The historic bath houses at the Omni Homestead in Bath County will reopen in 2020, after falling into disrepair. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.
How do you describe a hot spring?
PHIL DEEMER: Initially it was just basically a dugout basin in the ground where the water bubbled up, and it’s essentially 98 degrees.
Phil Deemer is the Executive Director of Preservation Bath - a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Bath County’s cultural and architectural heritage.
DEEMER: There’s sulfur in it, it’s just amazing - you have to get in the water to understand how wonderful it is. It’s pretty hard to describe on radio.
Hot springs. Relics of an America when people boarded trains, escaped the heat of big cities and traveled into the mountains for the summer. The original sauna, many hot springs were used by native peoples and by U.S. Presidents. And they’re still popular and praised for their healing powers.
In Bath County, the Warm Springs Pools - or Jefferson Pools, the marketing name used to indicate that Jefferson himself had bathed there - had fallen into disrepair. The buildings - built in the early 1800’s - were shut down by county officials in 2017, citing safety issues.
When the deterioration became apparent seven years ago, Preservation Bath tried to work with hotel management to fix the problems. Local residents were worried that the bath houses were in need of some serious work to be safe.
DEEMER: Well, the reason it was nominated by some of the locals to be on Preservation Virginia’s ‘Most Endangered List’ is because the buildings were clearly starting to suffer. They were starting to lean, and wood was rotting, and I mean, there were all sorts of reasons to believe that without proper care and hopefully proper restoration the buildings would be lost.
Using historic tax credits as well as an occupancy tax that was passed in 2018 in Virginia’s legislature specifically for the Omni Homestead, the plan increased the transient occupancy tax by 5 percent, with the funds funneling back to the Omni for capital repairs.
LYNN SWANN: So that additional occupancy tax was established to serve as a reimbursement fund, if you will, for repairs to the Jefferson Pools as well as to repairs and renovations to the resort as a whole.
Lynn Swann is a spokesperson for the Omni Homestead. She says that the tax credits will help the Omni keep the historical buildings as close to the original as they can, and the occupancy tax will help reimburse the cost for the repairs to the pools and the resort.
SWANN: So what would happen is when certain thresholds are met, then the Omni Homestead can apply to the economic development corporation for a reimbursement.
It’s good news for the many restaurants, bed and breakfasts and other businesses that make their money from the pools and the tourism they attract to this mountainous, rural county along the West Virginia border.
TAMMY HAHN: We’ve had reservations already been made cancel when they discover the pools aren’t open. We’ve had people call and inquire, and for roughly the first ten months or so we were here we were getting at least a call a week asking about reservations and the pools and so forth and then not booking.
Tammy Hahn and her husband David are owners of the Vine Cottage Inn in Hot Springs. They purchased the inn just after the county closed the pool houses. Tammy says that business was down about 30% last year. Her husband David says they are cautiously optimistic about a 2020 opening.
DAVID HAHN: It’s good news that the announcement was made, but until we see work started, the announcement is just that. It’s an announcement. While it’s exciting, and it gives us hope toward the future, at the same time, right now it’s just an announcement.
DEEMER: There have been many concerns expressed about business dropping off, and there are lots of concerns that I hear from people that I talk to - could be people that own restaurants or shops or other things, not just lodging - that the pools are not going to be fixed up, and that Omni doesn’t care. Now, it doesn’t mean that people are right, but that’s what people are saying and thinking. And I mean, I hear that all the time. The lodging people clearly are seeing the loss of business and pushing as best they can to get action.
Swann says that everyone she has been able to talk to are thrilled with the announcement that repairs will be starting and the pools will reopen in 2020.
SWANN: You know, when you think about the Jefferson Pools, this is what brought people to Hot Springs to this part of Virginia hundreds of years ago. And if it weren’t for those springs, there wouldn’t be a Homestead where it is today. It’s just such a great piece of American history, it’s more than just Bath County history, it’s really American history. They are some of the oldest spa structures, if not the oldest spa structures, in the country.
Deemer says he’s excited to get back in the water again.
DEEMER: It’s a pretty magical place. You need to experience it once in your life, and if you do it once, you’re gonna do it more. It’s just, it’s pretty special.