As far back as the 19th century, Saratoga Springs has been one of the great spa cities of the United States. It was a place where the wealthy and influential people gathered during the summer season to see and be seen, gamble, listen to music, stroll in the gardens, race horses and take the waters. Saratoga Springs was known as the Queen of Spas in the United States and it was very much in the tradition of the European spa towns of the 19th century such as Baden-Baden in Germany.
Numerous great American spa cities fell under the radar and went into disrepair and worse after „the spa cure“ was made obsolete by modern medicine. However, as the trends tend to swing back and forth, spas and other natural treatments like mineral baths have made their return, making Saratoga Springs one of the few places in the United States where you can enjoy something that is close enough to the 19th century spa experience. You can bathe in the waters, dine out, bet on horses and stroll through the park or the shops of the historic downtown as well as enjoy the orchestra and ballet in the summer.
Stay at The Gideon Putnam
If you happen to be a fan of the spas, probably the best place for you to stay is The Gideon Putnam.
This incredible hotel can be found right inside the Saratoga Spa State Park, which covers 2200 acres. The park itself was established in 1915 in order to protect the springs. You can find The Gideon Putnam right across from the Roosevelt Baths % Spa, which is a gorgeous 1935 brick and limestone neoclassical building. Inside you can enjoy mineral baths in the original tubs as well as get an expert massage afterward. In recent years, the Roosevelt Baths spa menu has been greatly expanded and now includes not just the basic spa things like baths, facials, massages and body treatments but also more esoteric offerings like Bach Flower Remedy and Ayurveda consultations, energy work, meditation instruction and personal coaching.
The Saratoga Spa State Park is also home to the well known Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The center is the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as the New York City Ballet. Located only a couple of minutes away from the Gideon Putnam by foot, it is a huge advantage if you wish to see a concert there as the traffic can prove to be a real challenge. In addition, the park has numerous other attractions such as the National Museum of Dance, the Spa Little Theater and the Saratoga Automobile Museum.
Another thing the Gideon Putnam can offer are yoga and excercise classes that happen between Tuesday and Friday and the entry fee is a mere $10. You also have easy access to the education programs and the daily tours that are offered within the park, such as the guided walking tours that are organized every spring. You can also learn more about the architecture of the park as well as learn more about the trees, bluebirds and butterflies that inhabit the park. All of this and more will make the stay at The Gideon Putnam feel like staying at a classic destination spa.
Furthermore, on certain weekends, the Roosevelt Baths and The Gideon Putnam will offer „Spa Renewal Wellness Retreats“. These include lodging, most meals, one bath per day, a cooking class as well as other activities and workshops. The next such workshop will take place between the 11th and the 13th of November 2016.
History of Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Springs is fairly unique as it is the only place where one can find naturally carbonated mineral springs east of the Rocky Mountains. The springs have concentrations of 16 different substances in them that include chloride, calcium, sodium, potassium, bicarbonate and magnesium. The Mohawks considered these waters to be sacred and called the area Serachtague, which means „place of swift water“. A mispronunciation of this name led to the current name becoming Saratoga. According to the Native American beliefs, the naturally carbonated water of the springs was stirred by the god Manitou, which gave it its healing properties.
In 1771, the springs were „discovered“ by Sir William Johnson and soon after they became an attraction for the white settlers who shared in the belief of the Mohawks that the waters have healing properties. In 1795 Gideon Putnam settled near High Rock Spring and saw the potential the area had. He purchased land near Congress Spring and, in 1802, he opened Putnam’s Tavern and Boarding House. It was a huge success and numerous other inns followed in its wake. In 1831 the town was connected to New York City via railroad which allowed tourism to skyrocket. For thousands of visitors, „taking the cure“ at Saratoga became a firmly established tradition.
An important part of the Saratoga Springs scene since 1847 is horse racing. That year the first meet for the trotters took place on a dirt track next to Union Avenue. A larger track was built in 1864 on the opposite side of Union Avenue. Today, this is the location of the Saratoga Race Course.
1870 saw the opening of the John Morrissey’s Club House, as well as the Current Canfield Casino and museum in Congress park. After they would have fun at the race track, millionaires would gather to gable for high stakes, all the while surrounded by high Victorian elegance. Lillian Russell, Diamond Jim Brady, Lily Langtry and Bet-A-Million Gates were among the people who added to the glamour of the Saratoga scene.
Between the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century numerous ornate Victorian mansions were built by the wealthy on North Broadway as well as around the town. Called summer „cottages“ by their rich owners, they hosted numerous important people such as ex and standing Presidents, business magnates, politicians and others. Some notable people that have stayed in these mansions include Susan B. Anthony, Caruso, Daniel Webster, Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Herbert, Oscar Wilde, John Philip Sousa and others.
The state of New York started buying up land in 1909 in order to preserve the mineral waters which were being depleted by commercial development. The problem was with the companies that built plants atop the springs and used powerful steam powered pumps to pump out mineral waters for the gas, which was then sold to beverage companies. This preserve would eventually become the Saratoga Spa State Park.
Governor Franklin Roosevelt often visited the bathhouses in Saratoga Springs while battling polio. In 1929 he appointed a commission to develop a health treatment facility here, which led to the construction of Saratoga’s spa. During the 1930s the state funded the project in order to build the Saratoga Spa State Park as well as The Gideon Putnam and four stunning neoclassical bathhouses right inside the park itself.
Only the Roosevelt Bathhouse is still open for baths, out of those four bathhouses. The Roosevelt Bathhouse was renovated and reopened in 2004 just as the Lincoln Baths were closed and turned into offices. Other bathhouses were converted to other uses. Some examples are the Spa Little Theather, the Saratoga Automobile Museum and offices as well as the National Museum of Dance. The Lincoln Baths were converted into office space, however you can still visit on certain Saturdays to check the farmer’s market as well as see the historic architecture.
During the 1940s, it was the norm to stay for three weeks. This included 21 mineral baths as well as regulated diet, accessory treatments, rest, recreation and exercise. In 1946 the number of baths peaked at 200 thousand baths a year. There were around 25 thousand baths given at the Roosevelt Bathhouse in 2015.
The Saratoga Springs Bath — Then and Now
I was lucky enough to visit Saratoga Springs decades ago, back when Lincoln Baths were still open, which meant I had an old school Saratoga Springs bath. I lived in New York and my sister lived in Boston, which made Saratoga Springs a great meeting point. As long as I live I will never forget that bath. The bathhouse itself was a bit dowdy. A stern, middle aged woman drew the bath for me to the perfect temperature. She then warned me not to touch the controls as I would spend the next 20 minutes in the water and she didn’t want me to overheat.
At this point I wasn’t all that impressed. However the water was a beautiful pale green against the white porcelain background of the bath. I just lay in the water as the natural bubbles clung to my skin. Every now and then, one of the bubbles would roll up towards the surface, which gave me an incredible shivery feeling. I realized then why it was called „nature’s champagne“. After my bath I was wrapped in a sheet and lay on a cot for about half an hour in order to cool off and let my mind wander. Alas, the paradise wasn’t meant to last. The massage I had booked was one of the most horrible massages I’ve ever had. The old school bath was fantastic. The old school massage, not so much. It was tormenting to be massaged by someone who is both rough and has no idea what are they doing.
Many years later I returned, following the reopening of Roosevelt Baths in 2004. I was very much looking forward to my bath. However, when I entered the room I was appalled to see the water colored in rusty brown. Here and there I could see a few bubbles but nothing near that amazing feeling of being enveloped in bubbles that drifted off one by one. Did I forget something? Was I going insane?
The massage therapist I had booked and who was beyond good, told me that the baths had indeed changed. Originally, the equipment owned by the state heated the carbonated mineral water up. The water would come out of the ground cold and had to be heated up. However, in the 1930s that equipment broke down and the state decided it would be far too expensive to repair or replace it. As such, they went with an easier, cheaper solution and decided to heat up tap water to an extremely high temperature and then mix it with the pure mineral water, which meant the water coming out of the faucet would be around 98 degrees Fahrenheit. This combination of the two made the water go rusty brown in color.
From what I have heard, there are still some tubs where you can still get the pure, unspoiled mineral bath, but those are booked well in advance. On the bright side, the bathhouse is stunningly beautiful and the massage I received was incredible. They even added extras like Judith Jackson aromatherapy and fantastic facials.
Other Things to Do In Saratoga Spa State Park
You should definitely visit the Peerless Pool Complex. It consists of a main pool which has a zero depth entry as well as separate slide pool with a 19 inch double slide and a children’s wading pool with a mushroom fountain. There is a minimum height requirement at the slide pool which is set to 48 inches. There is also the Historic Victoria Pool. It is a smaller pool that is surrounded by arched promenades. Both pool areas have food and beverage service areas, locker rooms, restrooms and showers.
There are also two gorgeous golf courses at the Saratoga Spa State Park. The first one is a championship 18 hole course and the second one is a challenging 9 hole course. In addition, there is a pro shop as well as a restaurant. The terrain around Saratoga Springs is very gentle which means that you can go for a picnic or for a stroll on shady streamside trails which are suitable for anyone, be it a nature lover or a casual walker. There are also certified running courses used by joggers and high school and college athletes. During winter you can go cross country skiing on approximately 12 miles of trailes as well as play ice hockey or go ice skating.