The water in the octagonal Gentlemen's Bath House is usually 5 to 6 feet deep and is a constant 98 degrees. Photo by Megan Schnabel.
The Warm Springs Pools opened last Friday to local residents, a day before welcoming the general public. The water in the octagonal Gentlemen's Bath House, seen here, is usually 5 to 6 feet deep and is a constant 98 degrees. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

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The Warm Springs Pools have a storied history, studded with famous names.

Thomas Jefferson spent three weeks here, taking the waters to ease his rheumatism. James Madison soaked in the 98-degree pools. So did Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Wealthy travelers from across the East Coast arrived in Bath County by horse carriage and by train, drawn both by the purported healing properties of the water and by the timeless need to see and be seen.

But when the pools reopened last week – after decades of deterioration and a desperately needed renovation undertaken by the current owner, the Omni Homestead – bold-faced historic names seemed to matter less than personal connections to the property. 

Like that of Maggie Woodzell, whose family has worked at the Homestead going back six and seven generations, and who delightedly described the Harry Potter-esque scene of snowflakes disappearing in midair as they encounter the steam of the pools.

Or Holly Hicks, a third-generation employee who jumped at the chance to again manage the pools, five years after she watched them close down. 

Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, has been working to save the bath houses for more than a decade. She first visited the Homestead as a teenager and now brings her own daughter. Thursday’s grand reopening was an emotional experience, she said. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Or Julie Langan, who doesn’t work at the Omni Homestead but has been as invested as anyone in restoring the 19th-century bath houses that sit atop the pools, and who worried that she would burst into tears during Thursday’s ribbon-cutting. 

“It was a very emotional day,” said Langan, who today is director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources but who first visited the Homestead when she was in her teens and has continued the tradition with her own family.

“All kinds of emotions – joy and gratitude and relief,” she said Friday morning, sitting in the resort’s Christmas-bedecked Great Hall. “People ask me how long has it taken. I’ve been involved for I think 14 years. … It’s taken a long time.”

The renovations, once they finally started last year, were substantial. Time had not been kind to the wood-frame buildings, the oldest of which dates to the early 19th century. Roofs were rotting, foundations collapsing. The buildings were in such bad shape that in 2017, Bath County ordered them closed to the public, saying they were no longer safe. 

For years, residents had feared that the historic bath houses would simply be allowed to fall down around the pools. 

Those residents got a special preview of the $4.6 million restoration on Friday, when the baths hosted a locals-only day before the resort started taking reservations from the general public.

“The community has wanted this done for a long time,” said Richard Chovin, a longtime member of the resort’s golf and tennis club who had snagged an 11 a.m. reservation for the pools. “There’s been a lot of pressure for a lot of years. … I hope the community supports it now, and does some good things with it.” 

* * *

The Warm Springs Pools are in the town of Warm Springs, about 5 miles from the Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

‘Getting in was delightful. Getting out was painful.’

At one time, there were 22 commercial springs operating within Bath County, according to a brief history compiled by the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission. To this day, the county’s place names reflect that history: Hot Springs, Warm Springs, Millboro Springs, Bath Alum Springs, Healing Springs. 

The region became known for its healing waters, and then for the inns and hotels that catered to well-heeled visitors. The Warm Springs Hotel, which stood near the pools until it was demolished in the 1920s, was the “centerpiece” of the Alleghany circuit for vacationers who would take the waters, said Phil Deemer, the president of Preservation Bath, a local group that for years pushed to save the crumbling bathhouses. 

The adjacent pools started their life modestly enough, probably in the 1760s, as an open-air octagonal stone bathing basin, according to a historic structure report that was completed prior to the recent restoration. 

The first bath house was built in the 1820s; it was expanded over the years and today is known as the Gentlemen’s Bath House. The current Ladies’ Bath House was built in the 1870s, while the Reception House dates to the 1890s.

An undated photo inside one of the bath houses. Photo courtesy of the Omni Homestead Resort.

In 1925, the pools became part of the Homestead. The resort itself saw a quick succession of ownership changes starting in the early 1990s: from the Ingalls family, which had owned it for more than a hundred years, to Club Corporation International, to KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm.

During those transitions, the bath houses continued to deteriorate. About a decade ago, Preservation Bath started talking to KSL about acquiring the structures in hopes of saving them, Deemer said. The negotiations dragged on for years, but the two sides finally got close to an agreement in 2013, he said – and then weeks later, Omni bought the Homestead as part of a larger deal with KSL.

Preservation Bath’s hopes of taking over the bath houses evaporated. But, Deemer said, the group was hopeful about Omni’s intentions.

“They told us they were committed to fixing it up properly,” he said. “Once they became owners, we were much more confident that they would in fact do the job right.”

That didn’t mean it happened quickly, a fact that sowed new worry, and frustration, among some residents – especially after Bath County shut down the bath houses. 

Mark Spadoni, the managing director of the Omni Homestead, said this week that the company understood the apprehension; the community had dealt with numerous owners in quick succession and didn’t know what Omni would do. “Until you start seeing things done, blind trust isn’t usually the best thing,” he said.

But in the deal with KSL, Omni had acquired a whole portfolio of new properties, including the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, and it took several years for the company to fully integrate its new holdings, he said.

In 2015, Omni set up an advisory committee of historic preservation experts and others, including Langan, to figure out the best path forward for the bath houses. Over the next year, the group researched the structures’ history and documented their current condition. 

In 2018, Bath County approved an additional 5% transient occupancy tax that would be levied on guests at the Homestead and that could help pay for capital improvements at the resort, including the pools.

In February 2020, Omni unveiled plans for the restoration, with a projected opening date of mid-2021.

Weeks later, the pandemic struck.

Crews led by general contractor Lionberger Construction in Roanoke finally started work in 2021. But the project continued to be beset by surprises. This spring, workers discovered that “everything was in considerably worse condition than we estimated,” architect Ed Pillsbury of 3North in Richmond said at the time. Problems extended from the foundations to the roofs; the existing framing of the roof of the Ladies’ Bath House “crumbled to dust” as shoring was put in place, he said.

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The cost of the project eventually more than doubled from an early estimate of $2 million, but they held onto their late 2022 opening date. “It’s almost amazing and remarkable to think that Lionberger – which did just a great job – accomplished what they did in about a 14-month period of time,” Spadoni said.

Renovations continue at Omni Homestead

A $145 million renovation and expansion that will update the Omni Homestead Resort inside and out is on track to be completed next year, the resort’s managing director said this week.

The project, which was announced last fall, will freshen the resort’s 480 guest rooms and public spaces, fix brickwork and windows, and overhaul plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems. It also includes construction of a new wedding pavilion and new employee housing.

The first renovated guest rooms will be available in February, Mark Spadoni said Tuesday. All rooms and most public spaces will be completed in time for the summer season, while the remainder of the project, including the pavilion and employee accommodations, are scheduled to be finished by next fall, he said.

Omni bought the resort in 2013 from KSL Capital Partners LLC, a private equity firm, becoming the fourth owner of the Homestead since the early 1990s.

Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said none of the previous owners had undertaken the kind of large-scale work that had been needed for quite some time.

“They’re doing now what no one has probably done since this place was built,” said Langan, who has been working with Omni on its plans for the project. “And they’re really doing what it needs as opposed to putting a Band-Aid on it. … You can only do that for so long. It had reached the point where that wasn’t going to work anymore.”

The work initially was expected to cost $120 million, but that figure has increased due both to supply issues and to some changes in the project’s scope, Spadoni said.

“When you open up a building, some areas that frankly haven’t been opened up for 100 years, you find things that you didn’t expect,” he said.

Omni is pursuing historic tax credits to fund a portion of the work.

The Homestead has been operating at reduced capacity for several years, first because of the pandemic and then because of the renovations. For most of last year, about half of the resort’s rooms were available, Spadoni said; currently, only about 170 are open to guests. 

The Homestead is Bath County’s largest employer and counted more than 600 employees through the summer, he said. That number will drop as the resort enters its slow season after the holidays, but he expects to ramp back up in the spring and have more than 800 people on staff for the summer season.

While there’s still landscaping to be done, the pools are now welcoming visitors – up to 35 at a time in the Ladies’ Bath House, and 25 at a time in the Gentlemen’s.

The buildings reflect what visitors would have seen a hundred years ago. Because the bath houses were modified and expanded multiple times over the years, the team opted to base its restoration on the 1920s structures. 

The buildings have retained their simple wood-frame design. In each bath house, an entryway provides an area for a pool attendant to hand out plush gray towels and black pool noodles. Small curtained changing rooms – sparsely furnished with a small wooden bench, a clothes hook and a wall mirror – encircle the pools.

With its shades of white and gray, the overall feeling is rustic spa – an upgrade from what it had become, Langan said.

“Quite honestly, they had gotten to be so dilapidated,” she said. “And not just the physical structures being deteriorated, but everything being kind of dirty and nasty. They had just cheap shower curtains hanging. I could understand why maybe some people weren’t enthusiastic about going and taking the waters. Now, I think it’s a more positive experience just through positive changes like picking a palette – the noodles, the towels, the curtains. And yet it’s still the same place.”

Right down to the brutal change in temperature that bathers encounter when they climb back out of the water, she said. She’d gotten the full effect the day before, during a quiet soak with her family in the men’s pool.

“It’s still just as cold when you’re trying to get dressed in December when you’re dripping wet,” she said. “That has not changed. The getting in was delightful. The getting out was painful.”

Langan knows that the community had concerns about how the work would be done. For a while, she acknowledged, so did she.   

But she said Omni listened to local opinions. “And when it came time to make a decision, they agreed it should be kept as it is, and people should have that authentic experience,” she said. “So it looks a lot better, but it’s otherwise not different. It’s not changed.”

Omni had another reason to maintain the bath houses’ historic character: The company intended to apply for state and federal historic tax credits to help fund the work, and those programs require strict adherence to rules about materials and design.

About $4.5 million of the $4.6 million spent on the project will be eligible for tax credits, said Omni Homestead spokeswoman Lynn Swann. Of that amount, state tax credits will cover 25% and federal tax credits 20%.

Omni still must submit for approval a final report detailing the work that it completed. But Langan, whose office manages the state tax credit program, has been working closely with the resort and said she sees no reason to worry. 

“There’s been very consistent coordination and communication throughout, so there’s no risk that we’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do,’” she said.

She said her office should approve the final report within about 30 days after Omni submits it and then will send it on to the U.S. Park Service for approval of the federal tax credits. 

To date, Swann said, Omni has been reimbursed $3.7 million through the increased occupancy tax for work on the pools and for a $145 million renovation and expansion at the resort itself. (See sidebar about this project, above.) Omni has spent $74.5 million on the two projects so far, she said. 

“Without the creativity and cooperation from the county in structuring this 5% [occupancy] tax rebate to apply towards the resort renovation along with the state and federal historic tax credits, the renovations and improvements of the Homestead would never have happened,” she said.

* * *

‘It’s a big deal’

Kate Loeffler, who owns the nearby Inn at Gristmill Square with her husband, said she was tempted to jump into the newly reopened pools, winter clothes and all, when she attended the grand reopening last week.

“It’s a big deal, not just for Bath County and the Homestead – and we’re super grateful for all that they’re doing – but it’s really a gem in Virginia and the East Coast,” she said. “It’s like one of those wonders of the world.

“It’s emotional, it really is,” she said. 

It’s also big business. 

About the Warm Springs Pools

The Warm Springs Pools are currently open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Reservations are recommended and are available on the hour. A 50-minute soak costs $25 per person.

Family soaking time is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Swimsuits are required, and children under 18 may come with a parent.

Adult co-ed soaking time for ages 16-plus (swimsuits required) is from 1 to 3 p.m.

Adult soaking (by gender, ages 18-plus; swimsuits optional) is from 3 to 6 p.m.

Reservations may be made by calling 540-839-3860 or emailing warmspringspools@omnihotels.com.

Tourism is Bath County’s primary industry; according to figures on the county’s website, it generates more than $225 million in revenues annually and employs almost 65% of the county’s workforce.

Much of that impact comes from the Homestead, which is the county’s largest employer. But numerous small inns and restaurants in Warm Springs and Hot Springs and beyond also cater to tourists, and their owners are waiting to see what the reopening of the baths will mean for business.

The Loefflers, who have operated the 18-room inn for almost a dozen years, would often get calls from would-be visitors about the status of the pools, which are just up the road. 

Loeffler said it’s difficult to determine just how badly regional tourism was hurt by the darkened bath houses over the past five years; the pools aren’t the only reason people visit Bath County, she pointed out. “But obviously tourism declined a little bit,” she said. 

The inn is offering special rates through the end of February to encourage guests to combine a stay at the inn with a visit to the pools, she said.

“We’re just looking forward to the positive momentum behind the pools,” she said. “Guests for so long have been wondering when they’re going to reopen. It’s been a hot topic.” 

Five miles away, in Hot Springs, Dave Hahn is eager to see just what the pools will mean for his business.

He and his wife submitted an offer on the Vine Cottage Inn in 2017. As part of their research, he said, they learned that 20,000 people had visited the pools the previous year. Figuring that half were local, and half of the remaining 10,000 probably stayed at the Homestead, that still left 5,000 guests for smaller inns – a “nice chunk of change,” he said.

But by the time they closed on the deal, the pools had been shut down.

Even so, the Vine Cottage Inn had a good year in 2021, and 2022 has been even better. Hahn thinks 2023 could be the best on record.

He thinks Omni has spent the time and money to do the work correctly.

“For them to undertake the pools and the renovation at the Homestead, I applaud them,” he said. “Yes, it took a while. Yes, there was some community anxiety toward Omni for a while. But then COVID hit, and what are they going to do?”

* * *

‘Worth honoring’

Hicks will celebrate her 14th anniversary with the Homestead in February. She was managing the spa and the pools in 2017 when the bath houses were shut down, and then took a front office job for a few years. 

And then Spadoni asked her if she wanted to be part of the reopening.

“I was like, absolutely,” she said. “You don’t even have to ask me twice. When do I interview? Just go ahead and send me the offer letter.”

History was never her thing in school, she said. “But once you’ve worked at the Homestead for as long as I have, you just start to love it,” she said. “I may not be a history buff for anything else, but I’m definitely a history buff when it comes to the Homestead and these pools.”

Woodzell nodded. One of her ancestors helped clear the land for the hotel, she said. And the man whose photo is featured on the cover of that 1949 book about the region, “The Valley Road: The Story of Virginia Hot Springs”? He’s a relative.

The bath houses are listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. It’s clear, Deemer said, that the bath houses and the pools are historically significant to Virginia, and particularly to Bath County.

But he, too, has a personal connection that goes beyond the larger history. He started coming to the pools 30 years ago, and he retains vivid memories of those visits. “It just was so peaceful and so wonderful,” he said.

He moved from Hot Springs to Charlottesville at the beginning of the pandemic and hasn’t visited the renovated baths yet, and he wonders how close the experience will be to what he remembers. 

He recalls in particular visiting the pools at New Year’s in 1999 and 2000.

“It was freezing, and it would be snowing, and the snow would be coming down inside the pool,” he said. “It was just – different. And it was significant, and worth honoring.”

___________________________

Correction, 9:12 a.m. Dec. 21: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Omni acquired the Amelia Island Resort from KSL in 2013. In fact, Omni already owned that property. The story has been updated.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.