They Came to New York for the Waters
James Rajotte for The New York Times
Janice Hall takes a soak at Clifton Springs, near her home in Rochester. Many of the mineral-springs spas that once dotted New York are being rejuvenated.
By EVE M. KAHN
Published: May 9, 2008
PUNGENTLY sulfurous waters burble up from the ground alongside a concrete 1970s hospital building in Clifton Springs, N.Y., southeast of Rochester, and I’m soaking in them. That is, waters from a mineral spring renowned in the 19th century for healing properties have been pumped from a stream running beneath the hospital lawn into a new spa wing, where I’ve gone more for relaxation than anything curative, and a nurse has prepared a hot bath for me.
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James Rajotte for The New York Times
Even Europeans now come to Clifton Springs for the waters.
James Rajotte for The New York Times
A range of additives is available at Clifton Springs, top. The décor at Roosevelt is testimony to its Depression-era origin, above.
James Rajotte for The New York Times
Clifton Springs recently uncapped its waters. Qi gong exercise in the chapel of a sanitarium that once occupied the grounds.
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Stewart Cairns for The New York Times
Since the 1930s, the state-run Roosevelt Baths have been a fixture at Saratoga Spa State Park in Saratoga Springs, a k a Spa City.
In a serene pale-purple treatment room, I step gingerly into the tea-colored water. The vapors clear my head, and I soon feel tingly and light, yet strangely immobile. The sound of the spring outside, gurgling into tiers of concrete fountain pools, mingles with the indoor soundtrack of pan flutes. When a knock on the door comes for my scheduled massage, I’m sorry to let the water drain.
Upstate New York is hardly known as a center of mineral springs. But in the 19th century, the golden age of mineral-water spas, at least 50 New York towns, scattered from Long Island to Lake Ontario, had resorts or sanitariums drawing on water emerging from rocky places underground and laced with elements like magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron and sulfur. “There were more mineral baths available in New York than in any other state,” said Charlotte Wytias, the program manager at the Clifton Springs Hospital’s spa.
All sorts of healing powers were claimed for the waters, which often carry a metallic or swampy taste and smell. But primarily, the resorts were places to go on vacation. “Life at the springs is a perpetual festival,” an 1850s guidebook said.
Most of the resorts failed after World War II. Clifton Springs is one of a handful of towns left in New York with licensed facilities for soaking in mineral water. But with spas again a hot tourist draw (though in a 21st-century guise), interest is growing again. “Towns are realizing that they’re sitting on gold mines,” said Ms. Wytias, who, as a board member of the five-year-old New York Spa Alliance, is active among spa owners, medical workers, government officials and preservationists trying to revive the state’s mineral springs. For now, there are a few quirky vintage and new New York facilities to bask in, and some eerie spa ruins to visit.
Caveat before you go: drinking or lounging in the waters is calming, entertaining and nostalgic, but don’t expect much healing. “There are no studies I’m aware of that actually prove any medical benefit,” said Wallace Sampson, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s medical school and editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.
At the springs at Clifton Springs Hospital, spa customers enter via an unexpectedly charming lobby stocked with exhibitions of antique medical equipment, like ivory-handled surgical knives and a woven-cane wheelchair — relics of the Clifton Springs Water-Cure, a once-popular Victorian sanitarium on the property. The town capped those waters in the 1950s, but in 2004, the hospital laid new pipes. Since then, word of the new spa has gotten around. “We’ve had visitors from as far away as Latvia and Germany,” Ms. Wytias said. “They’ll walk in and tell us, ‘Thank goodness there’s a place like this again!’ ”
In the heyday of the waters, New York’s mineral springs resorts were “the poshest,” said Thomas A. Chambers, an associate professor of history at Niagara University in Lewiston, N.Y., and author of “Drinking the Waters: Creating an American Leisure Class at Nineteenth-Century Mineral Springs” (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002). And perhaps poshest of all were those in Saratoga. “They set a standard for luxury and conspicuous consumption,” he said.
The official nickname of Saratoga Springs is Spa City, and a few Victorian hotels there still have wraparound porches for lounging between baths. Only two spas in town still draw on certified mineral water: the privately owned, 20-year-old Crystal Spa just outside Saratoga Spa State Park and the state-run 1930s Roosevelt Baths deep in pine groves inside the park. My husband and I opted for the latter, a sprawling Georgian-style brick complex with black-and-white tiled hallways and bright ceiling lights, built during the Depression and used ever since. Wounded World War II veterans frequented it, and the German government paid for Holocaust survivors’ treatments there.
We waited 40 minutes after the staff mislaid our appointment record, but irritation faded when we sank into white tubs in adjacent treatment rooms separated by thick wooden doors. My husband had lavender oil sprinkled into his bath, almost entirely concealing the mineral smell, while my choice of Adirondack Woods flavoring resulted in a pleasant fresh-peat smell.
We rehydrated afterward with naturally carbonated spring water from a black-ceramic wall fountain. It tasted a little like Campari (and would be great with cranberry juice). We were curious about it. Which of the park’s dozens of subterranean springs did it come from? Why did it seem fizzier than the bath water? There were no explanatory panels and no one to answer questions, just a small sign: “Mineral Drinking Water.” No labeled bottles are on sale either — just generic beauty products. (You can fill your own bottles with various kinds of Saratoga water, however, at a dozen springs in gazebos scattered around the state park and the town. Maps are available at the visitor center at 297 Broadway.)
Enlightenment may be easier at the Roosevelt Baths after this summer. Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, a company with management contracts in publicly owned locations from Niagara Falls to Yosemite National Park, has taken on a 20-year lease at the Saratoga park. “We’ll be putting in beautifully well-done interpretive boards, like you’d see in a museum, with photos and drawings and verbiage telling the story we need to be telling,” said Michael Barnes, the general manager for the baths and the adjacent Gideon Putnam Resort. The clinical bathhouse palette will also be softened, he added: “It seems kind of institutional a little bit. We think we can warm it up.”
An already romantic mineral-springs bath is available just south of Saratoga, at the 1804 Medbery Inn & Spa in the slightly tattered town of Ballston Spa. (Richard Russo, in his 1993 novel “Nobody’s Fool,” parodied Ballston Spa as a town “waiting for its luck to change.”) According to Professor Chambers’s book, by the early 1800s, “Ballston Spa had become the premier resort of American gentry from both North and South.” But eventually its springs were partly tapped out, and its grandest hotel, the Sans Souci, was demolished in 1887. The Medbery, a long-vacant rooming house when the innkeepers, Jim and Dolores Taisey, bought it in 2002, is now linked by piping to the Sans Souci spring and has 11 guest rooms and a spa suite in a woozy palette of mauve, burgundy and rose.
In my treatment room, a mural depicted a garden vista and tiles were embossed with ferns and seashells. I didn’t recognize the mineral water at first because of a spicy added scent and a thick coating of bubble bath. But the familiar odor and tea tint gradually came through. Crickets and birds chirped on the sound track as my hands broke the bubbles. I polished off a tray of cranberry juice and cantaloupe and a Hershey’s Kiss left on the bathtub rim.
Mr. Taisey, when I called for an interview a few weeks later, explained that "a lot of people definitely believe in the healing, therapeutic qualities of the waters, and the baths make great pretreatments" for massages and other body work. “People call us so happy and relieved to find out they can have access to the waters again,” he said.
Within the next few years, a few other mineral-springs facilities are expected to open. In Dansville, 45 miles south of Rochester, the Krog Corporation received a $2.5 million state grant in January to convert the Castle on the Hill, an abandoned sanitarium on a slope riddled with mineral springs, into a wellness center with public spa. In the center of Clyde, 40 miles east of Rochester, the town government is digging a well into its long-dormant spring and planning to provide public faucets and signs.
And in Sharon Springs, 45 miles west of Albany, Sharon Springs Inc., a group of primarily South Korean investors, paid $750,000 in 2005 for a moldering complex built between the 1870s and 1930s, including two bathhouses and three hotels. It has plans for amenities ranging from ginseng saunas, outdoor pools and Korean barbecue stands to a convention center and helipad.
“We will also have signs in many languages, explaining the kinds of water and how it is good for you,” Kyusung Cho, chief executive of the investment group, said in an interview at his office in Queens. The village government has not yet approved the proposals. Locals are concerned that historic buildings may be demolished or renovated beyond recognition.
“There’s a wonderful weird magic to this town, a confluence of geology and climate and architecture, that we want to keep,” said Tony Daou, owner of the Black Cat Cafe and Bakery in Sharon Springs. “This was the Baden-Baden of America, and it could be fabulous again, if the project’s done right.”
The investors have preserved one drinking well under an octagonal 1920s gazebo called the White Sulphur Temple. As I leaned over the railing around the gurgling source, the stinging smell kept me from scooping up a drink. But I couldn’t help imagining a long soak under the stars.
THE Springs Integrative Medicine Center & Spa (2 Coulter Road, Clifton Springs, N.Y.; 315-462-0390; www.thespringsofclifton.com) is at Clifton Springs Hospital, 25 miles southeast of Rochester. From Interstate 90, take Exit 43 to Route 96 east and turn south on Kendall Street to reach Clifton Springs. Mineral bath soaks start at $20, and an hour massage costs $60. The spa also has beauty treatments and offerings like aroma therapy ($30) and craniosacral therapy ($60).
Just up the street is the Clifton Pearl (46 East Main Street; 315-462-5050), a newly restored Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Doubles start at $179; a package including treatments at the Springs starts at $309.
Medbery Inn & Spa (48 Front Street, Ballston Spa; 518-885-7727; www.medberyinnandspa.com) is in a former rooming house from the early 19th century. It is on Route 50, accessible from Exit 12 on Interstate 87. The inn has 11 rooms, starting at $150 and offers mineral baths starting at $16 and massages starting at $65. Beauty treatments include the black Baltic mud wrap for $85.
The Roosevelt Baths (39 Roosevelt Drive in Saratoga Spa State Park, on Route 9 off Exit 13 on I-87; 518-226-4790) is a state-owned Georgian-style complex built in the 1930s as a clinic. It has mineral baths (from $25), an array of massage styles (Swedish, from $85) and body wraps (mountain maple sugar scrub, $95). Adjacent is the colonnaded Gideon Putnam Resort (24 Gideon Putnam Road; 866-890-1171; doubles from $209). The hotel and baths share the Web site www.gideonputnam.com.
A short drive from the park, the Crystal Spa (120 South Broadway, Saratoga Springs; 518-584-2556; www.thecrystalspa.com) offers mineral baths for $21, massages starting at $45 and assorted flavors of wraps and aroma skin therapy, including the chocolate addiction for $85.
In Sharon Springs, accessible from Exit 29 of I-90 or Exit 21 on I-88, the bathhouses are closed, but visitors can drink from the still-open sulfur springs under a 1920s pavilion along Main Street. At the restored 1840s American Hotel (192 Main Street; 518-284-2105; www.americanhotelny.com) rates start at $130.
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