Having had Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt soak in its geothermal waters is enough to qualify any natural hot springs as a landmark. Warm Springs Pools in Southwest Virginia’s Bath County can claim even deeper historical cred; archeological finds indicate the site has been visited by humans for at least nine thousand years. And until recently, it showed its age.
By 1761, enough Colonial-era travelers were seeking out the springs to spur construction of a limestone basin—the oldest spa structure in the United States. By the 1870s, two handsome wood bathhouses sat beside each other, the octagonally framed Gentlemen’s Bathhouse and the slightly larger Ladies’ Bathhouse with its nearly circular twenty-two sides. Between those dates, in 1818, the aging former president Jefferson took to the waters several times a day for three weeks, writing to his daughter that he found the experience of “first merit.” For much of its subsequent existence, the attraction was known as Jefferson’s Pools. Later presidents John Tyler and FDR sought out the same waters, widely held to offer therapeutic powers.
Unfortunately, even inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places didn’t save the hot springs from becoming more of a hot mess in recent decades. It turns out that constant geothermal steam is tough on wood structures, and by the time of their closure for renovation five years ago, they had deteriorated to the point of looking more like creaky livestock barns.
That’s why Omni Homestead, the nearby resort that had purchased the pools site nearly a century before, recruited Virginia-based preservationists, architects, and builders to rehab the bathhouses in accordance with the myriad guidelines governing historic structures. The $4 million project included preserving or replacing windows, doors, roofing, and foundation piers. “It hasn’t been an easy process, with even more deterioration uncovered along the way,” says Ed Pillsbury of design firm 3North, “but we are pleased with the quantity of historic fabric that we were able to retain.”
The site reopened December 17, 2022, as the rechristened Warm Springs Pools. Bathers now find it much as it appeared in 1925, extending to the rural, pastoral surroundings in the Allegheny foothills. (The unincorporated town of Warm Springs boasts a population of 123.) They will also find the mineral-rich waters just as they’ve been for millennia, a constant 98 degrees, flowing crystal clear at the impressive rate of 1,700,000 gallons a day. “The therapeutic benefits of soaking in these natural springs are remarkable,” says Homestead managing director Mark Spadoni, “from soothing your skin to boosting your blood circulation and relieving pain.”
Regardless of a need for, or belief in, those particular benefits, a soak in either bathhouse is a relaxing escape. Cares melt away as you gaze up through the steam and past sloping rafters into an open sky framed by the ceiling’s central oculus. After all, how many spa treatments also function as a time machine?