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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Bath house's history hints at a bustling era in Le Mars

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Now an empty apartment building, this brick structure on northern Central Avenue once housed the White House Bathing Palace, including a Turkish bath and swimming pool. Travelers arriving in Le Mars in the early 1900s came there to freshen up. By 1915, seen in the top contributed photo, the bath house was converted to a hospital. (Top left) Vintage boot scrapers are still intact outside the building. (Bottom) The building as it is today, including unique brick work.
Editor's note: This is a first in a series of stories looking at some of the historic buildings in or near downtown Le Mars. The Le Mars Historic Preservation Commission is leading an effort to list the district on the National Register of Historic Places.

The year: 1907.

Le Mars, rising up along the main lines of the Illinois Central and Chicago & Northwestern railroads, was a bustling town.

With a large passenger rail station, around eight hotels, and businesses and industries ranging from the flour mill to blacksmith shops, people were constantly flowing into the community.

And those people needed a bath.

Enter the White House Bathing Palace, a public bath house.

"People would come to town, come in on a train, and this was before indoor plumbing was in most places, so they would go and clean up before they did the town," said Iris Hemmingson, a member of the Le Mars Historic Preservation Commission.

"If you'd been traveling on the railroad for days, and you found out you could have a nice bath here, it would be quite nice," she said. "They would have these massive tubs that would be like soaking in a spa."

Today, the steaming baths and the swimming pool of the White House Bathing Palace are gone, but the brick building that housed them still stands at 218 Central Ave. N.E., a monument to a piece of Le Mars' history.

Hemmingson said the man who built the building, R. W. Harrison, was a British sea captain who probably came to Le Mars in the 1880s.

"That's when all the people were coming in, because we were the gateway to the West," Hemmingson said. "We were a major stopover."

The bath house first made the news in the early 1900s.

A July 1906 edition of the Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel announced that Harrison was planning to build a "modern bath house" with hopes of completing it in April 1907.

"R. W. Harrison, ex-sailor, says he is tired of dry land and will revert to water again as an occupation and source of revenue," the article stated.

The newspaper shared his plans to build a "fine brick building" with a swimming pool, Turkish baths and plunge baths, investing several thousand dollars.

"The building ... will contain all the most modern improvements in the way of hygienic and sanitary baths in addition to the swimming baths, which will provide recreation for many," the Semi-Weekly Sentinel piece stated.

According to the article, Harrison said the planned bath house would be "one of the best in this part of the state."

An August 1906 edition of the Le Mars Globe Post stated that Harrison had picked the lot on north Main Street in Le Mars, which at the time was the site of a tennis court.

By April 1907, the work was completed, according to a 1907 article from the Semi-Weekly Sentinel, entitled "White House Bathing Palace: R. W. Harrison Has Completed the Erection of One of the Swellest Baths in Iowa."

The building was constructed with Sioux Falls pressed brick, painted white, and was furnished inside with "thoroughly modern and up to date style," the article stated.

Along with the exterior paint, many of the indoor furnishings of the bath house were white as well.

The ground floor housed a swimming pool and 20 dressing rooms, a linen room, a boiler and engine room and an office, the article said.

Upstairs, the bath house featured a steam room, shower and cooling room, rest rooms for ladies and gentlemen, several bath rooms and a Turkish bath room furnished with slabs of white Italian marble.

"They might have had water piped in by then, not heated," Hemminsgon noted. "They would have had to heat it all on stoves."

Among the bath house staff Harrison hired were Turkish bath attendants and masseurs, the Semi-Weekly Sentinel article stated. A Turkish bath is a type of steam bath or sauna.

An article in the Le Mars Globe Post the next day declared that the bath house was "a veritable palace and has no equal west of Chicago."

The swimming pool held 30,000 gallons of water and was lit even at night, it stated.

"The pool is five feet deep on one side and three feet on the other so that it is safe for children," the article noted.

Swimming in the pool cost 25 cents, or 15 cents for children 12 years and under, according to an advertisement from May 1907.

Swimming lessons were free unless private lessons were desired, it stated.

A plain bath at the White House Bathing Palace with the use of a rest room cost 50 cents and a Turkish bath with medicinal rubbing cost $1.25.

According to an advertisement in a 1907 Semi-Weekly Sentinel, Harrison's White House Bathing Palace had a separate department for men and women.

Business hours were 9 a.m. to midnight, except Sundays, which were 8 a.m. to noon.

Apparently, though, the business did not last for long.

Shortly after the White House Bathing Palace was built, hotels would have started getting more indoor plumbing, Hemmingson noted.

"So the need probably wasn't as great," she said.

In October 1908, the Semi-Weekly Sentinel announced that Harrison had decided to close the White House Bathing Palace and was selling the property.

"The place will close on Saturday at midnight," the article said. "The White House Bathing Palace has become a Le Mars institution and a number of people will regret its closing."

A 1909 Semi-Weekly Sentinel article noted that, since the bath house was closed, the Union Hotel would be improving the equipment in its bathing departments, offering "plain hot and cold baths."

After the White House Bathing Palace closed, the building was converted into the Le Mars Hospital, according to historical records.

"A lot of doctors started having hospitals to take care of a patient or two who just couldn't be taken care of at home," Hemmingson said. "We've had several different hospitals downtown, and this was one."

Later, the building was converted to a Sacred Heart Hospital, possibly by Msgr. Feuerstein, a pastor of the local St. Joseph's Catholic Church, she said.

In 1925, the brick two-story building was home to Fern Beauty Parlor.

"By the '40s, it was Central Apartments," Hemmingson said.

The building is now part of a nomination to put Le Mars' downtown district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Its unique brick architecture is noted in the nomination form, highlighting the brick cornice and brick brackets at the top of the building's front, the "crossed over" bricks that stick out at each wall corner, the rough-cut stone windowsills and foundation and the historic wood windows, some of which are now covered by outer storm windows.

Hemmingson said people on the state review board for the National Register nomination were "very curious" about the public bath house.

Most recently, the former bath house building had been under renovation to create updated apartments.

Today it stands empty, except for the memories of steaming baths and the hubbub of travelers and local residents stopping in to get cleaned up before a day on the town.

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