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OPINION | REX NELSON: Skyscraper of Health

by Rex Nelson | June 2, 2021 at 3:02 a.m.

People came from across Arkansas to see the structure of 236 Central Ave. in Hot Springs when it opened in 1930. At 16 stories, it was the tallest building in the state, a title it would retain for three decades until a group of investors led by Winthrop Rockefeller constructed the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock.

The Great Depression had begun by 1930, but Hot Springs was booming as visitors showed up from across the country in hopes that the baths and other treatments could cure whatever ailed them. Along with health treatments came gambling, fine dining and the services of prostitutes. The Spa City was quite a place in those days.

The skyscraper, across the street from the Arlington Hotel, was known as the Medical Arts Building. It was constructed by general contractor G.C. Gordon Walker beginning on Dec. 1, 1929. Investors from Little Rock and New Orleans purchased the site, which had been occupied by the Rector Bath House, from the Rector estate of St. Louis. The Rector family had obtained the property from the federal government in 1893.

The Medical Arts Building was designed by the Little Rock architectural firm Almand & Stuck, which also designed Little Rock's Central High School. It has long been recognized as one of the top art deco skyscrapers in the South. Bas-relief limestone carvings on the frieze and on the facing of the main entrance are among the building's notable features, along with bronze grille work above the doors.

A September 1930 article in The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs declared: "The structure as it stands is one of the most imposing buildings in Arkansas and a valuable addition to the business district."

Unfortunately, the building has been mostly empty for years. In 2012, what's now Preserve Arkansas placed it on a list of the state's most endangered places. That's why last month's announcement that all but the top floor has been purchased by VIPA Hospitality was so exciting.

VIPA, which is also renovating the historic hotel in downtown Little Rock that was best known during its years as the Sam Peck, will transform the Medical Arts Building into an Aloft Hotel, part of the Marriott family.

It's another step forward in the rebirth of a downtown that still must find uses for the former Army-Navy General Hospital, the Dugan-Stuart Building, the former DeSoto-Howe Hotel and the former Velda Rose Hotel. There remains far too much vacant space and far too many substandard hotel rooms for Hot Springs to declare victory just yet.

In April 2019, VIPA unveiled its plan for the $30 million Falling Waters Resort at the former site of the Majestic Hotel. Due to the pandemic, the company decided not to submit when the city of Hot Springs issued a formal request for proposals.

VIPA already operates six hotels in Hot Springs. The company has been investing in Arkansas since 1992 and entered the lodging market in Hot Springs in 1997 when it opened a Hampton Inn.

VIPA's Parth Patel says that being associated with a company such as Marriott with its rewards programs is crucial to attracting business travelers. The former Sam Peck will be a Fairfield Inn, also part of the Marriott family. For those who think of Fairfield Inn as a brand that only locates along highways, Patel points to the renovation of downtown buildings into Fairfield Inns in places such as New Orleans.

The Medical Arts Building, a brick and reinforced concrete tower, cost $375,000 to build. Tall ceilings and large windows were designed to help keep the building cool during the summer. Corridors featured terrazzo floors and Arkansas marble wainscoting. Two brass-trimmed elevators were run by uniformed operators. A 1932 Arkansas Gazette feature noted that the elevators were equipped with telephones that could be used while in motion.

The building was advertised as the Skyscraper of Health and eventually housed 55 physicians and five commercial businesses. When it opened, the first floor was home to a florist and Martin Eisele's Medical Arts Drug Store. The drugstore, which had been established in 1875, was the city's oldest. Eisele renamed it the Colonial Drug Store and moved to another location in September 1930.

The fifth floor housed laboratories. Lower floors generally had six medical offices each. There were fewer offices on upper floors because the building narrowed. The 15th floor housed a medical library and Dr. Earl McWherter's dental offices from 1946-68.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, three years after it was purchased from Medical Arts Realty Co. by Richard Shofstall's Styro Products Inc. of St. Louis.

In January 1979, building manager Connie Tapanna told the Hot Springs newspaper: "There seems to be a certain feeling, an attachment for the building itself that frankly amazes me."

By the late 1980s, however, the tower was largely vacant. Dr. George Fotioo, who began his medical practice in the Medical Arts Building in 1945, was the last physician to leave in 1991. He closed his downtown office after receiving notice to vacate from Freeling Properties, which represented Little Rock investor Melvyn Bell.

Robert LiMandri, whose father had moved his tailoring business into the Medical Arts Building in 1976, also was evicted at that time.

Bell purchased all but the ground floor and the top two floors in September 1986. He shut off electricity and water to the 13 floors he owned after experiencing financial difficulties. Bell's other investments in Hot Springs proved equally disastrous.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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