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Los Angeles Times


Taking the mineral waters at Saratoga Springs, New York

Sip a little bubbly, soak up history: Saratoga Springs, known for its racetrack, brims with restored 19th century architecture and mineral waters thought to be curative.

By Ferne Arfin, Special to The Times
July 23, 2006


The bathwater smelled like rust. It looked like it too. Alone in my private room at the Roosevelt Bathhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, I hesitated, my naked toes suspended over a blood-warm mineral soup. Then, like thousands before me, I took the plunge — and discovered that the effervescent water felt lovely.

Most people visit this eastern New York town during the thoroughbred racing season. In July and August, when "they're running at Saratoga," the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra take up residence and the population swells from 26,000 to more than 100,000.

But I harbored childhood memories of other seasons along the Hudson Valley. So I went in late June last year, just before the start of the racing season, to see what else this sophisticated little town has to offer race-goers besides the track.

It has so much, it turns out, that I hardly knew where to begin. In the end, I decided to follow the springs.

That's why I was soaking away the aches and pains of the day in naturally fizzy water at the glorious Georgian Revival Roosevelt Bathhouse, built in 1935 and reopened in 2004 after a $4-million face-lift. The naturally carbonated water comes from Lincoln Spring, one of 20 that bubble and shoot out of the ground all over town.

Underground, Saratoga is riddled with pockets of water contained in folded strata of shale and limestone. Each pocket is the source of a different spring, and the surrounding geology gives each its own look, smell, taste and reputed health-giving qualities. Some are rich in minerals, some are bubbly, and some are pure and mineral-free.

The State Seal Spring is fresh, sweet and noncarbonated. Polaris, which was delicious, is also naturally slightly radioactive. (In Europe, park officials said, people drink such water, but in Saratoga the decision to drink is left to the visitor.) Island Spouter, in the middle of Geyser Creek in the state park, is so rich in gas and minerals that it shoots 15 feet into the air from the center of a gigantic tufa, a sort of mineral cushion of accumulated calcium carbonates.

It is because of the springs that this town is a resort. People have been taking the cure here for hundreds of years. Iroquois hunters discovered the springs and celebrated their healing properties in the 14th century. Fountains and bathhouses were established by the late 17th century. In 1805, Gideon Putnam, founder of Saratoga Springs, laid out wide avenues around the springs.

When Saratoga Race Course, one of the country's oldest, was built in 1864, Saratoga Springs was already a popular summer health resort. In its heyday, it was the country's most fashionable watering hole, known as the Queen of Spas, and much of that past is vibrantly maintained.

Rows of immaculate, late Victorian shop fronts and cafes line Broadway, the main commercial street. It looks like a Disney fantasy of the perfect Main Street. It is, however, the real McCoy, and the businesses are as popular with locals as with visitors. Broadway's centerpiece is the extravagant chocolate-and-cream facade of the Adelphi Hotel, open from May to October. The hotel, built in 1877, has been lovingly restored by its owner.

Broadway is one of Saratoga's six historic districts. Before I headed out to explore the others, the smell of bread drew me to Mrs. London's, a Saratoga Springs institution. Lena Favaloro, a transplant from Liverpool, England, has been a baker with Michael and Wendy London for eight years. She was just adding fresh macaroons to glass cases already filled with irresistible patisserie when I arrived. Like many people you meet in Saratoga, she said she came on a visit, fell in love with the place and stayed.


Venturing out on foot

Fortified with a kouign-aman, a French yeast cake crackling with toffee, and armed with a walking map from the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, I set out.

The Franklin Square District, dating from the 1820s, is an eccentric jumble of architectural styles — Greek, Colonial and Gothic Revival, Second Empire and High Victorian Gothic. All are crowded sociably together around a village square.

Equally exuberant in style but more private are the homes along North Broadway, most built in the 1870s and set behind large, manicured lawns. At least one is decorated with Tiffany glass windows. Lucy Skidmore Scribner, heiress to the publishing fortune and founder of Skidmore College just down the road, lived here.

In Congress Park, a pleasure garden and quiet downtown oasis, I rode the historic 1910 Marcus Illions carousel, then tasted the water of Congress Spring, which had a steely flavor.

Beside the park is the elegant, brick Canfield Casino, which was once a private club where illegal gambling by visitors was tolerated. Saratoga residents were banned.

The casino exemplified the casual attitude toward illegal gambling that was nearly the town's downfall. Starting its life as a club that welcomed a gentlemanly elite, it eventually attracted a new class of summer visitors — Prohibition gangsters. Discouraged by the flashy new crowd, polite society stayed away. Out at Saratoga Lake nightclubs, cabarets and private gaming establishments, aimed at the new clientele, flourished.

Then, in 1951, after Sen. Estes Kefauver's televised hearings on organized crime pinpointed gambling as the main source of mob income, the authorities cracked down. The clubs around the lake were shut down, their clientele disappeared and Saratoga slid into decline.

The wreckers had already begun to move in when a series of local initiatives saved what was left. Today, more than 1,000 properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Strict planning requirements for new buildings ensure that the ambience of the downtown historic districts is maintained. Even the new Marriott Courtyard, with its airy, cast-iron entrance and two-toned brickwork, looks more like a turn-of-the-last-century apartment building than part of a hotel chain.

The casino, where Gilded Age celebrities such as Diamond Jim Brady and John Philip Sousa played roulette and blackjack, now houses the Historical Society Museum.

Among the exhibits, I found the story of George Crum, a Native American chef who, in 1853, invented the potato chip at Moon's Lake Lodge near Saratoga Lake. Crum never made a fortune from his creation, but he and his sister did open a restaurant.

With restaurants on my mind, I collected recommendations at the visitor's center, near Congress Park, and chose an early dinner with live blues, downtown at 1 Caroline St., followed by more live music at the intimate, historic Caffè Lena on Phila Street. Bob Dylan performed there on his first tour, and Don McLean introduced "American Pie" at the venue.

For less than $20, I spent the rest of the evening listening to acoustic folk/jazz fusion from Sloan Wainwright (sister of Loudon) and Nadine Goellner. Later, walking back to my hotel, I could hear live music pouring out of at least half a dozen wine bars and restaurants.

Next morning, I left the world of Victorian high society for Saratoga Spa State Park and the "people's spa."

At the turn of the 20th century, soda makers endangered the springs by extracting gas from them and discarding the water. Even the U.S. Navy got in on the act and collected gas to propel torpedoes, said Allison Corbett, chief naturist at the Spa State Park.

To prevent the springs from disappearing altogether, the state government bought and capped about 100 of them and restored and maintained the rest. With the support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, first as New York governor and then as president, a publicly owned health spa modeled after those in Europe was built and opened in 1935. The 10-building, $3.2-million spa was among the early major programs finished under the New Deal.

Some of the original buildings are gone, but those that remain, including the Roosevelt Bathhouse, the Gideon Putnam Hotel and the Hall of Springs, give a sense of the ambitious project.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, sometimes called "Roosevelt's Tree Army," surrounded the complex with thousands of white pines. Today, these mast-straight trees, mingled with red pines and 200-year-old hemlocks, rise 80 to 100 feet and positively sing with warblers.

By now, my feet were beginning to complain. Saratoga may be compact and walkable, but there's a lot to see. After three days pounding the pavement, I had still missed the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the National Museum of Dance, the National Bottle Museum, the Tang Art Museum at Skidmore and the Saratoga National Historical Park.

I couldn't leave, though, without sampling a few more springs. Ducking in and out of forest paths and armed with an essential Saratoga Springs accessory — a Styrofoam cup — I made the rounds of the park's seven springs. Then it was on to my appointment at the bathhouse for 20 minutes in mineral water, followed by 20 minutes wrapped in hot towels and warm sheets.

Despite my initial misgivings, I have to admit that drinking this water may be an acquired taste, but soaking in it is sublime.