A living piece of New York spa history shines anew with the reopening of the historic Roosevelt II Bathhouse at Saratoga State Park. Steeped in American spa lore, Saratoga was once called “The Queen of Spas” and revered for its bubbling emerald-green mineral springs. Those naturally effervescent springs had long been celebrated by the Iroquois and Mohawk tribes, the latter who named the area “Serachtuague” or “a place of fast moving water.”
First opened in 1935 by former New York governor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an advocate of curative mineral baths, the handsome Georgian Revival-style bathhouse had been shuttered since the 1980s. Its grand reopening is part of a $2.3 million transformational project. Recently, I spoke with Alane Ball Chinian, Saratoga Capital District Regional Director, New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation. Here’s what we discussed.
After all these years, what prompted the renovations of the Baths?
The Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce championed a wellness initiative in 2014. I attended their gathering of wellness providers, with floor plans of the long vacant bathhouse in hand, to see if I couldn’t spark some interest in adaptive reuse of this National Historic Landmark structure. That’s when I met Stephanie Ferradino, who ultimately went on to found Coesa, a non-profit wellness provider. With Coesa as a partner operator, the State was able to commit the funding necessary for the first phase of redevelopment.
“Here we are in 2020, with the nation gripped by a pandemic. The reopening of the Roosevelt Spa is symbolic of our resolve to keep Saratoga Spa State Park a healthy and healing destination in this worrisome time.”
Tell us about the history and layout of the Roosevelt Campus.
Saratoga Spa State Park is a very unique place. The parkland was originally preserved in 1912 to protect the historic mineral springs, which at that time were being over extracted for commercial carbonation of soda. Once the mineral springs were protected, a series of spa facilities sprang up for public mineral-water bathing.
The first complex was the Washington Bathhouse, which now houses the National Museum of Dance. The second was the Lincoln Bathhouse, now largely an office building. And the final spa development was spearheaded by President Roosevelt in the early 1930’s. The Roosevelt Campus consists of four large classical buildings with Art Deco detailing connected by arched arcades. These include the ornate Hall of Springs, originally the place to sample all the springs, and now a spectacular event venue. The Simon Baruch Research Laboratory, where scientists studied the mineral content and health effects of the waters. This building includes a 500-seat theater, and now houses park offices, as well as theater and opera companies. The remaining two structures are the Roosevelt 1 and 2 Bathhouses, mirror images of one another across a formal lawn and reflecting pool. The Roosevelt 1 was restored in the 1990s to its original glory and is in operation as a spa, offering hydrotherapy, massage, and other spa services. About one-third of the Roosevelt 2 bathhouse has been newly restored as space for Coesa’s wellness programs, as well as a coffee shop and central gathering space.
Why the renewed interest in the Baths, and why is this so important now?
Saratoga Spa State Park is a magnificent combination of unique natural resources, striking architectural gems, and inspired artistic and wellness programming. The restoration of the Roosevelt Baths is about preserving the legacy of the healing arts in Saratoga Springs through new wellness services targeting the needs of today.
When we first spoke, you said “given the history, that Roosevelt built these baths and therapies for a vicious virus that didn’t yet have a vaccine, the parallels are crazy.” Please expand upon that.
When President Roosevelt was building this spa, the country was in the midst of a terrifying polio epidemic caused by a virus. The President suffered from this disease and invested in beautiful facilities for hydrotherapy treatment. While a vaccine wasn’t developed until 1955, these facilities operated at full capacity for decades, offering hope and relief to many, including veterans returning from World War II. And here we are in 2020, with the nation gripped by a pandemic. The reopening of the Roosevelt Spa is symbolic of our resolve to keep Saratoga Spa State Park a healthy and healing destination in this worrisome time.
How does a project like this best serve the community and keep its heritage alive?
The Roosevelt 1 Bathhouse is historically intact, with 42 original treatment rooms for mineral bathing, steeped in tradition. With one bathhouse fully operational and historically preserved, we have more latitude with the interior of the other, giving us the opportunity to more flexibly design the space to meet the needs of our visitors now. Preliminary plans for the rest of the building include a black box theater, art gallery, and teaching kitchen, as well as the newly completed space for Coesa’s programming.
What is your hope for the future of the Baths?
Full operation of Saratoga Spa State Park is dependent upon the vibrant organizations and businesses that partner with us here, operating museums, arts and cultural venues, schools, and theaters, as well as those that continue our cherished spa heritage like Coesa and the Roosevelt Baths and Spa. COVID-19 is a real crisis for many of our partner organizations and businesses that operate in the park’s many historic buildings. So my one hope is that our partners survive this challenging time and continue to thrive. We need healthy partners so we can remain a healing, restorative, and inspiring destination for over three million visitors a year.