The 1761 octagonal wooden structure covers the men's bathing pool; there is an octagonal opening in the roof that lets steam escape. The round ladies' bath house (1836) is pictured below.
In Warm Springs, five miles north of the vast Homestead Resort (an astonishing 15,000 acres), is an old, octagonal wooden building with steam rising from its roof. The sign reads Jefferson Pools, named in honor of the author of our Declaration of Independence, who in 1818, at age 75, lowered his arthritic body into the healing waters daily over a period of three weeks. The pool holds 40,000 gallons of clear mineral spring water with a constant natural temperature of 98 degrees. It is considered the oldest spa structure in America, dating back to 1761; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. In the late 18th-century the village of Warm Springs (the county seat of Bath County, which abuts West Virginia) expanded rapidly as a spa resort. Hotels, dining rooms and kitchens, taverns, livery stables and a blacksmith shop, a church, laundry and related buildings were built to accommodate the growing numbers of guests.
Today there is a separate, larger spring-fed pool and wooden structure (1836) for use only by women (Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee, was a fan of the women's bath); both are operated by the Homestead Resort and are open to the public (open seasonally 540-839-7741; bathing is segregated by sex, and during adult-only (18+) hours, clothing is optional), $17 for one hour.
Fortunately, the buildings retain their primitive, authentic ambience. The Jefferson Baths sit directly on U.S. Rte. 220, just south of the intersection of Rte. 39 in the quaint village of Warm Springs, home to several atmospheric and bargain-priced hostelries, notably the Inn at Gristmill Square and the Warm Springs Inn.
Update: October 4, 2009
KSL Resorts, new owners of the Homestead Resort, is commissioning an architectural study to determine what should be done to restore the historic structures, which are in a serious state of disrepair. For details, click on this link:
If traveling to Warm Springs west from I-81 near Lexington, VA, the lucky motorist will travel along the Maury River through Goshen Pass, one of Virginia's great nature spots. This area is within the George Washington National Forest and is almost entirely rural. Take normal precautions when hiking through this area, which is a natural habitat for bobcats, raptors, rattlesnakes and black bears. No kidding. Cell phone coverage is spotty.
Between Warm Springs and Covington (along Rte. 220 just west of the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs) is Falling Springs, which can be seen from a roadside pull-off. No hiking necessary, but those who do are rewarded by a path that goes behind the falls to a pleasant swimming spot.