HOT SPRINGS — Omni Homestead revealed plans Tuesday for its rehabilitation of the Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs.
Much of the design, created by Richmond architectural firm 3North, remains true to the structures as they stand today. Architects said renovations will begin this spring or summer and will take 12 to 18 months to complete. This timeline pushes back the original summer 2020 opening date Omni had announced last spring.
Bath County ordered the historic bathhouses in Warm Springs to be closed in October 2017 after the county’s building inspector saw rotting structural joists and framing. The concrete foundations were also deteriorating, and the buildings were deemed unsafe.
The bathhouses — one for men and one for women — were built in the 1800s around natural hot springs and for years underwent only minimal repairs to maintain their historic simplicity. They were named for Thomas Jefferson, who visited the pools in the early 1800s.
They became part of the Homestead resort in 1925; Omni purchased the resort in 2013.
The bathhouses’ closure brought controversy to the Bath County community, which demanded Omni make needed repairs to reopen them immediately. Tourism is the mountainous and sparsely populated county’s largest industry, and surrounding hotels and restaurants rely on visitors.
After the pools closed, Omni made no apparent repairs to the bathhouses or efforts to shore up the buildings, and preservationists were worried they might collapse. Yellow yard signs popped up around the community admonishing the Homestead for its inaction.
Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, praised Omni for its work behind the scenes on the restoration project. She said the company and 3North have completed meticulous documentation.
“This is a dream come true,” Langan said. “Even though it may not have been obvious that progress was being made, we were making really important progress.”
Senior architect Ed Pillsbury said the company studied the bathhouses’ history and documented when each structural change was made.
From this research, they decided to restore the baths to their condition in 1925, when all of the current structures and additions had been built.
Pillsbury said this year provides the most documentation of the bathhouses. The Department of Historic Resources has also identified this year as the last year of historic significance for the buildings.
Pillsbury said the firm’s top priority is preserving whatever materials and structures can be saved. If something cannot be repaired, the firm will replace the pieces and restore it to its 1925 condition.
The largest change will be seen in the roof of the ladies’ bathhouse. The current roof, which was rebuilt in 1950, has deteriorated and will need to be replaced, Pillsbury said. The renovated ladies’ bathhouse will return to the 1925 design, which featured a large domed roof and an open central oculus. Currently, a central pole provides support to the roof, but that will not be present after renovations.
Pillsbury said the firm studied the building mathematically, and the structure of the new roof will line up almost perfectly with other angles and dimensions in the bathhouse.
“Everything sort of fell into place in this perfect geometry that made it really feel like we were connecting to the person who was building this structure in 1875,” Pillsbury said. “And it also pulled some of the guesswork out of whether or not we were doing the right thing.”
The architectural firm also plans to add another restroom to the reception house and move the restroom in the ladies’ bathhouse closer to the entrance to add accessibility.
The gentlemen’s bath will see even fewer structural changes, Pillsbury said.
For years, bathers complained to the Homestead and the county about the condition of the bathhouses. In some places, the foundation split away from the structure and rocks were placed in between to stabilize them. Entire sections of the roof are missing, and the gentlemen’s bath is leaning to the northwest. Chunks from the roof or walls would crumble and fall into the pools while bathers were inside.
But after the renovations, residents will see the same basic structures with a freshened look. The buildings won’t crumble, the roof won’t cave in and the wood won’t look rotten.
“This is a rehabilitation and not a reconstruction,” Pillsbury said. “We’re trying to maintain the character of the pools that exist now.”