline in visitation numbers. Those to close in the 1960s included the Fordyce, Jack Tar, and Rockafellow; in the 1970s, the Maurice, Ozark, and Hale would also close their doors. By the 1980s, only the Buckstaff Bathhouse still operated along Bathhouse Row. This stagnation of the local economy is also evident within the built environment of Whittington Avenue neighborhood as no significant construction occurred during this time period.
It would not be until 1989, when the National Park Service took steps to usher in a new era of the Hot Springs National Park, that Bathhouse Row would be restored to its earlier prominence. The Friends of the Fordyce were formed in 1987 to partner with the National Park Service to work towards the preservation of the historic bathhouses and the rehabilitation of the landscaped grounds and “bring alive the spirit and pride found in Hot Springs for our National Park. “ In 1989, the Fordyce Bathhouse reopened as the National Park Service Headquarters. Throughout the 1990s until present day, private investors have rehabilitated the historic structures along Central Avenue and visitation numbers have steadily increased . The effect of this investment is echoed in the visitation numbers of the National Park. From 1979, 205 million persons visited the National Park and in 2010, 281 million visitors were recorded.