Our Historic Building
Restoring the Glory
Selected Funeral and Life Insurance Company Brings Life to Former Hot Springs Post Office
By Rebecca McCormick
Photos by Susie Harris, Master Photographer, Picture It! Inc.; Hot Springs, AR
If you ever want to see Courtney Crouch light up, just ask him about the restoration of the former Hot Springs National Park Post Office building.
“This property was originally the site of a cemetery,” Crouch explains. “After the land was acquired for the Post Office, the bodies were moved to Hollywood Cemetery. The structure was designed by the supervising architect for the U.S. Treasury, James Knox Taylor, whose other work includes the post offices for Saratoga, Annapolis, and San Francisco. Constructed around the turn of the century, the building is one of Hot Springs’ finest examples of Beaux Arts Classicism,” he continues. “Eight years later, a building addition doubled the size of the ground floor and the basement.”
Following the opening of the Federal Building in 1961, the Post Office building was leased to the City of Hot Springs with the stipulation that the building be used as a health facility for the next 20 years, after which it would become the property of the city. Until 1982, the building housed the Garland County Health Department and various municipal offices.
“While the Health Department was here,” Crouch recalls, wincing, “standard 1960’s-style sheet paneling was installed over this beautiful red Vermont marble. “Fiberglass drop ceilings and fluorescent lights completely marred any view of the now visible 16’x34’ hip-roofed skylight above operable glass ceiling panels. Gas space heaters and window unit air conditioners replaced the industrial boiler for climate control. All the teller windows were removed. Tons of medical equipment from the 40’s and 50’s was scattered and literally piled throughout the building. You never saw so many sinks and commodes as were in this building! In fact, it took us longer to undo the damages than it actually took to restore the building.”
Downstairs, psychedelic flowers painted on brick columns are visible evidence of the Crippled Children’s Clinic which once existed in the basement. Wheelchair patients entered through a large steel door.
Crouch arrived in Hot Springs in 1970, when Selected Funeral and Life Insurance Company was at 1016 Central, next door to Hot Springs Funeral Home. The growing company built a larger office building at the corner of Quapaw and Chapel Streets, where their cemetery offices are still located. By the late 80’s, the company had outgrown their space again.
“We were looking for another downtown building to keep us close to the Federal Building as well as to Arkansas Bank and Trust, who did a lot of our data processing in the days before personal computers,” Crouch explains. “About that same time, the bathhouses were being put up for lease, but many other businesses were leaving downtown. We bid on the First Federal building, but couldn’t come to terms with the out-of-state owner. Soon afterward, City Manager Michael Wright called to say the Post Office might be available for sale.”
SFLIC purchased the building in the fall of 1988. Taylor/Kempkes Architects, the same firm responsible for the Mountain Valley Water Building renovation, was hired to bring the building back to its earlier grandeur.
The building’s exterior is an ashlar stone and patterned brick design with arched windows and doorways. “Red Spanish tiles were used for the main roof and tin for the addition roof.
“We wanted the restoration to reflect the building exactly as it has been designed,” Crouch emphasizes. “We accomplished that because the only defective materials in the building were the rusted iron gutters. Even the bronze on the gates is original. All the beautiful wood from upstairs we restored and brought downstairs where it could be seen. We even hauled in an old tile roof from Texas. The only thing that isn’t original or period material is a portion of the wrought iron grill over the archway.”
As was the custom at the turn of the century, interiors of public buildings were elaborate and expensive. The red Vermont marble walls and wall-mounted writing tables replicate the marble patterns used in the White House, the United States Capitol, and houses of Congress. Chipped marble floors were used for the downstairs public areas, upstairs, and staircase. Special details of the staircase include massive iron gates at the base, an alcove seat on the landing, and ornately carved marble cornice trim on the ceiling arch. Brass lighting fixtures punctuate the building.
Crouch explains the traffic patterns worn in the marble floors in front of what used to be the mail drops.
“For years, mail arrived at the Rock Island Train Station before it was dropped here. Nearly a quarter of a million pieces a month were processed at this Post Office. Postal inspectors climbed ladders to the overhead catwalks to spy on postal workers. Original gold leaf lettering is still visible on the chipped glass portion of the door identifying the Men’s Swing Room, a locker area with marble stalls in the restrooms for men working the swing shift.”
The building was actually constructed around a huge Kewanee brand industrial boiler, originally meant to be used on a ship during the Spanish-American war. Because the war ended sooner than expected, it was sent to Hot Springs.
“This boiler is believed to be the second oldest found in the U.S. today, and only one of 20 remaining of its kind worldwide,” Crouch estimates. “We hired a company out of Little Rock to repair it. They replaced the coal elements with natural gas, and put the entire function on a timer. It runs like a charm.”
Before we left, Crouch explained the purpose of the trap door in the attic.
“Each night, a postal worker had to climb through that door to lower the flag. Each morning, he climbed out again to raise the flag. We feel as though we climbed through a trap door into American history when we restored this building. And that’s a good feeling.”
The building qualified to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. That same year, SFLIC was presented an award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Historic Preservation by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.
This article reprinted with permission from Hot Springs Life & Home magazine. "Restoring the Glory" article was published in April, 2004.