One of Utah’s earliest hot spots looks a little beleaguered these days.
In a quiet park at Salt Lake City’s northern entrance, natural hot springs bubble out of the ground behind the shuttered and decaying building that once drew thousands of people eager for a soak in its mineral waters. And even centuries before white settlers arrived, Utes, Paiutes and Shoshones sojourned at Warm Springs.
The site’s history is rich and colorful, but what was in a past life known as the Wasatch Springs Plunge bathhouse, at 840 N. Beck St. (300 West), has gone largely unused since 2004. The roof leaks. Pools once filled with steaming water, revelers and those seeking the springs' healing properties now sit drained. The 96-year-old building’s Spanish colonial exterior is crumbling and pocked with graffiti. Weeds grow tall around its tan walls.
Hundreds of neighbors now hope the city will explore restoring the site as a public bathhouse and social hub, one they say could even help soothe larger divisions in society. Mayor Jackie Biskupski has welcomed their initial proposal.
Residents in the Warm Springs area west of Capitol Hill rallied more than 18 months ago to oppose a mixed-use development with 112 apartments and town homes proposed just behind the abandoned city bathhouse. Utah-based Woodbury Corp. eventually withdrew its plans and neighbors who had organized into the Warm Springs Alliance then mapped out another future for the facility.
Last week, after months of discussion, research and community surveys, alliance leaders pitched Biskupski and city staffers on a plan to refurbish Warm Springs into a complex of spas, gardens, a restaurant, a gift shop, and meeting spaces — all centered on the notion of renewing it as an inclusive place that brings people together.
“What we imagine is a very community-oriented spa, along the lines of what you see in Europe and Asia,” said Sylvia Nibley, with the Warm Springs Alliance, who noted the resurgent popularity of spas and hot springs.
“This is really about wellness, so it would be simple things like saunas, herbal baths, a massage if you want, but it would be affordable for a lot of people,” Nibley said. “We see a restaurant focused around serving simple food in a family style, healthy stuff accessible to everybody. And we also see some innovative ways that we can have people connecting with community.”
The new Warm Springs, she said, “would be a place that belongs to all of us.”
Biskupski spokesman Matthew Rojas said Friday the mayor was "very receptive" to the group's restoration and business plans and that she would push next year for a city-funded engineering study of the facility, for an initial gauge of the building's needs and how much money might be involved.
David Scheer, an architect with the alliance, has made an initial estimate of $12 million. “It’s going to take a lot of money to fix this building,” Scheer said, though he and other group members say that could be offset significantly by city tax incentives and letting private concessionaires run the new spa.
Other benefits for Utah’s capital city — including the potential of making Salt Lake City’s northern gateway more appealing and enlivening an otherwise industrial area — could also outweigh those costs.
"We believe that it is not only feasible, but important to renovate the Warm Springs property in a way that honors its unique history, architecture and natural features," the alliance said in its presentation to City Hall.
“With rare thermal springs in a large city, historic significance, valuable architecture, and momentum for social innovation, Warm Springs offers Salt Lake an unprecedented opportunity to increase its already growing reputation for being one of the greenest, most inclusive and thriving cities in the country."
‘Almost unheard of'
Mineral waters gush from underground into wetlands at Warm Springs at a temperature between 104 and 108 degrees — akin to the feel of a typical hot tub. The exposed springs trickling at the north end of Warm Springs Park have a bright green tinge, reminiscent of some of the volcanic springs and pools at Yellowstone National Park.
Frequented by tribal hunting parties for centuries before, Warm Springs fascinated pioneers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints soon after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. By 1850, settlers had built an adobe structure-turned-social hall there to create an indoor pool. The current building went up in 1922, shortly after Salt Lake City assumed management and dubbed it the Warm Springs Municipal Bath.
Renamed Warm Springs Plunge in 1932 and eventually, Wasatch Springs Plunge, the site’s two large pools pleased crowds for years leading to the mid-1970s, when city residents began to shift toward socializing more at venues like movie theaters and bowling alleys. Attendance dwindled.
Warm Springs housed the Children’s Museum of Utah from 1983 until it moved to The Gateway shopping center in 2004 and the building closed its doors, except for use of its basement for model train installations by the Golden Spike Train Club.
Much of the mineral-laden water that once flowed into its huge pools and a series of convalescent rooms on the building’s second floor is now being diverted to the Great Salt Lake. For decades, the area’s homeless have taken illicit baths in the few open-air pools hidden behind the park’s stands of wetland reeds.
But nearly 15 years after the Children’s Museum left and Warm Springs closed, Nibley said, spas “are in high, high demand again. And having a natural hot springs in an urban area is almost unheard of.”
Thousands of Utahns travel these days to enjoy Lava Hot Springs in Idaho or Honeyville’s Crystal Hot Springs, and alliance members believe a new spa at Warm Springs would be popular, as it was generations ago. Nibley said a hot springs operator in Colorado has offered to build new pools and run the Utah facility, were it restored.
“We have a plan, the numbers, a way to make it work and a team,” Nibley said, “so we’re committed.
The alliance’s study has also debunked at least one rumor that the underground waters feeding the springs had been polluted by nearby industrial sites.
“Our tests show there’s no contamination,” said alliance member Fred Coyote.
A community affair
Nibley said she’s been surprised, in thousands of conversations over the past year, at the deep bonds many residents have with the site.
“If they already know the place, they already have a strong emotional connection to it,” Nibley said. “If they don’t know the place and they hear that it exists, they are stunned.”
And that has fueled the idea of Warm Springs as a place that might again bring together residents with varied backgrounds, outlooks, ages and income levels, helping to mend social divisions in addition to physical ailments.
A survey of 530 nearby residents recently found that more than half said they lacked places to experience community. Nearly 83 percent of respondents said they don’t visit the city-owned Warm Springs Park on a regular basis, but 96 percent said they would if the hot springs returned as a community gathering place.
The alliance’s plan has also drawn support from a leading voice among Utah’s Native American tribes, whose ancestors believed in Warm Springs’ medicinal powers and considered it sacred.
“That’s what Warm Springs is all about, healing,” said Ute Indian Tribe member Forrest Cuch, an author, historian and former director of the state Division of Indian Affairs.
“It was a sacred site to our people because in the winter it was our source of survival,” Cuch said. “It was the place where we could find warmth and grass to feed our ponies, and we could soak in the mineral water for our health and for cleanliness.”
Cuch called the restoration project, with its plans to infuse elements of Native American history into the restored spa, “outstanding.”
He said: “I’m proud to say I’m part of it."